I took a break from writing for several weeks so I could focus on a little “life goal” (mission accomplished!), and then stumbled across something very odd. A company that has been long revered as a leader of all things good, clean, healthy and humane was suddenly under attack for being in favor of testing products on animals. My break from writing was over.
The dispute involves People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine, and Seventh Generation. In a nutshell, Seventh Generation refused to add their name to a letter written by PCRM, which urged Congress to modernize chemical toxicity testing by requiring that “animal tests be used only as a last resort after all other methods have been exhausted.”
In response to the news, Seventh Generation received thousands of angry emails and their facebook page exploded with accusations claiming that although Seventh Generation doesn’t test its own products on animals, it has been advocating for legislative measures which would increase the testing of products on animals for other companies. As you can imagine, this didn’t go over well with thousands of their loyal customers, who, like myself, have paid a decent chunk of cash over the years for Seventh Generation products because they are labeled “cruelty-free.”
I had a difficult time digesting the news. I wrote a brief email to Brandi Thomas, their Communications Manager, explaining my dismay and asked if I could interview Seventh Generation’s CEO, John Replogle. I wasn’t expecting a timely response, nor access to an interview, but to my surprise, their response was swift and welcoming. Brandi said she’d be happy to set up the call and also patch in their Corporate Consciousness Manager, Ashley Orgain. By morning, we were all on the phone.
John Replogle: Where are we reaching you?
MVJ: I’m on the beautiful Monterey Bay, near Santa Cruz. Are you in Vermont?
John Repogle: Yes. We’re on a lovely perch here. Watching a huge storm roll in over the Adirondack Mountains.
MVJ: Sounds so beautiful! Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. I guess I’ll just dive in here.
John Repogle: Yes. Please do.
MVJ: Does Seventh Generation support modernizing chemical toxicity testing by requiring that animal tests be used only as a last resort after all other methods have been exhausted?
John Repogle: Yes. That’s exactly our stance. We believe that emphatically. We are completely against animal testing and any cruelty to animals. And there’s the toxic load of 80,000 chemicals of which we know very little about the impact to animals, humans and the environment; we have to curb that. We’re against animal testing and the everyday abuse of animals in the environment. They have no defense. We’re an “and” company, not an “or” company. We have to do it all. Don’t you agree?
MVJ: Of course! I’m definitely an optimist. We’re all in this together; people, the animals and the environment. We can protect them all. Here’s my next question. Does Seventh Generation support including language into the Toxic Substances Control Act that would require that non-animal testing methods be used preferentially?
John Replogle: Yes, absolutely. We believe in legislative reform. Technology is evolving at a rapid pace to make that a reality. I think if we put it on the national agenda, we can advance that demonstratively. It’s been proven in Europe. It’s not perfect over there, but we need to catch up with them.
MVJ: What would it take for you to support and sign the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine’s letter asking that Congress incorporate the concept that animals be used only as a last resort, when all other methods of obtaining information on chemicals have been exhausted, into any legislation?
John Replogle: A lot of what PCRM is asking for is what we’ve already agreed with in principal, but how do we advance both of these agendas? Animal health and human health. We are advocates for advancing alternatives to animal testing and we need to find a national basis for that to happen. How do we advance it? That’s the key question.
MVJ: I’m confused. With regard to animal testing, it sounds like you’re both on the same page. What’s the big problem with PCRM’s letter?
Ashley Orgain: We have always looked to the advice of human health experts – Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, American Nurses Association, Breast Cancer Fund, American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists – and they have said that in order to facilitate reform we need the Tox21 vision to be realized and realistically ready for implementation. PCRM’s letter is not aligned with our position. We can’t sign the letter until that technology is actually a reality.
MVJ: So is it that Seventh Generation doesn’t believe technology currently exists to replace all animal tests when it comes to testing toxicity levels of chemicals that leach into the environment? You only believe it currently exists with regard to the testing of cosmetics? I’m just trying to clarify the difference between you and PCRM.
Ashley Orgain: In general, correct. There has been a lot of work done in developing alternative, non-animal based methods around the world – and there are other areas where there is no alternative method available today – for assessing ingredient or product safety.
John Replogle: PETA painted a dark line. We want to move both things, advancing human and animal health, but they rejected us. They have not been willing to support us.
MVJ: Support you in doing what?
John Replogle: Support for toxic reform and how to do it in a humane way. We’re doing it on a dual front. Which is a different strategy that has been advocated by PETA.
MVJ: How is Seventh Generation advocating for toxic reform?
John Replogle: We gave our support to Jim Moran [U.S. Rep] and the language used in the Humane Safe Cosmetic Act, which would ban all animal tests for cosmetics. We’ve been advocates against animal testing for a long time and nothing has changed. We’re deeply frustrated by the recent ethics and principals employed by PETA. What are they going to do to stop toxic chemicals from hurting animals as we pump tons of chemicals into animals through the environment? We need real reform and we can’t just stand still. It’s not fair to the animals, our kids or our unborn children. We can’t let the continuation of the Wild West of pumping chemicals into the environment go on forever.
MVJ: How does your stance differ from PETA’s?
John Replogle: PETA does not support toxic chemical reform and it’s ethically reprehensible. They’re covering their ass is what they’re doing.
MVJ: In light of social media reports, and the backlash from loyal customers, how is Seventh Generation moving forward?
John Replogle: We will continue to clarify our position and raise our voice. We feel as though we’ve been misconstrued in the marketplace. You can have it all. We have to challenge the norm and convention. We must make trade offs and compromise. We’re taking separate steps, to the same outcome.
And with a few respectful closing remarks, we concluded the conversation. I thanked them for providing clarity, and they thanked me for being a kind and fair interviewer.
So the gist of the situation is this:
Seventh Generation wants products and ingredients to be tested and proven safe before they harm humans, animals and the environment. That makes sense. Why do we have to wait until someone is ill or dead before we find out that DDT, saccharine or BPA is harmful? The problem is that Seventh Generation doesn’t think there are non-animal tests available right now to ensure the safety of the products and ingredients. They are hopeful for the future, but as of this moment in time, they see no other option. Unfortunately, lobbying for more tests on the already existing 80,000 toxins in our environment, as well as for new products and ingredients, without using the language proposed by PCRM, will likely – for now – trigger more tests on animals.
PCRM believes that not only do alternatives to animal tests for products and ingredient already exist, they’re cheaper and more reliable. PCRM advocates for non-animal methods and approaches, including cellular models of human skin, eyes, and even neuronal tissue, as well as predictive computer models, that can be used now to assess the toxicity of contaminants in the environment. They also believe that important protections are often delayed or denied because government regulators rely on inconclusive animal test results. Additionally, PCRM believes that legislative measures that Seventh Generation has supported, if passed, would have killed millions of animals. If you’d like to read PCRM and PETA’s full response to my questions on how to address the issue of toxins in the environment, you can find it HERE. In fairness, you should read both sides.
My solution? In the perfect world of My Vegan Journal, if a company wanted to create a new product or ingredient, the process would go something like this:
Manufacturer: We want to put this product into the stream of commerce. Please approve it!
MVJ: Ok, but before approval, you must first prove that your product is safe and won’t harm people, animals or the environment. (Satisfies the needs of Seventh Generation!)
Manufacturer: mumble, mumble, mumble… jiberish schmiberish…
MVJ: What’s that? You say you don’t have any way to prove that your product is safe without testing it on animals first? I’m sorry, but if you can’t prove your product is safe for people, animals and the environment without first harming people, animals or the environment, then you can’t put your product into the stream of commerce. Please go back to the lab, consult a few experts, and figure things out. (Satisfies the needs of PCRM and PETA!)
Whenever someone implies you have to kill some animals in order to save others, I always put it in terms of people. Would you kill 1 innocent European to save 100,000 Asians? Would you kill 1 innocent European to save 10 Asians? Where do you draw the line? Who’s life do you take away? Would you kill 100 rabbits to save 10,000 fish? Or kill 1 dog to save 100 otters? It all comes down to where we are in terms of our outlook on life. At some point though, you’re going to say, “No; that’s not fair!”
I support PETA’s work on behalf of animals and have even worked for PETA. I don’t eat honey because I love bees and I don’t mind spending 20 minutes to wash and dry a fruit fly that has haphazardly fallen into orange juice. I’m that vegan. I’ve evolved. I’m here, and there’s no turning back. And thankfully I didn’t catch that “being vegan made me crazy obsessive about being healthy!!” disorder that recently attacked that blonde vegan girl. I eat an occasional vegan cupcake and I’m happy.
But I do understand that we often take, as John Replogle put it, “different steps to the same outcome.” Seventh Generation may not share the same ideology as I do, but I believe they share a similar vision for our future and have done some pretty amazing things for the world, and I hope they continue to do so. Finding the best way to be the most caring and compassionate person possible is a unique process for each one of us, and it can take a few twists and turns, but we must keep moving forward, and quickly. And we must inspire others to follow. Those who suffer in this world are counting on us. To wait only causes more pain.
I didn’t become vegan overnight. I became a vegetarian at 13 in 1977, vegan at 23, and then rapidly became more involved with animal advocacy work while spending a good chunk of my time devoted to curtailing the rampant childhood obesity epidemic. We all have our passions, our priorities, and our lines in the sand. The challenge is to keep an open mind and make educated decisions as we proceed. Here’s hoping at the very least, this discussion brings more light to the issue of unnecessary animal testing and the extreme urgency for reform in the regulation of toxic chemicals… for people, the environment and the animals.
May the storm pass quickly. Compassion for all.