Is Synthetic Biology Genetic Engineering? Either Way, it’s In Your ‘Green’ Cleaning Products


“Green” cleaning products imply both green and clean ingredients–nothing harmful or artificial. But some companies are using technology that borders on genetic modification.

In a recent New York Times article, Stephanie Strom interviewed Ecover’s Tom Domen, the company’s manager for long-term innovation. Ecover is one of the leading brands of green cleaning products, which have been widely available in natural food stores and supermarkets nationwide for decades. Ecover also owns the Method brand of cleaning products.

But Ecover might not be as green as you think; synthetic biology, an offshoot of genetic modification, plays a key role in replacing palm oil in some of the brand’s green cleaning products. Palm oil is an ingredient in so many cleaning products (as well as foods) that environmentalists are concerned that “tropical rain forests are being felled to grow palm trees, disturbing ecosystems and threatening endangered animals,” reports Strom.

It’s hardly sustainable to use palm oil in a cleaning product unless, like Dr. Bronner’s, the company is able to source from committed sustainable palm producers. There’s a growing demand for sustainable palm oil, but it’s exceeding current supplies.

So, some companies are turning to oil derived from an algae that without the genetic modification, would not produce as much oil as it does now.

According to Mr. Domen, “finding a sustainable source of palm oil is, of course, difficult,” he told the Times, which is why the company is now using synthetically developed algae oil. “This new oil is a more sustainable alternative from a new technology.”

But calling a genetically modified product sustainable also rubs environmentalists the wrong way. While environmental and consumer advocacy groups are applauding the move away from palm oil, they’re calling on companies including Ecover to also steer clear of genetic engineering.

Strom reports that Unilever has also adopted synthetic biology for use in its Lux soap, but “in an illustration of how reluctant companies may be to disclose the use of synthetic biology, it is unclear whether the oil in Lux was generated through the same synthetic process. Unilever declined to comment,” she wrote.

Solazyme, the company supplying both Unilever and Ecover, recently removed the term “synthetic biology” from its website. “We use both natural strains, classic breeding, and strain selection, along with the tools of modern biotechnology, to produce a wide variety of oils and ingredients,” Genet Garamendi, a spokeswoman for Solazyme, wrote in an email to the Times.

A critical ingredient in some malaria drugs, artemisinin, is a byproduct of an altered yeast. Solazyme sells a line of cosmetics in Nordstrom and Sephora made from its algae oil.

Martek Biosciences Corporation, came under fire for its DHA oil, which is made from a strain of algae that was genetically modified “through induced mutations with the use of radiation and/or harsh chemicals,” reports the Cornucopia Institute. The DHA oil is widely used in baby formula, including popular organic options.

Synthetic biology may not be genetic modification in the sense we’re used to though. Algae are grown in closed environments (many prefer the dark). So there aren’t the same environmental risks as, say, growing GE corn in an open field. Nor do these algae require heavy applications of pesticides. But the nascent technology still leaves many consumers with questions about its safety. At the very least, they argue, companies should disclose the use of synthetic biology, particularly when claiming to be a natural product.

Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Related on EcoSalon

5 Homemade Cleaners: DIY Green Cleaning on the Cheap

Stop the Presses, A Green Cleaning Line That Actually Works!

11 Household Items You Can Use for Cleaning (& Greening) Your Home

Image: Simon Grieg Photo

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites and, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better.