Episode 184: Alissa Sasso, Manager of Consumer Health at EDF + Business

On the front lines of improving the safety of beauty and personal care products, Alissa Sasso is in a unique position, as part of a global non-profit working with many oh-so-profitable skincare, cosmetics and personal brands. No one could do it better, as she navigates the challenges in a totally non-adversarial way. It’s a tough job and Alissa does it with sensitivity for all the stakeholders, which is the only way to make progress in such a vast undertaking.

Don’t miss this important discussion on a topic that affects us all.

Dan Hodgdon
AnnouncerWelcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty®, hosted by Jodi Katz, founder and creative director of Base Beauty Creative Agency.
Jodi KatzHey everybody. It's Jodi Katz, your host of Where Brains Meet Beauty Podcast®. This week's episode features Alissa Sasso. She is a manager of the Environmental Defense Fund. And this episode is in partnership with Clean Beauty Connect. If you missed last week's episode, it featured Leslie Harris. She's the global general manager of SkinCeuticals. Thanks for tuning in.

Hey everybody. I'm so excited to be here with Alissa Sasso. She's a manager at the Environmental Defense Fund. Welcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty®.
Alissa SassoThanks, Jodi. And Thank you for having me. I'm really excited to be here.
Jodi KatzI'm excited too, and I'm super grateful to the Beauty Connect Summit. So you'll be speaking at the all virtual Clean Beauty Connect in June, which is June 28th and 29th. So, this episode is in partnership with that event group, and we're super excited to have you here.
Alissa SassoGreat. Thank you. Yeah, I'm excited for that event. I'm excited to be here today too.
Jodi KatzSo, let's go way back in time, Alissa, to your 11-year-old self. And if an adult asked you, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" What would you respond with?
Alissa SassoThat's a funny question. I actually, at 11 years old, I probably would've said marine biologist. So, I already had an interest in the environment, but very focused on the ocean. Things changed a bit, obviously since then, but yeah.
Jodi KatzWell, what inspired you at that young age around the environmental sciences?
Alissa SassoI think I was lucky to be able to travel a bit with my parents and my family. And I remember snorkeling when I was pretty young and my dad and I saw some coral reef fish caught in cages. And I remember, yeah, I was so young and I remember we went in and let them out. And that was sort of a jumping-off point for my dad to teach me a bit about reefs. And at that point, even then I think we're starting to see some damage to reefs from climate change. So, I started pretty young. I was lucky to be exposed to that sort of environment and to have a dad who was interested in teaching me about it. But yeah, it sort of sparked my interest in what was happening in the world around me.
Jodi KatzWhat a catalyst moment. So, what were the cages in the ocean for?
Alissa SassoHonestly, I don't know. I was pretty young. They were catching parrotfish, which I'm pretty sure you are not supposed to catch in most reefs. Yeah.
Jodi KatzWow. That must've been such a meaningful moment for you to see that and to help rescue those fish?
Alissa SassoYeah, it was. And yeah like I said, I just started learning everything I could about reefs with my dad afterwards. And we were already talking about reef die off and that interest continued for many, many years afterwards.
Jodi KatzSo, did that show up for you when you decided what to study in college?
Alissa SassoIt did actually, when I was in college, I didn't know what I wanted to do after I knew I was interested in science and I knew I cared about the environment. So I ended up sort of picking a general major in ecology with a minor in environmental science. And that let me take a lot of different courses. And I was able to continue taking some marine biology courses, which is really interesting to me. I was able to travel and study too, but that's also when I was exposed to a lot more of environmental science than just the ocean. And even then, I didn't really have a lot of opportunity to study what I work on today, but that's sort of what sparked my interest in what's in the world around us and how it can impact us and the environment including aquatic life.
Jodi KatzSo, what was the type of first job you can get after studying at school on that topic? Like what are the career options?
Alissa SassoYeah, a lot of people go into academia, which I had been thinking about for a bit, pursuing a graduate and potentially PhD degree. At some point, I decided I was more interested in going right into the workforce. Other people, go into consulting, do stuff that's totally unrelated to what we studied. I was really lucky that my university had a program that placed seniors into environmental advocacy organizations because it can be hard coming out of undergrad to find a role in those types of organizations where you're really contributing to the work and that's sort of why this program at my university existed because it is challenging. And I was really lucky to get a role through that program actually at Environmental Defense Fund. So, that was my first role out of college was at EDF as well.
Jodi KatzSo, let's talk about why you're here because maybe some listeners are like, "What does this have to do with beauty?" So, the Environmental Defense Fund helps companies put safer products into the marketplace. So, are you working with beauty brands on a day-to-day basis with that goal in mind?
Alissa SassoYeah. So EDF is... Our mission's a lot broader than that. We're fairly large international environmental non-profit. It's been around for over 50 years. And then I'm part of our EDF+Business team, which is the team that works with corporate partners to pursue environmental solutions to the challenges that we face today. And I specifically do focus on how can we protect consumer health by reducing our exposure to toxic chemicals in products that we use every day, which of course includes beauty and personal care. Day-to-day, I work with quite a few retailers. I talk to product manufacturers, our engagements with companies vary quite a bit sort of depending on where they are in their journey of thinking about what's in their products. But yeah, I am thinking about this every day for my job.
Jodi KatzAnd are you a beauty junkie?
Alissa SassoI am. Yeah. I think probably in college was when I started really branching out. I love to try new products. Also, in college was when I sort of learned how to deal with my curly hair, which had been a bit of a challenge up until then. So, definitely big into hair and makeup products.
Jodi KatzAnd when you were in college, were the ingredients of the products you're using on your mind? Was that something that was relevant to you at the time?
Alissa SassoIt was not something I thought about very much, which when I started my work sort of a bit of a shock and I panicked, but I wasn't really thinking about it. And I think once I started working in this field and learning more, it really drove me to be passionate about this because I wasn't thinking about it. Probably most people really don't have the time or the interest to spend as much time coming through ingredient lists as I do. And that's sort of why I wanted to work in this space is because I don't want people to feel like they have to do that to make sure that what they're buying is safe.
Jodi KatzRight. I think about myself 15, 20 years ago when I for sure wasn't thinking about ingredients, I was thinking about it with food, but not with beauty.
Alissa SassoYeah. That's where I started.
Jodi KatzSo maybe the food is the way in to the story, but even fast-forward to today, I'm in this industry, I'm reading about this stuff day in, day out and I'm confused. I can just imagine how overwhelming this is for the consumer who wants to do better for herself, but just really doesn't know where to start or what to believe.
Alissa SassoYeah, absolutely. I am still confused sometimes when I'm shopping too. It's definitely not easy. That's why we do what we do. Definitely don't want people to feel confused, overwhelmed, or worried about what they're buying. But yeah, I totally get it. It was, I guess, about a decade or so ago that I started really thinking about what's in my products and at the time I was also thinking beyond... I still do. I was thinking beyond beauty into my clothes, my furniture, sort of everything. I was open my mind to everything that's in my environment.
Jodi KatzSo, when I meet people and they find out that I work in the beauty industry, almost 100% of the time, the first question is which mascaras should they buy, which is so interesting to me. But so when people find out that you are on the front lines of these conversations, what are your new friends ask you? What's their first question?
Alissa SassoThat's so funny. I also always ask people in the industry about mascara. I have not found my favorite product yet. Yeah. I get the same questions, "What should I buy? What should I avoid?" I love talking to people. Natalie, our comms support on my team, Slacks me all the time and asks me about certain products that she uses. I love talking through it. I don't tell people, "Buy this. Don't buy that." I think there's a lot of personal preference involved in the decisions that we make about what we use every day and why we want to use it. But I try to give as much information as I can about, one, sort of what I look for when I shop, what to look for when you are shopping to make sure that the ingredients... You're taking a look at the ingredients if that's something you're interested in and also what to look for and how the companies communicate about what they're using in their products.
Jodi KatzCan you offer any advice to friends around greenwashing, because this is tricky marketing language?
Alissa SassoYeah. Greenwashing, I think can be a big issue in this space. For us, we really look to companies who are really clearly explaining if they're saying their product is clean or safer or natural, I think natural is another term. You see a lot of potential for greenwashing. Are they explaining what that means? Is it a one-sentence description or is it a pretty detailed description of how they've sort of set their criteria for those terms, how they define it, how they make sure that the products match that criteria? Are they continually thinking about this or is it a set and done sort of definition where they're not going to be updating it? It's definitely a hard topic to sort of manage as a consumer, as a shopper, but I think there are ways you can sort of look at what companies are saying, how much information they're giving you to be able to make a decision around whether or not to trust that language.
Jodi KatzSo, as a consumer, so now I'm asking you put your consumer hat on.
Alissa SassoYeah.
Jodi KatzAs a consumer in this space, do you feel like the more, I guess like oversharing a brand does about the ingredients, where they come from, how they're harvested, whatnot, is typically equal to their commitment to this? Is there more truth if they're able to share more and provide more detail?
Alissa SassoI definitely think so. There are a few things... I think it helps when brands also sort of acknowledge, "We're sharing this information because we know it can be confusing." That's one thing I really like to see. I also like to see... There are a lot of ingredients that I think we hear about in the news that brands do use still for various reasons, maybe there's not... Preservatives are a hard area to find a safer alternative. So, if a brand is still using maybe a preservative that we hear a lot about in the news, if they're explaining like, "Here's why we're using this ingredient. We understand their concerns, but here's why we've decided to use it." That's the type of information I also like to look for.

I think it can be a ton of information out there. It can be really overwhelming, but I really look for, this company sort of sharing their journey as well. Are they talking about some of the changes they've made over the years? Are they talking about things like, "Here's why we still use this ingredient that you might be wondering about?" I don't look at every single... It'll take me forever to look at every single bit of detail that they put out there on all these ingredients. But I do try to see how much are they sharing? Does it feel like it's authentic to the journey that they're on?
Jodi KatzI'm thinking about my food journey, right? And sometimes it's really hard to know or hard to answer the question, is this healthy? Is this not healthy?
Alissa SassoRight.
Jodi KatzBut if it was pulled out of the ground, that's like a checkbox, right? It's pulled out of the ground. But I guess with beauty products, it's almost like the ingredient list could be as long as it would be on like a frozen food item. It could just be like dozens and dozens of ingredients that their chemical name is not the name I know of it from the farm name, right?
Alissa SassoYeah. I think it can be really hard because we think about some of these ingredients that you might know about from food, but natural ingredients in beauty products aren't always safer. Essential oils, for example, a lot of them are coming from those ingredients that are coming from a farm, but people can have allergies to essential oils if they're used in too high of a concentration. So, that is one area that can be really challenging because even if you do recognize maybe the name on the package, it doesn't always mean that it's safer. And I also think that there is a tendency to... Yeah, you see this long ingredient list and it can be overwhelming. It could be a bit scary. Synthetic ingredients can be safer and more sustainable than natural ingredients. That's not always the case.

In other cases, natural ingredients would be safer and more sustainable. That's when I say those really long ingredient lists, what I do is I go to the website because usually, they have more real estate to describe what's in the product than on the packaging in a store. I like to look at, are they sharing what they're using these ingredients for? You'll see a lot of companies now share function information for ingredients. I don't think that that should be necessarily a turnoff for a shopper in a store. I think it comes back to how much information is the company sharing about those ingredients. I think it can also sometimes some of these ingredients are just in there because we recognize the name and maybe not because they're actually serving a function. So that's another... Yeah, there're quite a few trade-offs when you're looking at these types of products.
Jodi KatzIn your career, is beauty harder than let's say food or other categories to educate on?
Alissa SassoYeah, that's a good question. In some cases, it's actually a bit easier because we do have ingredient lists for these products in a way that we don't always have for other products. Food, we also obviously have ingredient lists, but to a certain degree, the brands have to share the ingredients in their products. And that does help a bit in being able to then talk to consumers about these ingredients. I think most people probably think that if it's on the shelf, it is safe or somebody has approved it for use. That's not necessarily true in the US where the FDA, Food and Drug Administration, which oversees beauty and cosmetics products, the FDA isn't necessarily saying, "Okay, this product is good to go to shelf." But that responsibility is on the product manufacturer to make that decision.

And so, I think that that perception is changing a bit, especially in the last few years. I think there's a lot more information being shared online, a lot more people looking for this information, but that when I started in my career, that was a perception that we were sort of tackling and trying to educate people about. And then I think the next steps are being able to look at things like, "Okay, here are the ingredients that are in products and here's what you can look for." Yeah. So, there're definitely challenges around it. I think greenwashing can be a big challenge in terms of trying to sort of share information with consumers, but people's understanding and perceptions are shifting and it's making it a lot easier to share this information.
Jodi KatzRight. So, if I think about consumer, the consumer knows that ingredients are important. She might not know what's safe or like what's safe for her, which could be different than what see for me.
Alissa SassoRight.
Jodi KatzBut I guess if I'm thinking about like furniture, right? I don't know what's in my furniture. There's no ingredient lists. There's no like step-by-step of these are the glues we've used and the chemicals we treated your fabric too. So I guess yeah, the beauty consumer is prime for this conversation, because she's always known ingredients are there and she's always known buzzwords, right?
Alissa SassoRight. Yeah.
Jodi KatzSo, we taught her to care about some of these ingredients, but yeah, I don't know what's in my furniture. I guess I should start to care.
Alissa SassoYes. That's another hard area. When I first started in this role, I panicked a bit and I was like, "I need to replace all my furniture," which obviously wasn't really realistic, but yeah, there are changes you can make with furniture too. I look for... I will let you know, in case you are interested. When I was buying a new couch, for example, I looked for furniture that doesn't have flame retardants in it, which is at this point now I think companies are sharing that kind of information with their shoppers.
Jodi KatzWell, you just expressed kind of the sentiment that most people have when they want to embark on doing better, it just feels so overwhelming. Like that big sigh of like, "Oh my God, where do I start?" And then I think it almost sometimes starts a shame spiral, unfortunately, right? So, how do we, I guess, as consumers, but also brands get out of the shame spiral or a hiding spiral, right? So maybe some friends won't admit what brands they use to their other friends because they like their product that has tons of chemicals in it and they don't want to give it up because it gives them the payoff or the impact they want. Do you have any advice with regards to that?
Alissa SassoYeah. I very much relate to those feelings. That's why I'm really careful when people ask me for, "What do you buy? What should I buy? What should I look out for?" I'm really careful about saying, "Don't buy this. Don't buy that." Because it is, right? These are really personal decisions. If maybe you don't necessarily want to be using this product still, but there's a reason you're using it, for me, for example, I've struggled with acne my whole life and I still use topical acne medication and some of the ingredients in that, they're not necessarily things that I really want in my products, but there's a bit of a trade-off there and that's a decision I made in terms of I'm going to keep using these products because there's a reason. And I've decided that that is the decision I'm going to make.

And I think sort of owning that and I try to share my personal experiences around that as well because I think it can help. The more we talk about why we make certain decisions, the more it can sort of alleviate some of the shame about it. But I think just for us, we share as much information as possible so that people can make decisions and maybe they continue to make a decision to use a product that has potentially some hazardous ingredients in it. There's a reason probably that they're making that decision, but I want people to be able to make those decisions with as much information as they need.

Then I think one of the other pieces of this is I also want to be careful about, I think when it comes to a lot of thinking about what we can do as individuals, in terms of environmental issues, there are things we can do as individuals, but really a lot of these problems are institutional. And so I don't ever want to make any particular person feel like it's their responsibility or it's their fault, maybe that they are using some of these products or maybe aren't being as sustainable as possible. I think that making people feel empowered to make changes in their life is great, and I sort of always want to bring in the idea that we have an outdated regulatory system that oversees cosmetics in the US and that is not an individual problem, that is an institutional problem.

And when it comes to brands as well, I think they're also operating within the system where regulations aren't really set up to support them to make safer products. And there are things that they can be doing. There are places they can be looking for help, but in the same way, I think just committing to learning as much as they can and making changes as they learn this journey of continuous improvement, which is also in my life, that's sort of how I've approached it, thinking through, I didn't make... I didn't change everything I was using all at once. As I learned, I really set priorities for what changes I wanted to make, but also made some decisions of I'm going to keep using these products for a particular reason. So yeah, I fully understand the shame spiral that can come out of it, and that's why I do try to share as much as I can about what I do in my own life.
Jodi KatzSo, let's talk about how retailers or brands work with you. I'm super curious about this because I didn't even know that this is a thing. So, can you just walk us through, like simplify how that happens and how you can contribute and how they can listen?
Alissa SassoYeah. So, our work in this area really started back in 2013. We have a partnership with Walmart that goes back further than that, but we started working with them on what's called their Sustainable Chemistry Commitment, and that addresses formulated products in their stores, which are things like beauty, personal care, cleaning products, maybe wipes that are in sort of a liquid. And they were the first major retailer to put out this type of policy. And what they did in that policy was sort of encourage their brands to share more ingredient information. They highlighted a set of particular ingredients that they wanted to encourage all brands to get out of. And then they also encouraged brands to pursue certifications that can make it easier for a shopper to find these safer products. And so, in 2000... That was 2013 after Walmart came with that policy, we started to see other retailers come out with similar policies, Target, CVS, Amazon, Rite Aid, addressing some of the same products, thinking about some of the same chemicals, sending a lot of the same messages to their suppliers.

And so what came out of that work, I think was we really saw that there could be a bit of a lever in working with retailers in terms of then there being a ripple effect across the industry to address ingredients in products. And I do want to say one thing that's really important to EDF is that we don't take money from our corporate partners, they are our partners and our work is funded by individuals and foundations, and that enables us to really be in a partnership with these companies and not necessarily like a advisory or consulting relationship per se. Yeah, it ensures credibility to what we're doing, but also what they're working on. And so, that was sort of the start of our work on chemicals and not necessarily start, but the start of our work, really with retailers on chemicals and products.

And since then, this work has really evolved. After all these retailers put out their own policies, we started seeing things like clean logos and clean labels or clean shops pop up. And I think that those types of shops go hand in hand with the retailer chemical policies in terms of the policies are addressing all the products in their stores. And then when we think about these clean logos, they're really highlighting the best of the best. And so I think you start to see... It helps to sort of raise the floor for products across the store and gives an aspirational goal of here's what we want our products to look like. So, a lot of our work with retailers over the years has been supporting them in developing, implementing these policies, which includes things like looking at data, helping set goals, helping to set priorities.

And then when it comes to working with brands, that work also varies quite a bit. We've been involved in a lot of work where you're bringing together retailers, brands, ingredient manufacturers to try to tackle a joint problem that they're all dealing with. These are like pre-competitive collaborations. So, the work with brands really is about trying to help them understand what these retailer policies are about and try to improve what they're doing as well because the retailer sets the policy, but ultimately it's the brands who are taking action from that policy and they're the ones making the change. So, we work all along the supply chain to make improvements and to make change happen.
Jodi KatzI love that you're tackling this as a system challenge because it's not just like one brand has a wipe, there's a whole system of manufacturing and sourcing behind that wipe. Like the brand is so little to do it.
Alissa SassoYeah.
Jodi KatzRight? They're just buying it, just like I buy marshmallows in the store, right? They're buying the chemical that activates the wipes. So, what's so interesting is being able to see progress in the Walmart initiative you mentioned. It sounds like this is all in service to the consumer, which is really the way that we think about marketing these days, right? It's not about my brand or my retail store is about serving the consumer. So, by enacting these policies, you're trying to make it easier for the consumer to navigate the store, navigate what's right for her or him. And I'm curious, I guess that's like seven years that this has been underway with them, does it feel like it takes too long or is action happening faster than you thought? Because this is a big mountain to climb. I'm curious as to know from a milestones perspective, if it's more challenging or been easier than you imagined?
Alissa SassoYeah. I think that's a great question. When the Walmart policy first came out, within a few years, we saw pretty major improvements in, as I mentioned, they had this [inaudible] it's about eight high priority chemicals, saw a major reductions in those chemicals and products. And I think that that is something we see across the board. There're maybe these, we call them like low-hanging fruit chemicals that are top priority to get out of and there are alternatives, it's easy to... Not necessarily easy, but it is possible to remove them, replace them, find other ingredients to use instead. So, I think we see in the beginning you sort of go through and there are some quick, easy changes to make. And I think once you get past that point is where we're definitely seeing things start to get a bit more challenging because you're tackling maybe ingredients that are in there in very small amounts, or maybe there aren't safer alternatives available yet.

So, I think you sort of see, every company goes through this journey where maybe there's some stuff that they can do upfront, and then it's an iterative process. You make those changes, you come back and you say, "What's next?" And I think the more you dig in, the more progress you make. You start getting into places where it is a bit more challenging. I think in my work, what's exciting is that we've been working with Walmart for a long time, but we started working with Sephora a few years ago on their chemicals policy. And so, we're sort of able to start back at that place of like, "Let's set our priorities." Maybe some of the first things they're going to do are easy changes to make. And then we'll start thinking about what's next? Where are you really going to need to dig in and figure out what you want to do here?

And that's also why some of the pre-collaborative work that we do is exciting because all of these companies at some point are going to end up with some of the same challenges and that's going to be hard to make progress there unless you have retailers, brands, ingredient manufacturers, all talking about what's happening there. So, definitely it does... It can get harder the more progress you make. I like working with a lot of different companies because I come in at different places in their journey. And so sometimes we're making those early stages of setting priorities and making changes that are a bit easier to do. And then with other brands, we're really thinking about, "Now you're dealing with the hard stuff. What do you do next?"
Jodi KatzWe spent this whole time talking about goop and juice ingredients, but does EDF tackle packaging and materials waste as well?
Alissa SassoWe definitely, so we think about packaging also actually in terms of ingredients in packaging. I think we're exploring in terms of waste, what our role could be there? But the work that we do on packaging now is really similar to what's actually in the product, what's in the packaging that you're using, because that can be another place where we are exposed to hazardous ingredients. A lot of our work in packaging right now is focused actually on food packaging where I think you could clearly see the ingredients from packaging end up in food. That's a problem. And when we think about clean beauty to us, it does also include what's in your packaging.

Yeah. And that's a really hard area to tackle. I think that's why we've seen the conversation shift there more recently because that is sort of one of those areas where, or maybe you've made some of the early changes in your journey, packaging is going to be a bit harder because it's just not as easy for brands or retailers to know what's in the packaging that they're using. Yeah. So I think the more conversation we have in that space, we'll start on the journey to getting more transparency into what's in our packaging.
Jodi KatzAnd, Alissa with the few minutes we have remaining, can you tell us how brands can have access to some of the published reports that you put out? Because you do share a lot of this from the industry, right?
Alissa SassoYes, we do. One of the things we really like to do is to take what we learned from our work with companies and turn it into reports, best practices, blogs, so that we can share it more broadly than necessarily with the brands that we have time to meet with. You can find us on Twitter @EnvDefenseFund. We have a website as well, business.edf.org is where you can find my work in particular, as well as the Supply Chain Solutions Center which website... That website is supplychain.edf.org. And so that's another place where we put a lot of our safer chemicals, resources and information.
Jodi KatzWell, Alissa, I'm excited as I keep tracking the progress that you're making in the industry. And I'm so grateful to know you and know of EDF now and big things to the Clean Beauty Connect for connecting us together because I love knowing this and I love knowing there's resources and people working hard.
Alissa SassoYeah.
Jodi KatzSo thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us today.
Alissa SassoThank you for your time and for having me on. And I'm really excited that we have this conversation.
Jodi KatzAnd for our listeners, I hope you enjoyed this interview with Alissa. Please subscribe to our series on iTunes and for updates about the show, follow us on Instagram @wherebrainsmeetbeautypodcast.
AnnouncerThanks for listening to Where Brains Meet Beauty® with Jodi Katz. Tune in again for more authentic conversations with beauty leaders.

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