Hello, Green Avon?

In 1886, David McConnell, founder of Avon Products, said the company would “meet fully the obligations of corporate citizenship by contributing to the well-being of society and the environment in which it functions.”  And it appears that Avon has continued to follow that path.  Between 1955 and 2009, the company had raised more than $725 million for various philanthropic causes, primarily focused on breast cancer and domestic violence.

The company says it has already committed to sustainable building practices for new facilities or those under construction.  It has also made efforts in packaging – using more packaging products from recycled and renewable sources.  And, while some might equate Avon with gas-guzzling SUVs driven by soccer moms peddling products neighborhood to neighborhood, in actuality, according to Avon, 70 percent of its U.S. orders are placed online.

Attention to the environment

And now, Avon’s going greener.  The beauty products company, with more than 6.2 million reps worldwide, hopes to create an international women’s environmental movement that will raise funds to drive environmental education and “nurture nature,” as the company puts it.  To seed the “Hello Green Tomorrow” project, Avon gave the Nature Conservancy $1 million to plant 1 million trees in South America’s Atlantic Rainforest.  Now, it’s calling on its reps to spread the green word.

The company’s efforts have paid off.  In 2009, Newsweek magazine ranked the 500 largest U.S. corporations on their environmental score.  Avon came in at #25 overall, with a score of 84.70 out of 100.  It scored particularly well in the Green Policies and Performance category, which looks at environmental policies, written environmental plans, and sustainable building. Avon earned 73.2 out of 100 compared to an average of 39.1 among the companies evaluated.

So, all is good, yes?

Not necessarily.

Does Avon meet the triple bottom line?

Certainly, Avon has taken its commitment to profits seriously.  The company last year had more than $10 billion in revenue. But, what about its responsibility to people and planet?

Even though the company is committed to sustainable building practices and has made strides in the way it packages and ships its products, Avon received a lower than average score from Newsweek in the Environmental Impact category, which measures the environmental costs of the company’s operations as they relate to greenhouse gases, water use, solid waste and acid rain emissions.

And then there is the fact that Avon still has not signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics, which is a pledge many companies have taken, saying they will remove carcinogens and other harmful ingredients from beauty and personal care products.  Because, you see, some Avon products contain toxic ingredients including parabens,  which Dr. Samuel Epstein, a cancer expert and former professor at the University of Illinois School of Public Health, says have been implicated as a possible source of cancer.

Some organizations, such as Green America Today, even suggest that Avon’s fund raising and education efforts surrounding breast cancer exist only as a public relations campaign to overcome concerns about the ingredients in some of its products.

So, paying attention to profits?  Yes and doing quite well.  Paying attention to the planet?  Certainly on the right track though the company could take additional steps.  Paying attention to people?  Well…not so much perhaps.

Avon’s director of corporate responsibility, Susan Arnot Heaney, told me in an email that it was the policy of the company “not to enter into contracts or compacts with special interest groups, which may represent religious, ethnic, environmental, health or other interests in countries around the world,” but she did not explain why.  She did though add that the company chooses not to “depend upon such compacts to define or guide [the company’s] commitment to do what is right,” adding, “If there is any new evidence that warrants a new evaluation of products or ingredients, Avon takes appropriate action to protect our customers.”

I wonder what the “new evidence” would need to be. There have been a plethora of reports in medical journals related to parabens and cancer, but alas, some are contradictory. However, if some ingredients in some Avon products have been linked to cancer, I wonder whether attention to profits and environment is enough for Avon to be considered a sustainable company.

Jennifer Hicks is a freelance journalist and the lead editor of SmartBrief on Sustainability, a free daily e-newsletter that offers a round up of the day's most important news for businesses and consumers interested in sustainability issues. Her work has appeared on several health, business and political Web sites.

4 responses

  1. Ding-Dong… Jennifer Hicks calling. I am one of the many who always believed Avon to have a social conscience. And in fact, they do. The research completed for this article goes beyond the “image,” and reveals very interesting insights. Thank you for placing light on the issues at hand, rather than the image.

  2. You highlight a very important issue: Avon claims to be going green while continuing to put toxic chemicals in its cosmetics. It is my opinion that as more and more women realize just how toxic some of the chemicals in many cosmetics are, they will demand safer products.

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