RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The company Tom's of Maine has a crunchy reputation. Although it's owned by the global conglomerate Colgate-Palmolive, Tom's of Maine markets itself to consumers who care about things like green energy. So some time ago, Tom's set an ambitious goal for itself - to try to get fossil fuels out of its products like deodorant. And soon the company discovered that it was harder to make an effective deodorant for the hottest months of summer. Noel King from our Planet Money podcast has the story.
NOEL KING, BYLINE: In the early '90s, Pam Scheeler was working as a chemist for Tom's.
PAM SCHEELER: My very first project was our children's toothpaste.
KING: (Laughter) What flavor was it?
SCHEELER: Silly strawberry.
KING: One day, she was in a meeting with Tom Chappell, the company's co-founder. He's now retired. He gave her an assignment - try to make deodorant that was free of fossil fuels. Pam got to work. The ingredient she needed to swap out is called propylene glycol. It's derived from natural gas. Pam tried to replace it with a natural glycerin made from coconut oil. She tinkered around in the lab in Maine.
SCHEELER: We played around with the amount of glycerin the same way you might play around with a recipe, where you'd put more flour in and less flour in and see if, you know, your cookies got too crunchy or that your cookies were too soft and they fell apart.
KING: She tried hundreds of recipes.
SCHEELER: I had a graph paper-lined, brown-cover notebook that I listed every experimental batch in. I can't even tell you how many iterations I made, but I filled many, many, many pages.
KING: It took about two years of experimentation, but Pam finally hit on the right formula. The deodorant wasn't too hard or too soft or too crumbly. Tom sent it out to a small test group.
SCHEELER: They basically told us they loved the product.
KING: The new deodorant hit stores in 1993. And right away, Tom's started getting angry letters from customers.
SCHEELER: They undeniably wanted us to bring back their beloved Tom's of Maine deodorant.
SCHEELER: Here was the problem. The test users who loved it were all in New England. The testing had been done in the winter. People using the deodorant in the summer said it didn't work, and it was mushy. Tom's recalled the new deodorant, and Pam went back to the lab. This time, instead of trying to eliminate propylene glycol, she figured maybe she could just replace the fossil fuel-based version. She hit on propylene glycol derived from vegetables like corn and beets, and the replacement worked. The problem was Tom's would need massive amounts of this ingredient, and no company was making it on a large scale.
SCHEELER: We couldn't find someone who could reliably provide us with the purity and the volume of material that we needed.
KING: One of the reasons shampoo and toothpaste and deodorant have ingredients derived from fossil fuels is that those ingredients are really cheap and abundant because oil and natural gas are cheap and abundant. Tom's could've used the replacement, but that would have made the deodorant really, really expensive for customers.
SCHEELER: The cost would be so prohibitive that the product that you would be able to offer that uses that one very expensive ingredient, would price it out of the market.
KING: It took Tom's nearly 20 years to finally find a supplier that could make a plant-derived propylene glycol to scale and cheaply enough. As of 2015, Tom's deodorant was fossil fuel free - or almost. Pam points out the deodorant comes in a plastic container, and plastic still has ingredients that are derived from fossil fuels. Noel King, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.