Liz Sutton of the Women's Environmental Network (WEN) said that the organisation launched its 'End the Cosmetics Cover-Up campaign two years ago, alleging that "cosmetics and toiletries in everyday use contain chemicals that threaten human health and the environment."
The campaign is one aspect of a three-year project funded by the UK's Community Fund, to empower women's groups to take action for a healthier planet.
She said: "Since then, we have been in contact with retailers, consumers and mainstream product manufacturers, as well as smaller environmentally-friendly producers."
Everyone was brought together for the first time, however, at the Royal Institute of Public Health in London for WEN's 'Letting the genie out of the bottle', its seminar with cosmetics companies on creating greener products.
Panellists included WEN's health coordinator Helen Lynn; Stephen Johnson of Boots, the UK high street retailer and manufacturer of own-brand cosmetics and personal care products; Jeff Martin of Fresh and Wild supermarkets; Ian Taylor of Green People; and Nikky Godfrey of Living Nature.
Multinational consumer goods manufacturer Procter & Gamble sent along a representative, as did retailers Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Coop and Safeway, along with Neal's Yard. As reported in an earlier CosmeticsDesign.com article, UK retailer Coop recently withdrew some products containing artificial musks and phthalates, which the company said can be absorbed by the human body and which have been linked to cancer, fertility problems and environmental damage.
Even beleaguered high street retailer Marks & Spencer has taken some progressive steps. It launched a range of products in May 2003 called Organic Extracts. The range includes foam bath, facial and hand washes and lotions and contains organic ingredients and extracts.
Sutton was disappointed, though, that so few of the major players invited were able to attend the seminar. "We would have welcomed them, because we want to get into a dialogue," she explained.
Her curiosity is piqued as to why more of the mainstream manufacturers don't produce green products. "If the smaller companies can do it," she asked, "why can't they?"
WEN has been in contact with some of the manufacturers to ask why. "They always respond by saying that they operate within the current law and comply with all the safety regulations, but the problem is that no one has yet done the research," said Sutton.
Sutton pointed out: "The existing tests were conducted in isolation, but we are exposed to a cocktail of chemicals every day and no one has carried out tests to show how they interact, how they react."
"Also, consumer concerns have increased, for example because of the widespread reporting of research that was carried out relating to parabens, which are oestrogen mimics. Admittedly, the sample was small and so the research wasn't conclusive, but it raised questions.
Frequent headline-hitting health-scares such as those relating to parabens and phthlates mean consumers are increasingly inclined to check the labels on all the products they put in their shopping basket, including cosmetics and toiletries.
And this information is affecting consumer behaviour. "There is clearly the demand, and some companies are already starting to respond to it. Some of the delegates have commented that a couple of years ago, they found it really difficult to find green products, but now there are more outlets and choice."
But for Sutton, the choice currently on offer was clearly not enough. She wanted to open a dialogue with manufacturers to explain WEN's concerns and find viable alternatives.
And it is not just consumers who are pressing for change. Sutton said that the feedback she had received from retailers showed that they, in particular, wanted more information from suppliers.
In any event, as new legislation comes into force, such information and labelling are set to become legal requirements. Sutton welcomed the idea of such a legal framework, incorporating the European Union's 7th Amendment to the Cosmetics Directive (which will be effective from 11 September 2004) and REACH, as a step in the right direction.