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Defining “Organic”

The beauty industry and regulators are grappling with labeling standards in the face of consumer confusion.

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A. Neal's Yard Remedies Garden Mint & Bergamont Hand Lotion, $25; nyrusa.com B. Weleda Skin Food, $17; usa.weleda.com C. Origins Organics Nourishing Face Lotion, $42.50; Origins counters & stores, origins.com D. Stella McCartney Care Purifying Foaming...

George Chinsee

Though the cosmetics industry is increasingly fond of the words “organic” and “natural,” no standards currently exist for their use on items ranging from shampoos to eye shadows. For the time being, regulations in the U.S. require instead that beauty brands meet organic food guidelines.

If Jaclyn Bowen has her way, that will change—as soon as December. Bowen, a standards specialist at Ann Arbor, Mich.-based NSF International, has been overseeing the development of a U.S. organic beauty standard since 2004, when the beauty industry raised its hands in a collective surrender and approached her agency for guidance.


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NSF, which was at one time an acronym for National Sanitation Foundation, is now simply called NSF. It’s a not-for-profit agency representing a spectrum of U.S. health interests, ranging from water safety to food equipment safety. Bowen says NSF got “lugged in” to the cause because it is a partner of Quality Assurance Institute, a subgroup of the National Organic Program under the USDA, which handles a majority of certifications for organic food products.

Bowen says members from many different beauty companies have had it “up to here” with the lack of regulation for organic beauty items. They are sick of products being touted as organic and natural while using parabens, sulfates and synthetics. They’ve had enough of consumer confusion and enough of not having a government-regulated standard that differentiates organic formulas from concoctions that haven’t evolved within the past decade. Most of all, they’ve had enough of being behind the rest of the world—France, Italy, Germany, Belgium and the United Kingdom, for instance, all of which have had standards in place for years.

“A segment of the industry is not being regulated. Everyone’s putting ‘organic’ on their products because no one is regulating against it,” Bowen says. “As a standards group, we said, ‘Let’s see what we can do to create a level playing field for organic personal care.'”

Products such as Organix hair care and Aveeno Active Naturals that tout a natural or organic positioning but contain sulfates or petrolatum have given organic beauty makers a run for their money, say industry watchers.

Bowen’s prime responsibility in regard to the organic standard effort is to make sure the many different parties involved, each with its own personal definition of organic and natural, reach a consensus on a standard as it relates to organic beauty—and that’s no easy feat.

“Beauty is a dilemma,” says Barbara Newman from the Organic Trade Association. “We made some efforts to develop a standard too, but it was a monumental task. So NSF, which helps drafts standards, said it would be willing to help.”

Members working to draft the new standard include Aubrey Organics (a maker of beauty products that contains organic ingredients), Burt’s Bees (a beauty company that doesn’t use any organic ingredients but also doesn’t use sulfates or parabens), Nature’s Gate (which makes organic items bearing the USDA seal), Aveda (the grandfather of the natural beauty care movement, which uses plant and organic ingredients in its formulas), Whole Foods (a retailer that sells both organic and natural beauty products) and members from the Organic Consumer Association and the OTA. Each company’s representatives frequently meet to help draft the language of the standard. And each company has its own agenda.

Burt’s Bees’ Michael Indursky, for example, is fighting for a standard that will keep certain ingredients out of formulas rather than highlight what must be in a formula. An organic beauty company such as Nature’s Gate, on the other hand, isn’t keen on what it considers lesser standards.

William J. Friedman, an attorney for Covington & Burling LLP in Washington, is on the committee overseeing the standard draft. Friedman, who represents several natural and organic personal care companies, says standards by the National Organic Program should be followed unless there is a good reason to deviate from them. Friedman is referring to the USDA Organic seal that NOP began issuing in October 2005 to beauty companies that meet the strict regulations it imposes on food. Friedman notes, however, that the NOP standards are written for food and therefore, additional processes and substances would need to be considered to facilitate the development of organic personal care products.

“It is not a nefarious attempt to add synthetics to cosmetics. It is an attempt to update a product standard basically written for food to accommodate a different product category,” says Friedman. “In fact, this group has been extremely conservative and thoughtful about the approach it is taking to organic personal care.”

According to Bowen, the stakeholders for the standard are aiming for a December deadline so that a standard can be proposed to the NOP for possible regulation in 2008.

If regulated, items meeting the standard would carry more weight, more bite and possibly their own seal.

“In the U.S. there isn’t consumer confidence in brands. A new company can come into the U.K. and launch by following the Soil Association standards and consumers will trust that very much,” says Amarjit Sahota, director of Organic Monitor in London, a business research company specializing in the natural and organic industries worldwide.

Federal regulation, however, would undoubtedly trigger headlines, and retailers may also need to back it up by displaying items that meet the standard separately from other items. Currently, CVS and Longs drugstores have natural sections for select brands with natural and organic positioning. Walgreens is planning a natural set in the next month for a chunk of its stores, and Target, say manufacturers, is planning a similar set for March 2008. Also, if regulated, items meeting the standard would carry more weight and more bite.

Friedman says that while there are companies that meet organic food-grade standards for their personal care products, there is no doubt that NOP could address personal care products within its regulatory framework.

“There are procedures available to do so and thus personal care-specific standards could be developed,” says Friedman. “The big question is resources. Keeping up with the growth of the organic food market [alone] has been challenging for USDA and the program is strained. Adding a new product category, in an area of little or no expertise for USDA, is obviously going to be a struggle.”

For now, personal care companies that meet the standards for the USDA Organic seal can use it on their packaging. Those standards are as follows: • A “100 percent organic” product is just that.
• A product labeled simply “organic” must be at least 95 percent organic.
• Items labeled “made with organic”must be made with at least 70 percentorganic ingredients.
• Any item that features organic ingredients cannot call itself an organic product but may list the organic ingredients it contains on the back or side of the package.

Meeting the strict organic food guidelines has kept the number of beauty products bearing the USDA organic seal to a minimum.

Gay Timmons, president of OHOH Organic of Los Gatos, Calif., a distributor of organic ingredients to beauty and candy makers, is hoping a set of standards for the personal care sector is developed. “I recently went to a Whole Foods and said, ‘Show me what you have that’s USDA certified organic.’ There were three products that were certified organic out of hundreds of stockkeeping units,” Timmons says. “Shelf-life stability is a huge challenge. Think about how long we keep a product we buy.”

Wording the new standard has been a challenge too, acknowledges Paddy Spence, chief executive officer of Nature’s Gate of Chatsworth, Calif., who is a stakeholder in the effort.

“There are the best of intentions for developing the standard, but it’s difficult to get things done when writing the rules and then debating them burns a lot of time,” he explains. “I have received 500-word e-mails over the [possible] inclusion of one ingredient.”

The operators of saffronrouge.com, a Web site that sells beauty products that are organic or contain organic ingredients, concedes that the U.S. is behind the rest of the world.

“In Europe, there are five different natural and organic certifications. The oldest and one of the most respected is in Germany, the BDIH. The United Kingdom has the Soil Association, which has a natural standard as well as an organic standard. In France there’s EcoCert, which issues two standards. Italy has AIAB, an organic standard in beauty. And Belgium has the Eco Guarantee, which applies to beauty products,” says Jeff Binder, co-founder of the e-commerce site [see chart at left].

Organic Monitor’s Sahota agrees.

“Just like North America, [the UK] doesn’t have official standards set by the government. But we have private standards and that’s where the U.S. is behind,” says Sahota. “It’s like the Wild West where you can bring out anything.”

Since setting up saffronrouge.com five years ago, Binder, along with his wife, Kirstin, have used their own set of standards in terms of what they will sell and what they won’t. And while the company does not make public its “qualifier” list, Kirstin says items must contain organic ingredients, and none of the products can use parabens, petroleum or synthetic preservatives. Sometimes the strict checklist forces her to omit certain items from a single range.

The Binders foresee a big surge in organic beauty sales in 2008, especially with the pending standard. Talk of a U.S. standard, and even a global standard, helps the organic beauty market, say industry watchers.

According to Kline & Co., the global organic and natural beauty market is estimated to be around $5.5 billion for 2007, up 20 percent from 2006. In Europe, where the market is more developed, growth is estimated to be around 12 percent. Skin care products, including facial treatments, sun care and hand and body lotions account for roughly 55 percent of the market, reports Kline & Co., while hair care represents 17 percent and bath and shower gels take up 15 percent.

“The beauty of this whole revolution is that it is consumer driven; and manufacturers are beginning to clue in. This is causing a lot of innovation at the product level,” says Jeff Binder. “There must be an ingredient exclusion list or else none of this is valuable to consumers.”

Ronnie Cummins, the national director for the Organic Consumer Association, an advocacy group, says that having a private standard would at least be a good first step.

“We would like to see if a federal organic standard is possible, but a voluntary industry standard that meets consumers’ expectations is better than having no standard at all,” says Cummins.