09/26/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Putting Personal Back in Personal Care

Jeremiah McElwee of Whole Foods Market

Shakespeare famously wrote, "What's in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." But that's not entirely true today. Genetically modified roses often don't have a scent at all.

No one seems more passionate about regulating the rhetoric of skincare than Jeremiah McElwee, the Senior Whole Body Coordinator for Whole Foods Market, who recently helped to launch the company's Premium Body Care standard. As non-profits and government organizations scramble to regulate marketing terms like natural, botanical and organic, Jeremiah and the Whole Foods Quality Standards team took matters into their own hands, creating a rigorous standard that bans over 250 ingredients from their personal care products.

An amazing thing about Jeremiah is that this two year project wasn't just work - for him, it was personal.

For this reason, Face Parlour was thrilled when we had the opportunity to sit down for an exclusive interview with Jeremiah to learn about Whole Food's new labeling initiative and his opinion on the future of the skin care industry, along with his Premium Body Care favorites.

What inspired the Premium Body Care line?
For us, the big thing was that we looked around at the retail landscape and, to be really honest, we didn't see a big difference between the ingredients in our products and other mass retailers.

When we realized this, we asked ourselves, "Are we really delivering on the core values of our company? Are we selling products with integrity?" We were doing our best at the time, but personal care really was like the Wild West... so we decided to raise the bar.

We were motivated by the idea of providing our customers with better alternatives, and we wanted to draw attention to the companies like Dr. Hauschka and others, who were ahead of the curve and really driving change.

I'm interested in learning the source of change. In this case, was it the customers, the product developers, the chemists, the manufacturer or the retailer?
This is one thing that makes us most proud... we didn't start this project because because Jody (Villecco, Whole Foods' Quality Standards Coordinator) or John (Mackey, Whole Foods' long time CEO and Founder) had a good idea. We started this project because our customers, our team members, our communities and our stakeholders demanded it. We think that really speaks to their power. They told us the want more, they want better... and we responded.

We felt really good about reaching out to our vendor or supplier partners to say, "Help us. Help us provide better products for our customers." And a lot of them came on board.

Whole Foods is known for being extremely transparent with its customers. As a Whole Body customer myself, I'm curious... just how rigorous are your Premium Body Care standards?
The reality is that our standards are designed to be a moving target. Although all of our Premium Body Care ingredients are naturally derived, we can't help but ask, "How many times can a natural ingredient be chemical modified before it is no longer natural?"

As technology improves and we learn more, we intend to raise our standards.

Having banned over 250 ingredients, your Premium Body Care standards aren't exactly lenient. So how do you define "natural" products?
Actually, we strategically decided not to use the word natural because it has become ubiquitous... it lost its meaning. We wanted the most honest way of describing this collection of products, and premium captured the idea that these are our best products far better than natural.

Do Premium Body Care products cost more?
Frankly, our Premium Body Care products tend to be more expensive, and the reason comes down to basic economics. Most companies use cheap but not necessarily healthy ingredients, so demand for safer alternatives is relatively low, which often drives the price up.

Europe and Japan adopt the Precautionary Principle, which bans ingredients until they are determined to be safe. In the US, we do the opposite and allow ingredients until they are proven harmful. In creating your list of 250 banned ingredients, which approach did you adopt?
Interestingly, I recently saw a PBS special that talked about this issue. And although we're an American company, we're definitely more in line with the European philosophy.

But admittedly, we get criticized from all sides. Some of our hardcore vendor partners tell us we aren't moving fast enough or doing enough, so we account for all the evidence and all of the opinions and try to find a balance.

In light of the dedication of you and your team, how do you feel seeing so many companies following your lead and creating natural standards of their own?
We're really keen on creating change. So for me, when I see other companies creating standards, my first reaction is, "Great! Let's keep pushing each other and challenging each other."

But admittedly my second reaction... reflective of the skeptical Northeasterner in me... says, "But wait, who's creating these standards and why? What's their motivation?"

Your enthusiasm is incredible. Where does your energy and passion come from?
Well as crazy as it sounds, everyone in the Whole Body department loves... I mean, really loves... personal care products, supplements, the whole bit. It's the same with all of our departments. Our cheese buyer is incredible! She could sit and talk about cheese for hours, and it's fascinating.

So it's really that combination of passionate people focused on maintaining our core values and caring for all of our stakeholders. We're blessed... we're really, really blessed.

So after years of development, Premium Body Care Standard finally launched, and it immediately gained respect and attention throughout the industry. What are your next steps?
We have to constantly think ahead. Packaging and supplements are the next big areas of opportunity. When I think about waste, the scope is just amazing.

In fact, we just held a packaging summit in Austin this week to begin to set firm guidelines around sustainable packaging for Personal Care and Supplements which we hope to unveil Spring 2009. Very exciting!

We agree! That said, you have access to a practically endless array of skincare products meeting some of the highest standards of green packaging and chemistry. So Jeremiah, what are your top picks?
It's funny you ask because I'm using more products now than I have in my entire life, but they tend to be lab samples in white bottles with generic stickers that say something like "Lotion A."

Aside from the science project samples, Aubrey Organics makes the best shaving products. As for skincare, I love Alaffia, and we're all really excited about a new line called Ikove. Ikove is out of Brazil. It's a Whole Foods exclusive. But the best part is that it's chocolate-based, so the textures are incredible... rich... creamy...

Ok, you're making me hungry.
Actually, you could eat it! The line is USDA organic and Eco-Cert certified, so it's edible... and it's truly phenomenal.
Oh, and I have to mention one of my favorite products... Pangea Organic's Adzuki Scrub!

Well, we appreciate these fantastic recommendations... looks like we need to spend some time scouring the Whole Body shelves this weekend! In the meantime, thank you for taking the time to sit down to discuss your new Premium Care Standards and the future of the skin care industry. It's been fascinating.
Of course... thank you.

If you're interested in meeting Jeremiah, we will be in Mill Valley, CA on Saturday, September 13th to accept the Mount Tamalpais Award for his "deep commitment and tremendous work to protect the health and well being of the community." Tickets are available at the Search for the Cause website.