Daily Footprint, #3 – Razor

Okay, now that you’ve bushed your teeth perhaps it’s time to shave some part of your body. Possibly the best intro to the razor business is the Onion’s 2004 article, Fuck Everything, We’re Doing Five Blades. Just a year after the article was published Gillette really did release a five blade razor, the Fusion. Before that, us lowly earthlings were making do with 3 or 4-blade razors, although some of these, like the M3 Power did have the completely unnecessary bonus of being battery-operated.

The first ad wasn’t very clear on what happens (it was a bit too fixated on the sheer genius of the fast car metaphor) – this second ad shows how the razor actually contains a battery so that, when you really need a close shave (you’re going to pick up your Manly Man of the Year Award at the Men’s Institute) you can press the tiny button on the handle that causes micropulses so that each hair is lifted a little bit before it’s shorn.

What a strange way to be woken up! It’s possible that the development of a battery-operated disposable razor was a tad influenced by the fact that Gillette owned Duracell at the time (both were later swallowed by P&G, at around the time of the spawning of the 5-blade Fusion). However, a Connecticut judge found that the technology of battery-powered micropulses raising hair is pretty much a fantasy.

Judge Janet C. Hall of the United States District Court, District of Connecticut, yesterday granted Schick a preliminary injunction against false advertising claims by Gillette for its M3Power razor. Judge Hall determined that Gillette’s claim that the M3Power raises hair up and away from the skin is both “unsubstantiated and inaccurate.” The court found that that the product demonstrations in Gillette’s advertising are “greatly exaggerated” and “literally false.”

Low-impact shaving options?

Putting together some of the things covered in the last two posts on toothpaste and toothbrushes, here are some considerations to start with:

  1. What are the alternative options to disposable razors? This article describes the most common options like the somewhat daunting but totally hip straight razor or the classic safety razor (with those thin, double sided replaceable blades).
  2. Is the product sufficient for the task or does it use more material than necessary?
  3. What’s the packaging like? Is there an unnecessary amount of plastic? Is the cardboard sustainable? And the printing inks?
  4. What’s the company’s policy on animal testing?
  5. What are the broader impacts of the company, from environmental issues like materials, greenhouse gases, water, and waste, to social issues such as treatment of the workforce, philanthropy (or villainy), market manipulation, tax evasion, etc.

Gillette controls around 70% of the global disposable razor market, so it seems appropriate to take them as an example and briefly go into a few of the points above. They make razors that are completely disposable as well as disposable heads to go on a reusable handle; most would agree that the latter is the better of these two options in terms of impact. Many of their products are over-engineered and have excessive packaging but interestingly their 2-blade head from 1993, the Gillette Sensor Excel, has a following who believe they are as good as or better than the newer 4 or 5-blade heads. They’ve phased out PVC for their razor trays but the fact that they used it until recently is concerning. Gillette is owned by P&G, who have a poor record on animal testing. Gillette was among several companies (Unilver, P&G, Colgate-Palmolive, L’Oreal) collectively fined almost $1 billion in 2014 for price-fixing.

Commercial directors and other sales officials from the companies involved met “regularly and in secret” to co-ordinate price hikes.

I’ll stop there for the sake of brevity. I’ve posted reviews of the blades I used to use, Gillette Sensor Excel, and the blades I replaced them with, made by Preserve, who I discussed a little in the post on toothbrushes. I thought they both worked very well so they both got 5/5 gold stars. For social and environmental impact, I rated the Preserve product three green stars higher than the Gillette product.

It ain’t what you do (it’s the way that you do it)

I don’t know if these words of wisdom are always true but they do apply to shaving. Sometimes the way you use a product can make as large a difference as which product you choose in the first place. I noticed that several reviewers were using the same disposable razor as mine but reporting that it only lasted for a few shaves. The main reason why razor blades become dull is oxidation (or rusting) – the reaction that takes place between metal (iron), oxygen and water. Taking the simple precaution of blotting your razor dry after you use it (shake it off and then blot onto a towel) can extend the life of each blade by a huge degree. Sharing this information in a review will probably result in one or more people changing their habits and saving blades – and ultimately the impact of sharing the information can be greater than your own personal footprint. Similarly, sharing the tip that Preserve blades fit onto Gillette Sensor handles can save people from having to buy new handles. In these little ways, social change can come about through sharing information in reviews.

Disposable versus electric

How long each razor lasts will also influence a decision on whether to stick with disposables or buy an electric razor. A Slate article attempts to calculate the carbon footprint of shaving with a disposable blade versus an electric razor.  In the end they conclude that electric shaver wins because the largest energy input is heating water to shave with a disposable, but that either way the energy used is not very significant compared to driving or lighting your home. Since the energy impact is low then a better priority might be waste minimization – perhaps leading to a different winner. By blotting blades dry after use, I’ll only go through 15 disposable blades in 5 years, an optimistic life span for a modern electric shaver. Those 15 blade heads would likely have a lower material impact than the electric razor. Of course you could always forgo both of these and learn to use a straight razor – or not shave at all!

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