Sunday, February 16, 2014

Colgate-Palmolive: Triclosan (2011)

Colgate-Palmolive logo

In January 2011, Colgate-Palmolive decided to make a controversial decision to take triclosan, a chemical with antibacterial properties, out of most of their products after it was found that it may have adverse effects on human health and the environment. However, it still remains in one of their most important products, Colgate Total toothpaste. This decision was largely based on a year’s worth public pressure from a federal petition, numerous published studies, and increased consumer awareness yet still having a desire to keep their patented product on top. Beginning in 2010, the Food and Drug Administration teamed up with the Environmental Protection Agency to run many rigorous tests on this chemical based upon the growing studies and evidence proving its lethality to humans and the environment. While their tests was found to be inconclusive, many scientific studies have come out since the last time FDA reviewed this ingredient that merit further review. Simply reviewing this product was enough to create a firestorm of public attention though. A petition to ban triclosan was created by Beyond Pesticides and Food and Water Watch and over 80 environmental and public health groups. “[In this petition they] cited triclosan’s violation of numerous federal statues, as well as the increasing scientific data on triclosan’s hormone disrupting effects and long-term environmental contamination,” (Beyond Pesticides, 2011). While after this attention, most companies decided to completely remove this chemical from their products, Colgate-Palmolive decided to remove it from all but their top selling product, Colgate Total. In 1997, Colgate-Palmolive received special FDA approval for its use of the chemical in a patented formula for Colgate Total to prevent gingivitis, a common form of gum disease. “Due to this, Colgate Total rose above competitors to become the top-selling product, and today it remains a big contributor to Colgate’s worldwide 44.4% share of the global toothpaste market and its 35.6% slice of the U.S. market, according to company filings this year. At the beginning of last year, Colgate announced that among its toothpaste varieties, the Colgate Total brand by itself had 16% of the overall market in North America,” (Stabile, 2010). The large ethical issue here is: Is Colgate-Palmolive ignoring its corporate-social responsibility to its customers and environment by keeping this chemical in its most popular product? Let us compare their decision with the various ethical theories, to determine whether or not they made the correct ethic decision.

Colgate Total Advanced Whitening toothpaste

Individualism, or Friedman’s economic theory, stated “The only goal of business is to profit, so the only obligation that the business person has is to maximize profit for the owner or the stockholders,” (Salazar, 2014). Essentially the ultimate goal of a company is to maximize their profits in any way possible. Although, the direct goal of profiting does not need to be aimed directly at it and can be directed at more indirect goals that may not necessarily support it. What this means is that businesses can have other goals that may or may not be directly tied to profiting, but can help profit maximizing in some way. In this case, Colgate-Palmolive’s decision to keep triclosan in their Colgate Total was the ethically right decision to make. The best way to continue their market dominance and profit maximization would be to keep this chemical in because it makes their formula work so well and gets great results. This means happy customers which ultimately mean more sales. While one would think that the petition and negative public attention of the chemical would take away from their profitability (because people would not want to purchase it), this is not the case. The media attention has died down greatly surrounding this controversy, and Colgate-Palmolive has taken great measures to make sure that any customers who still have concerns can go to their FAQ pages to “see the facts”. (For more information visit: Thus, based on Individualism and Freidman’s economic theory, Colgate-Palmolive made the correct decision in keeping this chemical in their product because it lets them continue with their successful formula that produces a large percentage of profits.

Ian Cook, CEO of Colgate-Palmolive

Utilitarianism states, “Happiness or pleasure is the only things of intrinsic value. We ought to bring about happiness and pleasure in all beings capable of feeling it (and do so impartially). This is because if happiness is valuable, there is no difference morally-speaking between my happiness and yours,” (Salazar, 2014). This means that the correct decision is one that brings the most happiness to the greatest amount of people since there is no difference between two people’s happiness. You want to help the greatest number of people. This means that based on what the scientific studies have proven, Colgate-Palmolive made the wrong decision on keeping triclosan. In these studies, triclosan was proven “to alter hormone regulation in humans, animals, and plants and contributes to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics,” (FDA, 2013). If this is true, then continuing the use of this product would harm more people than it would help. Destroying the ability to regulate hormones is far worse than having the whitest teeth (unless you are talking to someone who is extremely vain). This means that by keeping in this product, Colgate-Palmolive is ignoring the affects it could have on their customers and their environment and ultimately themselves. This risk to society certainly outweighs the benefit it may have to others because of the domino effect it would create with the risks it poses to our health and the environmental health (more and more people getting affected, the environment then being affected, those effects then altering the environment and others, thus causing even greater effects on society as a whole). Ultimately, when looking from a Utilitarian standpoint, Colgate-Palmolive made the wrong decision in keeping triclosan in their formula because of the harmful negative affects it would have on a much greater number of people than the positive cosmetic affects it has on a much smaller number of people.

According to Kantianism, “You should act rationally – don’t act inconsistently in your own actions or consider yourself exempt from rules. Also, allow and help people to make rational decisions. Next, respect people, their autonomy, and individual needs and differences. Lastly, you should be motivated by Good Will, seeking to do what is right because it is right,” (Salazar, 2014). Essentially you should allow others to make their own rational decisions but help them to make the morally right decision by respecting their diversity and individual needs. In this context, Colgate-Palmolive did not make the worst decision, but could have made one much better. While they did inform their customers (on their website) about the FDA studies done on the product in order to help them, they did so biasedly, which did not allow for the customer to make a rational and ultimately morally good decision. In order to act more under Kantianism, they should have talked more about both sides of triclosan and the scientific studies that proved the dangers of the chemical. That way, the customer can make the most rational decision, based on their own beliefs. Another side of Kantianism that Colgate-Palmolive did not follow is being motivated by Good Will and seeking to do what is right because it’s right. If they did this, then they would have taken the chemical out of their product, knowing that it’s the right thing to do. If there is any danger to society or any risk with their product, than it is automatically the right thing to do by taking out the risk in the product, in order to protect their customers. While it may seem as an overreaction, it is the right thing to do because as the adage says, “it’s better to be safe than sorry.” Ultimately, while Colgate-Palmolive did not choose the worst decision under Kantianism, they did not follow the principles of it, and thus made the ethically wrong decision.
Some popular Colgate-Palmolive products
Virtue Theory
Lastly, according to Virtue Theory, “There are certainly virtuous traits in business that those in business should follow: Courage, or having risk-taking and willingness to take a stand for the right ideas and actions; Honesty, or in agreements, hiring and treatment of employees, customers and other companies; Temperance, or reasonable expectations and desires; Justice, or hard work, quality products, good ideas, fair practices.” Essentially, people should behave virtuously or should be inherently good because they want to get better in life or fulfil their purpose in life. So in business, this means they are improving and fulfilling their purpose in a good and virtuous way. In this context, Colgate-Palmolive is not behaving in a virtuous way because they should be having the courage, honest, and justice to just drop triclosan. They should have the courage to drop the chemical because they would be the first company to drop the chemical and take a stand against its potential harmful effects. Also, they should have the honesty with their customers about its real danger and let them decide whether or not they should keep the chemical. Plus, they should have the justice to put out a quality product that is not harmful to its customers or environment, which makes for fair and good practices. Instead, they are more concerned with keeping their most profiting product which falls more along the lines of a vice, most likely greed. Ultimately, Colgate-Palmolive are not acting ethically according to Virtue Theory because instead of behaving virtuously in order to make their company better, they are acting on their vices to gain more profit and keep their market dominance.

In conclusion, according to most theories, Colgate-Palmolive did not make the ethical choice by keeping triclosan in their most popular product, Colgate Total, and only further research and time will tell if this decision will come back to ultimately harm the company.


Beyond Pesticides Daily News Blog: Under Growing Market Pressure, Company Pulls Triclosan from Products. (2011, January 10). Beyond Pesticides . Retrieved February 15, 2014, from

Salazar, H. (Director) (2014, February 15). Business Ethics Lectures Weeks 2-4. PH 211-54 Business Ethics. Lecture conducted from Western New England University, Springfield.

Stabile, T. (2010, December 21). Controversial Chemical Poses Challenge for Colgate-Palmolive. Business Ethics RSS. Retrieved February 15, 2014, from

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2013, November 25). Triclosan: What Consumers Should Know. Retrieved February 15, 2014, from consumerupdates/ucm205999.htm


  1. Great post Max! I really like your use of quotes in order to support your case through the lense of each ethical theory. I actually never heard of this chemical before and I am glad to say I used "Crest" toothpaste and not "Colgate," and now I don't plan on switching! I agree with just about every point you have made throughout this post; however, I have to partially disagree with profit being the only motive in Friedman's economic theory because he is quoted in the book as saying companies should not only act in accordance to the law, but also ethical custom. With this being said, I feel that through the eyes of Friedman they may have made a decent choice by keeping it, but a better choice would be finding an alternative chemical or substance to use; keeping up the profits, while removing the harmful substance. The only suggestion for improvement I have is maybe a little more information about the economic theories; whether it is extending upon the most popular belief (i.e Friedman's profit maximization), or explaining it a little more as if people not in this claass were reading it. Overall great post!

  2. This is an informative post. I like that most of the points that are made or expressed also provide references. These references provide backing for Max's opinions and analysis. Most of the facts I learned in this report were new to me, for I had never heard of the Tricloson drug before. My favorite part of the post is at the end of the introduction, after the case was explained. Max used a question, "The large ethical issue here is: Is Colgate-Palmolive ignoring its corporate-social responsibility to its customers and environment by keeping this chemical in its most popular product?" to make readers think about their opinions on the main issue of the case before explaining the case in terms of the different ethical theories. Another important inclusion is the link to view hard facts about the Triclosan chemical and its various affects. Knowing the effects enrich a reader's understanding when the case is analyzed in terms of the different theories. One recommendation I have is to avoid using the phrase "this means" so often in your analysis because it is slightly repetitive and noticeable, which may distract the reader from the actual content being presented, although a previously stated idea is being further developed. Overall a well-crafted post with nice images.