On the final day of April, Seventh Generation took a group of children, dubbed the Toxin Freedom Fighters, to Washington, D.C., armed with 120,000 signatures supporting chemical regulation reform. Those signatures, 20,000 more than Seventh Generation’s goal, were gathered over the span of one month.

Chemicals and context

Consumers were likely prepped and ready to sign Seventh Generation’s Toxin-Free Generation petition urging Congress to update the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1974 (TSCA) – not, perhaps, because they’ve kept up with recent attempts to pass new chemical control bills, but because they’re generally concerned about the effects of chemicals on health.

Between 2012 and 2013, Eco Pulse respondents who expressed concern about chemicals found in skincare and cosmetic products increased from 44 percent to 54 percent. Our soon-to-be-released 2014 Eco Pulse will look into the effectiveness of health-related messaging and consumer trepidation about chemicals in their food, products that touch their skin, and even electronics.

Personally, I’ve noticed increasing conversation on the topic in the last few years. My parents have become choosier about ingredients in foods and car care products, and friends are avoiding certain contents in foods, cleaners and household items. I’ve even adjusted my household cleaner buying habits, realizing that my poor ability to follow instructions for harsher cleaners (that is, I manage to get them all over my hands) probably means I shouldn’t use them.

Taking reform by the roots

Seventh Generation’s campaign points to a fitting communications strategy for health messaging – grassroots. Seventh Generation collected signatures for the petition on a dedicated web page sporting images of children in green superhero masks, plus easily shareable facts about TSCA and stats about the sheer number of chemicals kids encounter.

How did the message spread? Through national and influential parenting bloggers (here’s one example), Healthy Baby Home Parties (a way parents can share knowledge and influence their environments), press releases, and other on- and offline grassroot methods.

Chemical content is a scary unknown; we’ve seen in Eco Pulse that even consumers concerned about the effects of chemicals often don’t know what they should avoid and what poses no risk.

Grassroots communications – with bloggers, social media, even the direct nature of being able to sign a petition – are the opposite of that shadowy threat. Using grassroots methods can help consumers feel like they’re taking control, taking their kids’ health more squarely into their own hands, and getting solid advice from trusted, relatable sources.

To reform or not to reform: That’s not the question.

Seventh Generation’s campaign didn’t bring an unknown problem to Congress’s attention. Efforts to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act have been underway for several years, culminating most recently in the Chemicals in Commerce Act, a House measure introduced in March, and the Chemical Safety Improvement Act of 2013 (CSIA), a similar Senate bill introduced last year.

There’s general consensus that something needs to be done, but nothing has been signed into law yet.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) has supported the recent chemical reform bills, though not without qualifications and critiques. It created an educational website about TSCA reform, and, on it, touts CSIA as “the balanced solution.” Many leading chemical/chemistry-related businesses, from small to global, are members of this trade organization.

For Seventh Generation, its campaign partners (including Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families), and the American Sustainable Business Council, on the other hand, these bills don’t go far enough to really protect consumers, and don’t hold the promise that the ACC finds in them (see a more in-depth discussion). Interestingly, Seventh Generation’s campaign highlighted many facts and stats about TSCA, but not so much about the recent bills.

The campaign reveals the difference in viewpoints between more green-focused businesses and the more mainstream companies represented by the ACC. It sought to align the voices of concerned consumers with the former’s point of view … primarily in the ears of Congress.

TSCA has been left to its own devices for more than three decades. Whether or not either of the new chemical reform bills are passed, health will likely only become a greater concern as greener-minded Millennials start raising families and wanting to know what their own children are exposed to.

Whether your organization agrees that the recent bills hold great promise and the opportunity for reform should be seized, or that the bills fail to right a long wrong, Seventh Generation’s approach to health messaging shows us all how a grassroots health campaign can effectively spur consumer engagement.

Child Superman image by Greg Westfall via Flickr

About the Author

Meghan McDonald

Meghan McDonald

Meghan concepts and writes copy for clients and also reviews creative deliverables for clarity, grammar and brand alignment. She brings an interdisciplinary background in environmental studies and journalism to our team. If you want to know the name of a tree or flower, she’s the one to ask.

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Suzanne Shelton

President and CEO

Suzanne is the voice and the vision of Shelton Group. Drawing on her extensive experience in energy and the environment – and 25+ years in the marketing and advertising industry – Suzanne provides high-level strategic insights for our clients and guidance for our research and creative departments. She regularly speaks at conferences around the country, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and the International Builders’ Show, and serves as a guest columnist for publications like Fast Company, Green Builder and GreenBiz.com.

Susannah Enkema

VP Research & Insight

Susannah directs our research team and plays a key role in extracting the nuggets of information that pave the way for recommended marketing strategies and creative approaches. Susannah has nearly two decades of market research and strategy experience, including her role as president of SE Consulting, where she led the services for the likes of DIY Network and the makers of GORE-TEX®.

Penny Kemp

VP Account Management & Strategy

Penny leads our client engagement process, overseeing activities from both a strategic and a tactical level to ensure our work generates desired results. She works closely with Suzanne, President & CEO, to develop strategic marketing plans and with Matt, VP Creative, to foster creative campaign ideas. Before joining Shelton Group, Penny had developed expertise in brand management and marketing while working with award-winning agencies and shepherding programs for the likes of Ritz-Carlton Hotels, Russell Athletic and James Hardie Building Products.

Matt Brass

VP Creative

Matt steers the creative department in concepting, designing and producing campaigns. He ensures sound strategy and deep insights inform everything his team develops, and works closely with the accounts department to ensure copy and designs will meet our clients’ goals. As a designer and filmmaker himself, he’s also a principal contributor to all of Shelton’s in-house photography and videography work.

Glen L. Vesser III

VP Finance and Administration

Glen manages Shelton Group’s finances and administration, ensuring our internal systems run smoothly so we can provide exceptional client service in a seamless and timely manner. Glen’s financial and administrative expertise has been shaped by decades of experience in a variety of industries, including public accounting, media distribution and health care.

Mike Beamer

VP Business Development

Mike joined our team to help provide strategic vision and foster our agency’s growth by overseeing new business leads and managing agency marketing and website content. He arrived in Knoxville steeped in energy efficiency and renewables – he previously led client service for an agency division in Boston dedicated to marketing communications strategy and branding for B2B and B2C clients in that space.