top of page

December 2020

Safe or Suspect?

If we ask someone to choose between two products, identical in all respects except one is safer, chances are most people would choose the safer product. That is the rational choice. However, we believe the demand for safer products comes from a deeper level, and is driven by behaviors tied to survival.

We instinctively stay away from things that may harm us. For example, we don’t eat wild mushrooms and berries unless we know they are safe, we don’t pet animals we don’t know, we don’t go out at night in places we are not familiar with. We have a “circle of trust”, and unfamiliar beings or things get admission to it, or gain our trust, gradually, as we get to know them. Humans have lots of rituals for this, including dating and letters of recommendation.

Before the industrial revolution things made by people were generally safe and most materials used were natural materials, such as wood, clay, or natural fibers. The industrial revolution unleashed our ability to make new materials and chemistries such as dyes, medicines, and plastics, and brought to the world an outstanding number of new molecules. Some of these chemistries and materials turned out to be potentially harmful.

Most of the new materials were “grandfathered” into our circle of trust, allowed in without much examination in the first 100 years of the industrial revolution. Stuff made by people was thought of as safe, and there was an assumption that products that are not ingested do not enter our bodies. A combination of environmental tragedies and developing public health science brought safety and environmental considerations into public awareness only in the second part of the 20th century. Chemistry did bring us better living, but created some problems too. We have been working to uncover and fix them, as science, regulations, and public awareness continue to improve.

When people become aware that some of their everyday products may be harmful, these products may suddenly appear to them in a new light. The old survival instincts may kick in and toss products out of the circle of trust, to be readmitted only upon presenting adequate credentials and information. The “burden of proof” for safety shifts to products and the trust people have in many brands may be eroded.

Brands and retailers are in the business of building trust, and increasingly this includes addressing issues of chemicals and materials in their products. In an effort to build or rebuild trust and differentiate, brands and retailers adopt lists of chemicals of concern, reformulate or redesign products or packaging to use better materials, implement transparency standards, seek labels and certifications, manage their suppliers tighter, test new circular business models, and communicate more on their impact and actions. The race to deliver safer products has been on for a while, and entire product categories are being reshuffled.

Human made chemicals and materials, including the potentially harmful ones, are now embedded into our economy and our lives, some of them are big volume, cheap materials, others are essential to delivering certain unique functions or processes, and they usually work well. It is not easy to find alternatives for them, but every day we see more innovators, investors, and companies working to bring safer alternatives to market.

Safer Made Report Card

Over the last 12 months we saw 113 new companies developing safer products and technologies. The number of new opportunities we see every year has stayed in the 100 to 150 range since we started counting in 2017. It is not a big number, but it is a healthy pipeline. To put this in perspective Money Tree reports 5,788 venture capital deals closed in the US in the last 12 months. The most active sectors in our pipeline remain packaging, personal care, and apparel. Within packaging the focus of innovation is on removing or reducing the use of plastic. In personal care the most active innovation areas are safer ingredients and the microbiome. In textiles we see new fiber and leather materials, and safer finishing technologies. In 2020 we also saw a larger than usual number of safer antimicrobial solutions.

Sunscreen Active Ingredients and COVID

In late March the federal government passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES). In addition to economic relief, the act also included provisions to accelerate the update of FDA’s Sunscreen Monograph. The Monograph governs sunscreen products in the US and currently allows 16 active ingredients, of which 8 are in widespread use. The Monograph has not changed much in the last 10 years, while other parts of the world have adopted new active ingredients. For example the UV filters Bisoctrizole and Bemotrizinol have been used in Europe and other countries since 2000. Manufacturers claim that some of these products are more effective UV-blockers, while they are still safe. The CARES act directs the agency to set forth rules for the evaluation of new active ingredients, especially ingredients that have been safely used in other countries. The FDA is directed to update the Monograph by September 2021, making it possible for us to see products with new active ingredients by 2022.


Childhood Cancer Prevention

The American Sustainable Business Council and Cancer Free Economy Network partnered to publish a report that lays out the connection between childhood cancer and chemicals of concern, and how shifts to safer chemistry may prevent childhood cancers.


Our colleagues at Evolv Ventures published an article on the sustainable packaging investment opportunity. Opportunity areas they highlight include additives and designs that improve the performance of fiber materials, bio-based / biodegradable materials compatible with current manufacturing infrastructure, and manufacturing and design innovations that provide a better consumer experience while avoiding harmful materials. Another recent report from McKinsey highlights the increased consumer demand for better packaging, and also shows a reluctance from brands and consumers to pay significantly more for it.


  • Agragene, a company developing synthetic biology alternatives to chemical pesticides, raised $4 million.

  • Allbirds, an apparel and footwear company focused on natural materials, raised $100 million.

  • Apeel Sciences, developer of food-based coatings to extend produce freshness, raised $30 million.

  • Benson Hill, a biotech company enhancing the nutritional qualities and sustainability of commodity food crops, raised $150 million.

  • Brightseed, a company that aims to identify the presence of specific nutrients in plants that are believed to boost human health, has raised $27 million.

  • Checkerspot, a biomaterials company that also make some great skis, raised $36 million.

  • Cloud Paper, maker of bamboo-based toilet paper, raised $3 million.

  • DYPER, maker of bamboo-based diapers that it sells on a subscription basis, raised $20 million.

  • Everlane, a fashion brand that targets the ethically minded with minimalist basics, raised $85 million.

  • Everlywell, a company that sells Covid-19 home-testing kits, is raising an undisclosed amount of funding at a $1 billion valuation.

  • Good Buy Gear, an online used clothing marketplace focused on baby and childhood, raised $6 million.

  • Hint, maker of flavored water, raised $25 million.

  • Joywell Foods, a food technology company focused on developing healthy sweeteners, raised $6.9 million.

  • Kaffe Bueno, a company using spent coffee grounds to make functional ingredients, raised €1.1 million.

  • LARQ, a maker of UV self-cleaning water bottles, raised $10 million.

  • Lemon Perfect, a cold-pressed lemon water brand, has raised $6.6 million.

  • Ma Bonne Etoile, a French food-tech startup creating zero waste reusable products, raised €1.8 million.

  • MycoWorks, a company that produces a mushroom-based leather alternative, raised $45 million.

  • Natural Fiber Welding, a company developing plant-based alternatives to leather and plastics, raised $13 million.

  • Newlight Technologies, a maker of PHA based plastics, raised $45 million.

  • R-Zero, a company that aims to reduce the spread of infectious disease using ultraviolet devices, raised $15 million.

  • Smol, maker of eco-friendly, direct-to-consumer laundry capsules and dishwasher tablets, raised £8 million.

  • Turing Labs, software company focused on helping formulators make new products more efficiently, raised $1.75 million.

  • Zymergen, a synthetic biology company with diverse applications, from polymers to pesticides, raised $300 million.

Acquisitions and IPOs

  • Croda, a UK based specialty chemicals manufacturer, bought Spanish fragrance and flavor manufacturer Iberchem for $973 million.

  • Mars fully acquired healthy snack maker Kind North America. Terms were not disclosed but news sources indicate the deal valued Kind at around $5 billion.

  • Danimer Scientific, manufacturer of PHA biopolymers, plans to go public in a deal that would value the firm at $890 million.

  • ThredUp, an online retailer for second-hand clothing, filed for an IPO and is in the regulatory review process.

Also noted

Safer Made Friends and Family Holiday Gifts

We see cool products almost every day. Here are a few gift or party supplies ideas.

Some of the personal care and beauty brands we like include: All Good, Symbiome, Ellis Day, PYT, Kari Gran, Loli Beauty, and Ilia. For more options visit Credo Beauty. If you are shopping for beauty products online consider using Clearya, a free browser plug-in that shows ingredient safety information right on the Amazon of Sephora pages.

The Pangaia is a new kind of apparel brand, with materials innovation as its core identity.

Force of Nature is a beautiful small appliance that makes a powerful and safe surface cleaner and sanitizer. Yes, it is on EPA’s List N for COVID. If you need extra spray bottles and some pumps check out Ecologic's reusable bottles, just out.

Last Object make reusable designer swabs, handkerchiefs and makeup rounds.

Will there be any skiing this year? We don’t know. However, WNDR-Alpine make the only skis that use green chemistry. Powered by Checkerspot.

Finally, let’s not forget Repurpose cups and plates, good even for very small parties.


Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
No tags yet.
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page