Sue the “Chemical-Free” Bastards

June 17th, 2013

Chemical Free Beauty ProductsWhile I’m an idealist at heart, in my old age, I’ve increasingly found myself giving in to apathy and letting things slide more often. In the shower this weekend, I saw another one of my fiancée’s hair-care products advertised as “chemical free” and was soon awash in the same frustration expressed in this old post. The phrase “chemical free” is profoundly stupid, it is damaging to our field, and the problem is getting worse. While a lot of frustration has been expressed by a small group of chemists online, I’ve seen no effective campaign against the stupidity of the term “chemical free.” On the flip side, you’ve got another group of chemists who find the argument against “chemical free” to be pedantic, and some have even embraced the term for use in lab.

While I might be closer to abandoning this cause in favor of apathy, I don’t think the problem is worth giving up on just yet. Previously, I have lobbied bench chemists to become more involved in educating the public, suggested that the ACS develop a “war room” to address misinformation in the mainstream media, and volunteered a first draft of a pro-chemicals ad campaign. But maybe that’s my idealism talking. “Positive” approaches, where we tout the benefits of chemistry, require a lot of effort and take time to bring about change. Perhaps it would be more effective to adopt a negative approach? And, of course, what approach could be more negative than to sue?

SUE, SUE, SUE!

Yes, let’s start suing companies that advertise their products as “chemical free”. Make the dummies hurt where it counts: their wallets.

You see, there are laws that require truth-in-advertising, and many of them should be directly applicable to “chemical free” cases. The Federal Trade Commission has explained its policy for how it judges whether or not it will act on potentially deceptive ads:

Certain elements undergird all deception cases. First, there must be a representation, omission or practice that is likely to mislead the consumer. Practices that have been found misleading or deceptive in specific cases include false oral or written representations, misleading price claims, sales of hazardous or systematically defective products or services without adequate disclosures, failure to disclose information regarding pyramid sales, use of bait and switch techniques, failure to perform promised services, and failure to meet warranty obligations.

Second, we examine the practice from the perspective of a consumer acting reasonably in the circumstances. If the representation or practice affects or is directed primarily to a particular group, the Commission examines reasonableness from the perspective of that group.

Third, the representation, omission, or practice must be a “material” one. The basic question is whether the act or practice is likely to affect the consumer’s conduct or decision with regard to a product or service. If so, the practice is material, and consumer injury is likely, because consumers are likely to have chosen differently but for the deception. In many instances, materiality, and hence injury, can be presumed from the nature of the practice. In other instances, evidence of materiality may be necessary.

Thus, the Commission will find deception if there is a representation, omission or practice that is likely to mislead the consumer acting reasonably in the circumstances, to the consumer’s detriment.

So, there are three major criteria for an ad to meet: (i) it must be deceptive, (ii) it must have an impact on a “reasonable” consumer, and (iii) it must induce a material change in behavior on the part of a consumer. Any product which advertises itself as “chemical free” easily meets these three criteria.

First, everything that I have come across as “chemical free” (e.g., cosmetics, fertilizer, sunscreen) has contained chemicals, so the claim is a false written representation of the product. Second, the fear of chemicals is so widespread in society that it is more than reasonable for an average, uneducated consumer to care whether something is “chemical free”. Finally, a “chemical free” label can easily have a material effect in that a chemophobic consumer could choose to purchase a falsely labeled product over a competing product that is not labeled “chemical free” yet contains the same active chemicals.

Unfortunately, it is probably unreasonable for any halfway-decent chemist to claim he was fooled by something as scientifically nonsensical as “chemical free.” But, a class-action lawsuit waged by a group of typical (chemophobic) consumers who’ve purchased a chemical-free product could easily have merit.

Perhaps even more effective would be for a major company (with hefty legal resources) to file lawsuits claiming damages due to unfair business practices. It is unfair to have to compete against rival products that benefit from advertising with false claims. Let’s see these smaller companies have to defend themselves against the giants. Unfortunately, there’s no single chemical-free product on the market that is successful enough to make such a lawsuit a worthwhile cause.

Outside of lawsuits, what can you do? Well, the FTC has an FAQ about what sorts of ads are potentially deceptive, and you can contact them to register a complaint about products making false claims. Some complaints they pursue and some they don’t, but their decisions carry the weight of the law and they can issue cease-and-desist orders as well as fines. You can also register complaints with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and state/local consumer protection offices.

I’m not saying that lawsuits are the best approach to solving the problem, but in some cases, insisting on the enforcement of existing laws might be an effective solution to the proliferation of all this “chemical free” nonsense.


9 Responses to “Sue the “Chemical-Free” Bastards”

  1. Bailey Says:

    A few years ago the Royal Society of Chemistry lodged a complaint with the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK over “chemical free” claims, which was unfortunately unsuccesful (see http://www.rsc.org/AboutUs/News/PressReleases/2010/ASACleanUpItsAct.asp)

    It’s a real shame as I’d love to hear these companies stand up and have to try and defend these claims.

  2. Andrew (@_byronmiller) Says:

    I’m one of those treacherous sods who thinks ‘chemical-free’ has some merit (though this is not to say I don’t think it’s manipulative or even unethical marketing, and that it’s never deceptive). I wrote a little about this here http://behindnmrlines.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/in-defense-of-chemphobia.html

    In brief: saying “everything is a chemical” is true in one sense, but misleading in another. There are large classes of objects and substances which may be ‘chemicals’, but we don’t treat them as such (for example: your lunch; your laptop; the front door; water; etc). If someone says their product is ‘chemical-free’, it’s ridiculous to say “ah, no, it’s made of atoms and is therefore a chemical!” as this is simply not how the term is used by most people – chemists included.

    Chad Jones of the Collapsed Wavefunction gave a good example of this: a picture taken in a Wallmart store of a rack of mops with a sign above them reading “chemicals”. Who in their right mind would say “sure, that’s accurate; mops are made of polymers, polymers are chemicals”? We all understand that the sign is out of place, and ought to be above some rather unpleasant cleaning products.

    This is not to say that claims of “chemical-free” products cannot be misleading. The problem is that ‘chemical’ is either so broad as to be meaningless, or too poorly-defined for us to get really too upset about, or to sue over.

  3. David Says:

    Speaking of the RSC, they recently offered a reward for demonstration of a chemical-free product. http://www.rsc.org/AboutUs/News/PressReleases/2008/ChemicalFree.asp To my knowledge, the prize has not been claimed.

  4. Hap Says:

    1) By its definition, chemical is broad – even with the constraint that the object contain or be made of small molecules (not polymers, minerals, or glasses), an accurate use of the term will be broad.

    2) I think “chemical-free” is the equivalent of political code words so beloved of politicians who appeal to people who don’t want to admit to themselves or others what they want. When people think of “chemicals”, they are probably thinking of synthetic (unnatural, almost certainly prepared by people) chemicals, with implications of toxicity. Synthetic compounds, not being found in nature, may be more likely not to break down or be degraded easily – so there is something to the distinction.

    Mostly, though, it doesn’t work – the lots of things from nature that are toxic and hazardous (much less the animals) make that point. People want something magical that was untouched by man but suits man’s purposes and doesn’t do anything else (particularly anything bad). The problem is that such stuff doesn’t exist, and we (meaning everyone) ought to be smart enough to know that – everything we do has costs (someone had to make it or get it) and benefits (it does something we want), and sooner or later we have decide whether what we do is worth the cost. No matter what someone says, we still have to decide – pretending that the costs don’t exist (which is what “chemical-free” is trying to do) is not a reasonable or appropriate response.

    Of course, if that’s the point of “chemical-free”, then suing won’t do any good, because the code words will simply change; as long as we don’t wish to admit that we can’t have everything we want, and that we have to make choices that don’t make us happy, code words will propagate to help us avoid such news. You can’t make people face things they don’t want to face, and that is probably us, in a nutshell.

  5. Paul Says:

    I think that it’d be great to find another code word for “free of lab- and (industrial) plant-synthesized chemicals”. I don’t think it’s good for chemistry’s brand to allow the word “chemical” to denote a purely negative connotation in the public sphere. For example, why would Congress want to fund the synthesis of chemicals if chemicals are bad?

    The alternative would be for us to rebrand ourselves, which seems so much more messy to me.

  6. Saguaro Says:

    The problem is that we have a double standard about what qualifies as a “chemical” and what doesn’t. This problem is exacerbated by people using “chemical” in a predominantly negative fashion in the public sphere. People are quick to condemn artificial flavors, but don’t think twice about wearing polyester or nylon — most people probably wouldn’t consider nylon or polyester chemicals despite how they are 100% synthetic.

    Is it better to promote the phrase “all natural” instead of “chemical-free”? That opens another can of worms, but if you want the negative connotation stripped from the word “chemical” that’s probably the easiest bet.

  7. Andrew (@_byronmiller) Says:

    @Saguaro – that seems like a good suggestion to me. Handling the term ‘chemical’ is, as this discussion shows, fraught with difficulties: in defining ‘chemical’, in distinguishing ‘good’/’bad’ chemicals (if that’s meaningful), talking about dose and route of administration in the latter definition… it’s tough. And it risks coming off as condescending (“pfft, everything is a chemical, don’t you know that?”).

    Saying “all natural” is much better! Handling the appeal to nature is much, much simpler and can be dealt with in a blog post, conversation, or Wikipedia article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appeal_to_nature) without much difficulty or controversy. The distinction between natural/man made is also fairly easy to draw and is somewhat meaningful (but perhaps not as meaningful as fans of this fallacy would like). By framing the argument in this way, terms are more readily defined and the claim is more easily exposed as absurd.

  8. ChemMom Says:

    You run into this issue a lot with childrens products. I have a friend who insists on using “chemical-free” sunblock for her baby. Of course, it has titanium dioxide and lots of other lovely chemicals, just not the benzones. I am all for using only the best beneficial things for my kids, but many parentsbpreferentially purchase more expensive products because they are marketed as being more natural or without chemicals. Companies are manipulating their ignorance.

  9. Concerned citizen chemist Says:

    Here’s a chance to practice what we preach …

    This “chemical” leak in the news now seems to be connected to this (not so?) menacing alcohol:

    http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/4-methylcyclohexanemethanol

    Perhaps an opportunity for us to add some insight and PR to this wiki page?


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