In 1943 a family-owned soap company named Valley was born.
Over the years, the soap experienced different variations, but ultimately remained a natural soap company from its inception. In 2009, when the recession bruised the economy, several investors, including the Breazeale family of Valley, joined forces, founded Vanguard Soap and started making bar soap.
“We did really well with that and grew fast and then were able to buy the rest of the businesses on the site,” said Mark Pritchard, an expatriate who has worked in sales at Vanguard for the past 11 years, and prior to that was at Twincraft Soap in Vermont. “So it is sort of one big family-owned company now, with a few minority investors. Vanguard is also a third-generation family business, and will probably be a fourth-generation business.”
Vanguard makes its own soap base, bar soaps and liquid soaps on the premises of their Memphis, Tennessee plant. The soap is considered industrial soap because it is not directly sold to the consumer, rather to a company. On any given day, rail cars deliver various oils — coconut, sustainable palm, olive — to the plant, soaps are created and orders are filled to several companies, including Public Goods.
In Europe an alarming 1,300 ingredients — including parabens, formaldehyde, titanium and talc — have been banned from use in personal care products by the EU Cosmetics Regulation. Across the Atlantic in America, the FDA has only banned 11 of these controversial substances. Without strict regulations, the cosmetic industry has free reign over what it decides to put in its products. It becomes the responsibility of consumers to be both observant and vigilant when reading labels of soaps, shampoos, deodorants and lotions.
“A lot of bad stuff just doesn’t exist on the plant at all,” Pritchard said. For example, sodium lauryl sulfate [SLS], which is a major ingredient in various personal care products, will not be found on site at Vanguard. The company also doesn’t use any alcohols or butanes.
Find peace of mind with Public Goods’ personal care products. The back of the packaging of our bar soap reads “healthy ingredients with nothing to hide,” along with a chart indicating that the soap is paraben-free, vegan-friendly, sulfate-free, gluten-free, naturally-fragranced and cruelty-free.
These qualities all contribute to sustainable methods, but some may be alarmed to see “palm oil” listed on the packaging. Palm oil is used in a wide variety of products, either in the kitchen or bathroom — everything from ice cream to soap. But because thousands of acreage of forestland have been razed and people have been displaced to make room for palm oil plantations, it’s not an ideal ingredient for sustainable products.
Pritchard points out, however, that the palm oil used at Vanguard is certified sustainable. He directed me to Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil [RSPO], a not-for-profit organization dedicated to fostering the expansion and utilization of sustainable palm oil products. To become one of the RSPO’s 3,000 members, companies, like Vanguard, must comply with a set of global standards established by the organization.
“Vanguard is licensed, audited and certified by the RSPO to be sustainable,” said Pritchard.
Pritchard explained the process behind making Vanguard’s soap. In a big, open kettle that can hold up to 130 pounds, the ingredients — mainly oils (palm, coconut, vegetable, essential oils) — are poured in, along with a processing agent, like sodium hydroxide. The liquid is then cooked until the oils convert to soap, a term known as saponification. Through this process, all of the glycerin that is in the oils is retained in the soap bars. This infusion gives the soap a hydrating and moisturizing effect.
After having used Public Goods’ bar soap for the past month, my skin is hydrated and nourished. In the past I always avoided using bar soap because it left my skin feeling dry or waxy. I now know this is because leading soap brands sold in supermarkets contain sodium lauryl sulfate [SLS] — among a dozen other harsh chemicals.
Vanguard is a vertical company, meaning they take raw materials and make products solely on the plant. They don’t outsource their oil bases from Europe or the far east, as some companies do, and they don’t make synthetic liquids. They make the entire product, the whole way through, in a vertical manufacturing way. As a result, Vanguard has complete control over its inputs.
“We basically work with natural products and most of the products that Vanguard makes are Whole Foods-approved, either the standard or premium” said Pritchard. “So in our product, you could call it made in the USA from ingredients sourced in the U.S. and overseas.”
“We’re as natural as the customer wants, and we try to push them all in the direction of more natural.”
“Most of our customers are looking for natural fragrances in soap, and if they want something more, there’s essential oils. So we’re as natural as the customer wants, and we try to push them all in the direction of more natural,” Pritchard said.
For instance, Vanguard has produced Kirkland’s (a Cosco company) bar soaps for several years, but over that span Vanguard has been “gradually creeping them towards more natural and the soap is definitely more natural than it was in the past.” With a vegetable base, vegetable dry products and natural fragrances, Kirkland’s soap contributes to a sustainable earth.
This is the way Vanguard works with its customers: gently pushing them to more natural methods and practices when it comes to the products they want to sell. With so much pressure in the market today to lean toward sustainable methods in personal care, it only makes sense for Vanguard to want its customers to move in that direction, too.
“Even Walmart’s more socially responsible these days…and is looking for more natural products [because] their customer base forces them to do so,” Pritchard said.
Producing some 60 million bar and liquid soaps a year, it’s no surprise Vanguard is a leading name in the sustainable personal care department. Another worthy sustainable practice Pritchard pointed out was that no soap from Vanguard’s plant ever reaches the landfill.
“If we have scrap, we process it because we have the industrial kettles on site. If we make a mistake in the plant, say we have bar soap that we can’t ship to a customer, then we just take that soap back to the industrial kettle and cook it up and we make an industrial soap that can be used for laundering. There’s a closed loop when it comes to the soap product.”
Vanguard also tries to recycle all of its packaging, and its employees are constantly looking for ways to improve their efficiency at the plant.
When I asked Pritchard if he had anything he would like to share with Public Goods’ customers, he was frank and communicative.
“Any feedback is great. If there are any open questions your customers have, we are happy to look at them and give you a response. We are here for your customers, so we are responsible to answer their questions as best we can.”
When it comes to sustainability, transparency is necessary.
Download Our Free Guide to Sustainable Living.
From reducing waste to recycling and upcycling, our e-book shows simple ways to make choices you can feel good about.