When Ken Cook was an environmental lobbyist in the 70s and 80s, his goal was to create a better, healthier world through policy change. But along the way, he created an organization — the Environmental Working Group, of which he is CEO and founder — that completely changed his focus. Today, he still aims to create a better, healthier world and help people protect themselves from harmful chemicals, but the EWG does this mostly by talking directly to the public, while still lobbying for policy change (though it’s less of a focus these days). And they do this quite effectively: it’s perhaps the most important consumer health protection and activist nonprofit, covering everything from personal care products to energy to farming (ever heard of the Environmental Working Group Dirty Dozen?) to clean water to nontoxic food packaging and beyond. The EWG’s 26-year lifespan is fascinating, as is where it’s headed next, and we were thrilled to be able to talk to Ken Cook about it.
Transitioning from Policy to Consumer Education to Protect People from Harmful Chemicals
Initially, the goal of the Environmental Working Group was to look for breakthrough research, garner media attention for that research, and use that media attention to spur policy change. That research and those changes could span a wide range of issues, like soil erosion, pesticide, organic food, and so on; as long as it related to protecting people and the environment from harmful chemicals.
During those early years and decades, their efforts were incredibly effective. The environmental movement was taking hold, and there was a lot of momentum around reducing exposure to harmful chemicals, so it was possible to get many policies and regulations passed. But, over the decades, the industry’s “immune system kicked in,” as Cook describes it. The industry lobbyists affected by the regulations began pushing back, making sure that their people in government would prevent any environmental regulations from being passed, while also rolling back previously passed policies (sound familiar?).
But at the same time, consumers began to reach out to let the EWG know that they still wanted solutions to the issues being raised. Cook realized that it just wasn’t sustainable to keep working toward policy change. “It just became very difficult to look a pregnant woman in the eye and say, ‘You know what we need to do? We need to pass a law that will regulate those toxic chemicals, then we need to get regulations out the door and finally, we’ll get around to the chemical that you’re worried about as a pregnant woman and that regulation might take hold by the time your baby is in graduate school or has their own kids,’” Cook explains.
So they took their database work, which they’d been using for policy purposes, and put it online. Immediately, it got a good amount of traffic, and it became clear that people were interested in this information. But the big breakthrough came when they published their first real consumer-facing database, Skin Deep, a database that reveals what harmful chemicals are lurking in cosmetics and personal care products. Traffic flooded in, and, as Cook says, “that really opened our eyes to the value of communicating directly with consumers.”
A policy-driven strategy wasn’t working anymore, and the internet offered a brand new way to communicate directly — and the thousands of people coming to the website made it clear that consumers were hungry for the information. From there on out, the EWG decided that they would be their own media outlet, and that the website would be their primary publication, delivered directly to consumers.
From there, the EWG evolved into what it is today, a consumer-facing activist group that helps individuals protect themselves from harmful chemicals. “What people have really come
to know us for is our advice to consumers and to [publications like WellBe] who are just trying to give the best advice from the best independent science that they can find.”
Building Out Databases and Educating Consumers About Products (Including the Environmental Working Group Dirty Dozen!)
Skin Deep provided EWG ratings for various ingredients and full products, with the rating depending on the amount of harmful chemicals contained in the item. People began reaching out, telling them that this was helpful information, and that they wanted more. “We started hearing from those people that this was a valuable source of information as they tried to detoxify for themselves, a world that the government wasn’t helping them to detoxify,” Cook says. So from there, they built out more databases, like the Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce (home of the famous Environmental Working Group Dirty Dozen, which lists the 12 kinds of produce that contain the highest levels of harmful chemicals), Healthy Cleaning, a guide to cell phone radiation, and much more. Basically, as Cook says, they build out databases for anything where there’s enough science to credibly suggest that there is harm.
Today, not only does the EWG rate products, they also have a certification program, which puts the EWG seal (called “EWG Verified”) on select products that have undergone a very rigorous process to eradicate any harmful chemicals, well beyond the rating system. As Cook explains, they created the certification program to allow consumers an easy way to know exactly what they should buy, not just what they shouldn’t. “Consumers are glad to know that some products rate poorly, but they also want to be told, what’s the good stuff?” he says. This is exactly why we built the WellBe Non-Toxic Product Lists, which contain 1,200+ researched and vetted items, from food to sleep aids to beauty products and more.
Drilling Deep with Ken Cook on One of The Most Harmful Chemicals: Glyphosate
One of the most harmful chemicals in our environment these days is glyphosate. Even if you don’t know it, you’ve probably read a whole lot about glyphosate in recent months and years: it’s the main ingredient in Roundup, Monsanto’s cancer-causing weed killer. It’s so dangerous that it’s actually been completely banned in Germany, even though Monsanto is owned by Bayer, a German company!
One of the things that makes Roundup so dangerous is that it carries through wind and groundwater, and so it is incredibly difficult to avoid. At the same time, it’s incredibly important to avoid, as it has been linked to serious health issues, including cancer, liver damage, kidney damage, and reproductive and developmental issues. Scary! Luckily, Cook gave us some advice on how to avoid glyphosate exposure as much as possible.
The EWG scientists looked closely at this question, and determined that the most important thing was to avoid dietary exposure to the chemical. “And we looked at the testing that’s been done, and this weed killer tends to show up at the highest level in oats and some grains,” Cook says. He goes on to explain that many crops, like corn and soybeans, don’t contain much or any Roundup. This is because most farmers plant GMO corn and soybean crops that have been genetically engineered (by, you guessed it, Monsanto) to be resistant to Roundup. So during the season, the farmers can just drive through the fields with a rig that sprays the pesticide, and the crops are able to thrive while any weeds die. But because this happens toward the beginning or middle of the season, by the time the crop is harvested, there’s not a lot of the harmful chemical left.
But with some crops, the process is different. As Cook explains, “with oats in Canada and in the United States, when the crop is almost ready to harvest, just to dry it down, you spray Roundup and it kills the plant, desiccates the plant and it makes it uniform for you to go through and harvest.” Spraying oats and other grains with Roundup toward the end of the season allows farmers to know, within a pretty tight date range, when the crop will be ready to harvest, and also ensures uniform ripening. But because the spraying is done at the end of the season, as opposed to the beginning or middle, there’s a whole lot of glyphosate left on these oats, wheat, and other grains when they come off the field.
“We focused on oats because it’s in everything from Cheerios to granola bars and everything else,” Cook says. To combat this, the EWG has been going to large food companies, and encouraging them to tell their farmers that they will not buy grains that have been sprayed with Roundup at the end of the season. As a consumer, make sure you look up your favorite grain-containing products on the EWG site to check if they contain any glyphosate (or just make sure you buy certified organic grains, since organic food can’t be sprayed with Roundup — or better yet, those that have an EWG seal on them!)!
Conclusion: How Protecting Consumers from Harmful Chemicals Has Changed Over the Years, and The Outlook Moving Forward
Ken Cook began as an environmental lobbyist in the 70s, and founded the Environmental Working Group to spur policy change. Over time, the organization pivoted to be a consumer-facing group with many searchable databases, where consumers can look up products and find out if they contain harmful chemicals (one of the most famous being the Environmental Working Group Dirty Dozen).
Today, the current political atmosphere and administration raises many of concerns, but Cook also believes that it’s a good time to be an environmentalist. He points out that many of the things the original environmental movement predicted (things like solar energy, for instance), which might have seemed far-fetched at the time, have now been proven out. There has proven to be an economic market for these things, and because of this, Cook believes business is poised to be the biggest driver of change going forward.
“For all the difficulty of making something happen in Washington and all the rhetoric that’s raining down on the environmental movement, it’s never been a better time to be an environmentalist, especially for young people who are looking for a way to contribute,” Cook says. Despite the lack of new regulations to protect ourselves and the environment, Cook feels that there’s pressure from concerned citizens that is going around the government bottleneck “and making things happen in other ways that are super exciting to me.”
But in the meantime, while we wait for public pressure to bring about changes, there are still a lot of harmful chemicals out there in the environment. According to Cook, these are the top 3 things you can do to protect yourself:
Watch your diet. Go meatless one day of the week (or more!), which dramatically reduces your toxic exposure. Eating more plant-based also lets you stretch your food budget a longer way, so you can buy more organic items.
Clean up your house cleaning supplies. Systematically, as you use up your cleaning products, replace each item with an EWG-approved products (Fun fact: we help you do exactly this in the Spark Health Program!)
Clean up your personal care items. Cook suggests the same approach here (which Follain’s Tara Foley also recommended): don’t throw out everything you have and replace it all at once. To make it more manageable, just slowly replace each conventional item with a clean item as you finish individual products.
And don’t get overwhelmed! Remember, as Cook told us, “one step at a time is the key thing.”
Watch our full interview with Ken Cook to learn how having kids changed his view of harmful chemicals in products, how concerned consumers can help bring about change, what new potential policy changes he’s most excited and worried about, why he likens Roundup to Oxycontin, and much more.
The information contained in this article comes from our interview with Ken Cook, the president and co-founder of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment. Ken is also a board member of Food Policy Action (and founding chairman), Organic Voices, Amazon Conservation Team, Marin County Bicycle Coalition and a former member of the board of the Organic Center. He earned a B.A. in history, B.S. in agriculture and M.S. in soil science at the University of Missouri-Columbia.You can read more about EWG and Ken’s accomplishments here.
Do you use the EWG as a reference when looking for clean products? What’s your go-to database? Tell us in the comments!