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Safe IS the New Sustainable

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Safe IS the New Sustainable

Jessica Assaf

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Last week I had the honor of speaking at SXSW Eco on a panel called, Toxins All Around Us: Safe, the New Sustainable. The panel was moderated by actress, Molly Sims, and it included me, Gregg Renfrew, the founder of Beautycounter, Heather White, the Executive Director of the Environmental Working Group, and Rick Smith, environmentalist and author of, "Toxin Toxout: Getting Harmful Chemicals Out of Our Bodies and Our World." To say that it was an inspiring event is an understatement. I know this sounds crazy, but I actually left Austin with a newfound appreciation for the toxic chemicals in our everyday products. Let me explain...

While there is nothing I want more than these chemicals banned universally, I am so grateful that we are faced with this issue, simply because it has connected me with the most passionate individuals I have ever met. And even though we are in the midst of a toxic chemical epidemic, caused by big corporations making big profits, I have infinite hope that we will change this industry forever, and I have already met many of the fighters who will make this happen. They were on the panel with me, they are in my classes at Harvard Business School, and they are already in the field lobbying for legislation and making safe and effective products. I find it extremely comforting to realize that while humans are the problem, we are also the solution. And in the packed room of people listening to our discussion at SXSW, I realized that we are already changing the beauty industry for the better every single day. Every time we buy a new product, or give our friends and family beauty advice, or write a product review online, we are impacting the future of the industry. The only barrier to achieving the end goal of beauty and health is the unrecognized power we all have to change the stakes.

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photo 3 (1)

I started my talk at SXSW by asking a very basic question: how many of you have ever had a really bad breakup? Naturally, as expected, every single person raised their hand. I continued by saying that I had my first bad breakup when I was only fifteen years old, but my story is unique because I had my first breakup even before I had my first boyfriend. My first breakup was with my beauty products. It all started when I found out that the mascara I had been loyally applying for years (Maybelline Great Bad Lash) contained an industrial chemical used to wax airplane wheels. Then I shared my experience spreading awareness about the unregulated industry through the "traditional" channels of change-making, such as non-profit and advocacy work, until I concluded that protesting and lobbying for legislation is not enough to really get the big beauty companies to listen. From there I started making homemade warning labels and putting them on products in stores, but I decided that illegally vandalizing skincare and cosmetics was not exactly my calling. So instead, I worked for an incredible organic skincare company for two years and realized that if we can support the companies making the best and safest products, we are providing a solution to the problem. And the only real reason why greenconscious business has the potential to solve the issue of unnecessary chemicals in beauty products is because consumerism is activism.

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photo 2 (3)

At SXSW I met countless leaders and activists dedicated to improving human and environmental health. And by "leaders and activists," I literally mean ordinary citizens who care. I had the opportunity to interact with some of my favorite companies like Tom's of Maine, Sustain Condoms (the BEST sustainable, Fair Trade condom company started by the founder of Seventh Generation and his family,) and new companies like Au Naturale (pictured above,) that are committed to creating high-performing products that also happen to be safe.

Tom's of Maine started making and selling natural products in 1970, long before $10 cold-pressed kale juice was trending and you could find organic snacks late-night at the corner store. According to their website, Tom and his wife, Kate, began with a $5,000 loan from a friend and "a philosophy that their products would not harm the environment." This idea must have sounded crazy at the time, but forty-four years later, their mission is now a way of life for many of us. The most absurd visions, like a makeup bag free of harmful chemicals, eventually become a normal part of existence with enough visibility and persistence.

My experience at SXSW gave me a taste of a future world where where don't have to choose between beauty and health, where "sustainable" is synonymous with "safe," and where we are all proud to talk about our long-lasting lipstick that is colored with beet juice (totally possible!) and is made by people we would recognize on the street. Tom's of Maine says it best:

"We listen to what our customers want (and don't want) in their products, we learn how it can be done, and we respond with effective natural, sustainable and responsible solutions." 

Now may we all vow to be a part of the solution, starting now!