Health is All Around Us : How Our Environment Informs Our Health

As Health 2.0 gears up for Health 2.0 WinterTech, January 15th in San Francisco, their reporters sat down with Environmental Working Group Executive Director, Heather White to discuss the many pathways consumer health advocacy takes and the barriers that continue to keep many of us in the dark about the relationship between our health and our environment.

Health 2.0: To get things started, Heather, I wanted to talk with you a little bit about some of the insight you’ll be providing at WinterTech, which is in relation to the Skin Deep App. From what I’ve researched, it offers ratings on over 70,000 products. I was hoping you could share your thoughts on how you and your team envisioned this app and the way it’s changing how consumers shop for skin products, and what has been the response thus far?

Heather White: Yeah. Well, it definitely has been making waves in the market for a pretty long time. Our site was developed 10 years ago, but we launched our app last year. So far, we’ve had about 300,000 downloads on iPhone and about 95,000 on Android, so close to 400,000 consumers have downloaded the app and are able to make decisions on safer cosmetics and personal care products right at the store. So, we’ve gotten a lot of response and support from our community, but we’re also finding that our brand is reaching a much broader audience. It’s really exciting for us because EWG is all about making sure people make this connection between our health and the environment and really start thinking about the environment as something that they connect to everyday. It’s not just that place you go on vacation, but it also incorporates the chemicals that you buy and that you put on your skin and the chemicals that you buy and then you bring into your home. Skin Deep is trying to really push the market for safer cosmetics and we’ve really seen a lot of consumers make more switches to safer alternatives and we’re also seeing each day new brands coming onto the markets that are less toxic. So, there’s been a tremendous response so far. It’s a free app. It’s available both on the Android and iPhone and our supporters and people who are interested in this issue have really welcomed it.

HR: Absolutely. So, that leads perfectly into my next question, which relates to the movement that you guys have done towards the digital app. I’ve read that Skin Deep was released 10 years ago, so you’re just coming up on a big anniversary. But I was hoping you could explain to me what triggered that movement towards more in the pocket, in the hands of consumers directly and where you’re going with it.

HW: Absolutely! So, we’ve had about 40 million searches on the website for better, safer cosmetics on Skin Deep and about 500 million page views since the website was created. There was always a demand and as we saw more and more of it as our supporters and followers went mobile. Now about 40% of our traffic is generated with mobile. We had this kind of drum beat from our supporters saying, “We want to take you with us to the store. It’s really frustrating for us to have to go on our iPhone or our tablet in the store and look up the products. Can we get a UPC code, or can you have a barcode scanner? Can we take you with us?”Because of that, really, urging of our supporters, we’ve launched this app last year and have really found that it has been widely adapted not only by our supporters, but it really is kind of just a word-of-mouth thing. One of the things we’ve been trying to reach, really, is a lot of young women, because even though the average person uses 8 to 12 personal care products a day, teen girls especially use about 17 to 20 different personal care products; everything from hairspray to conditioner to mascara to foundation.We did a study in 2007, looking at the chemicals in the bodies of young girls. The urine and blood had found 16 different hormone-altering chemicals; all associated to personal care products in their bodies. We really knew that this was an important way for us to get the message out to the youth, and we’ve been working with groups like Teens Turning Green based out in San Francisco to really try to meet teenagers where they are. But we’re finding it as exciting as teens are about the work that we are doing. It’s just really a wide group of people that are coming to EWG and using Skin Deep as a tool right at the point of sale.

Health 2.0: In building off of that, what sort of iterations have you gone through on the development side to keep building this so that it’s adopted by the target groups you are looking for?

HW: We’re constantly doing different user experience focus groups. We had a great meaning before we went to the launch and that’s a new thing in the non-profit world. I mean, rarely do we have the time and the planning to really get followers to tell us what they need often. Your non-profits just get something out because we think it’s really cool, but that’s something that we’ve been doing over the last 18 months and gathering a lot of feedback. We hope to have more UPC codes and have even better user interface with Skin Deep 2.0.

Health 2.0: I see that the Environmental Working Group actually has three apps available on the App Store: Skin Deep, the Food Scores app, and the Dirty Dozen app. Are there more projects in the pipeline that will leverage digital technologies or these current campaigns that you’re running?

HW: Absolutely, we’re working on Skin Deep and Food Scores. We’re also thinking about creating a Healthy Living app, putting our entire different guides together under one brand for EWG. We also have a cleaner database, where we also look at products based on the chemicals and what companies disclosed that they are using in these products. It’s really trying to push people to healthier cleaners as well.So, that’s something that is in the pipeline but it may be under one big umbrella of a Healthy Living app that we launched. But, we are finding that digital is a great way for us to really make sure that EWG is with people throughout the day and that they are creating healthier habits; that’s something that we’re really interested in. We’re just going to be spending a lot of time in 2015 to better understand how people are using the app, and how they’re making better choices. We know a lot of that just from what we hear from our folks, and also, we know about the downloads and the number of searches and what the search terms are, but really kind of tracking how people are making changes. It’s really where we’re going to be diving in, in 2015, and we are very excited about that opportunity.

Health 2.0: How are you making sure that that information is easily translating to the average consumer? Taking into consideration the education, literacy levels, and kind of maintaining that as a top process in the app development?

HW: I think it’s really a working progress. I mean, that’s something that we’ve really learned through the launches of these apps, is that you’re never really finished, you’re constantly improving, constantly asking these questions about who you are reaching, how you are reaching them, how you can do it better. So, we’re constantly having that conversation here. I would say that we take a lot of pride in our science. We always call it like we see it, if we aren’t sure of the science, we say so.  We believe in the professional principles so we’ll say, “Hey! We’re concerned about this chemical.”  We are looking at what we’re seeing in purview literature and it looks like it could be a potential hormone disruptor or maybe a likely carcinogen. We don’t know for sure. Our recommendation is that you avoid it. So, we’re always very clear. We take a lot of pride in doing the translating of the hardcore science and research and then communicating that. One of the things that we thought is that literacy is a really a good question. One of the things that we find is that a lot of consumers, even if the interface isn’t as great as they would like it, get new ones. They do want to hear, “Just guide me to the right choice,” but they’re okay if you don’t have all the answers, as a non-profit think tank and research group that we are. But they want us to tell them what we do know. That’s been really interesting for us to appreciate that consumers understand the complexity. They use us to try to break through the complexity, but they appreciate that we’re clear in our communication, but we always say what we know and what we don’t know and here’s our advice based on the facts as we know them now.

Health 2.0: Right, absolutely. You’re learning through these multiple iterations for not only Skin Deep, but also the other applications and your whole website. Can you speak about what you’ve seen has been really working strongly over the past couple of years?

HW: I think what has really been working strongly are the guides that we have, kind of the tips of breaking it down, what chemicals to avoid, the Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15. The shoppers guide, the pesticide, and produce have always worked really well with consumers. It recognizes that as much as we want people to buy organic, and we think that it makes a lot of sense to reduce your pesticide exposures each day, that a lot of people are in tight budgets, of course. It really — like having the Clean 15 and the Dirty Dozen — is a great way to say, “Here’s what you really should buy organics based on pesticide residues from the Department of Agriculture.” That type of news, people really appreciate. That type of guide and again, that type of news,they appreciate that a lot. We’ve gotten that feedback. I think it’s awakening for a lot of consumers that the products that they buy and the chemicals that they are exposed to, in that, have been in their bodies. That’s one of the things that is hard for some consumers to understand, but once you’ve had this “aha moment” and understand that the pollution in the environment is really also the pollution in their body, and we’re so focused on the pollution in people here at EWG, that people understand and connect with that and it really is a powerful driver for the market for pushing green chemistry, for pushing safer products. We’re really seeing that this digital technology in our research is a way for people to have their voice, and we can talk later about our voice in advocacy, but really, the voice in the marketplace as well, and they’re voting with their pocketbooks. They’re asking companies to not only have a strong brand identity but also to stand for more than a good product, and making sure that a good product also means a safe product that chemicals aren’t going to be polluting the bodies of the consumers buying it and their kids.

Health 2.0: Definitely, I think there’s a lot that goes into making those informed decisions and that’s so much about what we’re talking about at WinterTech. So going through as we move into 2015, I was hoping you could shed light on what excites you and also what side of things scares you the most about the Consumer Health Landscape?  What is working and what isn’t, in creating more informed consumers?

HW: Well, I’m really excited about our Food Scores — EWG’s Food Scores app that we just launched in October. So, internally, we call it the Skin Deep for food, but it looks at nutrition, degree of processing, and ingredient concerns, and rates over 80,000 products that you find mostly in the middle of the grocery store.  We’re really excited about seeing what we’ve done for the personal care product industry and how that’s changed based on transparency and research. We really want to see how the packaged food industry especially changes once people start being really thoughtful and mindful of the food additives, for example, that they are exposed to, so we’re looking forward to that and that’s really, really exciting. What excites me about the Consumer Health Landscape is the power of the consumer and consumers who are really owning their power and owning their voice and telling brands what they expect and that the social contract is again, be on the product. It’s what do you stand for. Is your product going to help make me healthier? What’s the value proposition? The quality has been redefined as really being unethical and socially conscious business. I think that’s really exciting to me especially when we engage with millennials, because I feel like millennials are really engaged and focused on companies in that brand connection, in a deep and powerful way, and for the brand for standing for more than just a product that they sell. Then, I think what isn’t creating more informed consumers is just giving them the information. I think you need to give them tools to make better choices, tools to also speak out on Capitol Hill and really take an advocacy position, too. I think that it’s not just enough to say, “Hey, there are all these problems.” You need to be able to give them solutions and in the case of Food Scores and Skin Deep, a lot of that is, “Here’s a better choice. Here’s a better product.” But once people start thinking about healthier food or start thinking about lotions that don’t have carbons in them, we can engage them in a larger conversation about why cosmetics haven’t been updated since 1938 and why Federal law dealing with chemicals in consumer products hasn’t been updated since 1976. I think that it’s not just enough to give the information. You need to really provide solutions and then make sure that people can really raise their voices.

Health 2.0: How do you translate the Environmental Working Group readers towards advocacy and change through a digital platform?

HW: We do a lot. We have multiple platforms on all of our advocacy campaigns. So, whether the need to label genetically engineered food, we’ll have a Twitter campaign, we have Facebook campaigns, and then, we also have calls where we can send out an email to folks but say, “Hey, call this 1-800 number and be connected immediately to your member of Congress’ office.” We can do that on a variety of issues whether it would be safe cosmetics, chemicals, consumer products, the Farmville, and all the different issues that we work on. We’re constantly mindful of our digital platforms when we’re trying to create this advocacy space.Now, with that said, politics on Capitol Hill, not a whole lot is going on. There are a lot of arguments. As much as we need policy reform — and we can’t just shop our way out of these big issues, we are doing this dual track with the digital aspect.  First is, right now, what steps can you take to live a healthier and greener life? What can you find out digitally, but what can you take with you to the store to make a better decision right here, right now?  It’s making that transfer from the digital iPhone app to, “Here is our recommendation to actually buying a product at the point of sale in 3-D.” Then, the second track is really fighting for policy reform, understanding that we have a long ways to go, just given the status of what’s going on in Washington right now.

Health 2.0: Last question – at the upcoming WinterTech, what are you most looking forward to? 

HW: Oh, well, I’m just so looking forward to WinterTech and learning from all of the health providers there, the technologists there, the data gurus there.  I think there’s a great opportunity for learning and exchanging of ideas and I think one of the things I hope that people kind of leave the WinterTech with, especially, after they connect with Environmental Working Group or EWG, is that the environment really is all about protecting your health. When you’re protecting the environment, you are protecting your health, and your health and the environment are interlinked. It is critical that we understand that we are making these daily connections with the environment. That’s really what I hope to leave folks with. I’m looking forward to really learning about how to use our data better, how to be more effective in communications digitally and really, what the trends are and how we can make sure that the environment becomes the central point of the conversation when we’re talking about health and healthcare in technology.

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