Most know I love using natural ingredients and particularly plant based ones, but there is something I really don’t like about the natural sector and that is the notion of ‘toxic’ ingredients and how, in the natural and organic market there is a pervasive behaviour of painting all ‘non-natural’ as toxic. This isn’t something new, there have been stories going round online for years about paraben’s and petroleum jelly and how they are very bad for our skin and our health in general. But it got me thinking about the concept of the ‘other’ and ‘othering’.
The ‘Other’ in the psycho-social sciences means that in order to have an awareness of the ‘self’ we have to create an ‘other.’ This in itself is seen as quite normal as we all need to have separate identities. To feel different we need to distinguish ourselves from others. However it is quite disturbing when it is used for negative purposes. This is where ‘othering’ comes into it. Othering is a reductive way of labelling a person or group of people as subordinate or having negative characteristics in order to exclude them or treat them unfairly. In history and in the present day it has lead to some pretty terrible things happening to groups of people. Doesn’t sound good does it?
I see parallels of this in the natural beauty sector (of which I am part). Where a company or organisation might use this type of tactic to sell their products or promote natural beauty products as better than the non natural market. So, instead of simply saying that natural and organic products are different from synthetics because they are based on natural plant materials, are an exciting renewable option with inspiring new innovations, they reduce every single lab based ingredient to (a) bad for you (b) bad for the environment (c) generally evil. Part of this is by creating other discourses which support that view based on a few select ‘evil’ ingredients.
One example was given quite well by a member of our Facebook group . She linked to an article titled ‘Stop using Vaseline immediately! 4 reasons you should never put petroleum jelly on your skin’. The article claimed amongst other things that petroleum (a) blocks pores and locks in ‘residue’ and ‘bacteria’ and; (b) it contains hydrocarbons which can be stored in the body. It pointed to one piece of research to prove that petroleum was not good for health. Other things were mentioned too, and surprise, surprise they gave an alternative of Shea butter which they said was much better for you. Now Shea butter is a lovely product and could be an alternative to petroleum so why not just have an article about the great properties of Shea?
It didn’t take long for the group to identify some glaring errors in the article. Some of our members are practising pharmacists and medical professionals who argued that petroleum products have been used safely in medicine for many years both externally and internally. They are considered safe based on historical use as well as scientific research. People have success with treating a variety of skin ailments with petroleum jelly and that is why it is used so much in medicine. One woman said that it was one of the few ingredients that doesn’t cause her acne. Some people also argued that as it is of such a limited resource, we should limit its use to purely medicinal purposes.
People were concerned with the environmental impact however it was also established that it is a by product of fossil fuel which is mined for energy (cars, electricity, gas cookers etc). Some people (myself included) were not happy about the environmental impact, but conceded that at least all of the crude oil was used and nothing went to waste, since it was a secondary product from mining. Another point was that often we ship our natural and organic ingredients using transportation. This transportation uses gas which contributes unnecessarily to the carbon footprint.
Often you will see articles, which will cherry pick one or two pieces of research to prove their point, missing the wider picture and often going against any common sense. Labelling individual ingredients as toxic is also a great way to frighten people. Humans normally react beautifully to danger. We thrive in fight or flight situations. So using alarmist language can frighten people into buying the non ‘toxic’ version. The lesson from this is that we don’t need to use these scaremongering tactics, or, as one contributor said, ‘twist facts’ in order to make our products look better or to prove our subjective positions and we don’t need to resort to ‘othering’ to sell our natural products. All we need to do is talk positively about how our products function, the unique botanical ingredients we use and the great results they bring.