Over the 6 years that I’ve been making Tipsy Toad goat milk soap and body products the things that I make have evolved, and my ingredients have changed with that evolution. Selling at Farmers Markets I have the pleasure of one-on-one interaction with my customers. I get to hear first hand what they really love about the things I make, and I’m also forced to field the negative feedback in real time. One concern that comes up over and over is about ingredients, and believe me, I get it. People want to use something that’s not going to be damaging to their body, but they are also becoming increasingly concerned about the ethical and sustainable nature of the ingredients their products contain. Recently a customer expressed grave concern because I use canola oil in my soaps, and canola is a GMO. This discussion led me to think that it’s high time I disclose how I choose the ingredients I use.
First off, I think it’s important to out myself. In an ideal world, I would only consume things that are spray-free (note I didn’t say Organic), Fair Trade, Ethically Produced, local and environmentally sustainable. I grow produce using spray-free methods. I raise my meat and eggs on pasture. I grow a good portion of the hay that my animals eat. I read labels carefully in the supermarket to determine where things come from and what they contain. That said, like most people, I have a budget, and sometimes that budget makes the 99 cent can of beans pretty attractive, even if it isn’t organic. My budget also tells me that if I’m like other people, $6 is not unreasonable for a bar of natural, handmade soap, but $12 is completely out of line.
$12 for a bar of soap. That’s about what I’d have to charge if every ingredient I used met all the criteria I listed above. I would be out of business because if that’s what a bar of natural soap cost, most people would say “to heck with it”, and go right back to the drugstore soap.
So I weigh the pros and cons of different ingredients, trying to balance cost with a sense of wanting to do the right thing. In the end, some of my ingredients are local (in my mind buying local is one of the most important decisions in sourcing ingredients), some are organic, some are non-GMO, some are Fair-Trade, and some are none of the above. Different things seem to be important to different people. Nobody who’s questioned my use of GMOs has ever questioned my use of palm oil (a far more contentious product, in my mind). I do source my palm from companies who are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), but it’s still not environmentally ideal. If the best alternates for palm weren’t animal fats like lard, I would consider substituting. I have no issue personally with using lard in soap, but I have many customers who are vegetarians and I don’t think that would fly with them. In the case where Organic products are economically feasible I choose those over the cheaper alternatives. Most of the essential oils I use are organic. My coconut oil is not organic because organic coconut oil is almost triple the price of non-organic. I use hand-harvested clay in my products. I use my own goat milk, so I know how the goats providing it are fed and treated.
As for GMOs, they are my last concern. Why? Because there isn’t scientific evidence that GMOs are the monster they’re made out to be. There are many problems with GMOs. I disagree with altering seed stock so that it’s no longer capable of open pollination. I disagree with changing organisms so that they can’t survive grown in a natural environment or without synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. But do I think GMOs across the board are bad for us? Maybe some of them are, but it’s absurd to just say “all GMOs are bad”. I suspect the canola oil I use is a GMO. It’s also Canadian. I suspect that the feed my goats eat also contains GMOs. And try finding hay that isn’t GMO. I don’t know what was originally planted in my hay fields, but I suspect the farmer who was here before us didn’t care too much about where his hay seed came from. I have a much larger axe to grind with industrial monoculture growing than I do with Genetically Modified Organisms, and so yes, there are some in my soaps.
We can only do the best we can do. Is it better to offer a product that’s partly sustainable and responsible in the hopes that more people will choose it, or to go all out and make the fully responsible product that only a very small fraction of the population can afford to use? That’s a choice I have to make every time I buy ingredients. In the end I feel pretty good about the choices I make and I can only hope that my customers recognize this and feel pretty good about supporting me.