Hundreds of years ago, expert perfumers in France would handcraft exotic, top-secret blends to be used in the spritzes, soaps and powders of the world’s elite. In that context, applying trade-secret status to the fragrance industry made a lot of sense. In today’s world – where any company can hire a chemist to reverse engineer their competitor’s fragrance – it has become more a question of consumer protection than intellectual property rights.
Wrapped in the cloak of trade-secret protection, the ingredients of fragrance (usually anywhere from 150-300 distinct molecules) do not need to be disclosed on consumer product labels. Environmental health advocates have grown increasingly more vocal in their push to shine a light on the chemical composition of fragrances, encouraging both policy makers and companies to embrace transparency.
Last week, Clorox became one of the first large consumer product companies to do just that, moving to disclose not just all of the fragrance allergens used in its products (it did that back in 2009), but the fragrance allergens contained in each specific product. While it’s still a step or two shy of full disclosure, Clorox’s move is a big one considering how fiercely companies and trade associations have protected the trade-secret status of fragrance. It’s also important given how many consumers have a sensitivity to fragrance allergens (up to 11%, according to a 2013 report put out by nonprofit Women’s Voices for the Earth).
Clorox’s largest competitor, Johnson & Johnson, has not yet taken this step, although it has disclosed the full list of 1,500 possible fragrance ingredients used across its various product lines. Its “Fragrance Palette” site explains: “We don’t specify the ingredients in each particular SC Johnson fragrance because we see those as secret recipes. But we do share our full fragrance palette, to make it possible for those with allergies or concerns about a particular ingredient to see if it might be used.”
For Clorox, engendering customer trust and loyalty win out over the need to protect its recipes, according to Catherine de Lacy, the company’s vice president of global stewardship. “There is a cost associated with disclosure – we have invested in product ingredient communications since we became the first major CPG in 2009 to begin disclosing ingredients in our US and Canada cleaning and disinfecting products,” she said. “But there is also a business benefit: consumers are better informed, and we continue to build trust and loyalty.”
Now that Clorox is disclosing fragrance allergens, will it remove them from products? Maybe. On the same day that it announced its new disclosure policy, the company launched its new internal product development tool, the Clorox Preferred Ingredient Calculator, which enables product development staff to quickly and easily evaluate various product ingredients and their potential replacements on the basis of health and sustainability.
“We are constantly evaluating our formulations and making sustainability improvements,” de Lacy said. “The Clorox Preferred Ingredient Calculator is a great tool to help us consider the overall sustainability profile of our products and will help us make choices that benefit the consumer through our product formulations and disclosures.”
An open secret
Until fragrance’s trade-secret status changes, however, companies will need to strike a delicate balance between the desire for transparency and the need to remain competitive. In a nod to transparency, the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) has disclosed all 3,000 chemicals currently used to create fragrances in consumer products around the world, all of which it has declared safe according to its own standards. At the same time, the trade association has been hard at work to protect trade-secret protection for the industry around the world, including a successful bid in 2013 to encourage the European Union to adopt trade-secret protection for fragrances. In the IFRA report to the European Commission on the subject, association president Pierre Sivac wrote: “Trade secrets have been the principle means by which our rapidly innovating industry has historically protected its intellectual property.”
“Trade secret protection for the fragrance industry is outdated – any company can deconstruct a fragrance and find out what’s in it,” argued Stacy Malkan, a co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of the book, Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry. “It’s an open secret among the companies what’s in the fragrances, the only ones who don’t know are the consumers.”
It’s not just public health advocates pushing to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding fragrance. Some personal care product companies would like to see things change as well.
“We have yet to make any product with a fragrance or flavor – even a natural or organic fragrance or flavor – because they don’t disclose ingredients,” said Rebecca Hamilton, director of product development for natural personal care products company Badger. “We believe in transparency. It’s a big part of our brand value and if we don’t know what the ingredients are, we don’t know if there’s something in there that would be harmful.”
Hamilton added that the fragrance industry’s trade-secret protection is also an unfair business advantage. “As a cosmetic company I have to list all my ingredients, so why should a fragrance company not have to?”
Amy Westervelt is an Oakland, California-based freelance reporter who covers the environment, business and health.
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