By  on May 18, 2007

MARINA DEL REY, Calif. — The Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability Conference here this week was a vivid example of the green movement crossing the tipping point: It was sold out for the first time and nearly 80 percent of the 650 attendees were newcomers.

The burgeoning interest has natural personal care brands coping with an onslaught of mainstream companies courting its consumers and crowding the market with products containing a variety of ingredients — natural, organic or otherwise. As the market booms, longtime natural personal care players are asking: How do consumers distinguish truly natural products from those masquerading as such?

Last week, Michael Indursky, chief marketing and strategy officer of $250 million natural personal care company Burt's Bees, told WWD that he would present to LOHAS attendees an initiative to regulate the $1.8 billion U.S. industry. At the conference, he was busy explaining to competitors and retailers the initial regulatory step would be defining the term "natural."

"Consumers are confused. The trend in naturals is growing at a positively alarming rate, competitors are coming out with products they say are natural that aren't," said Indursky. "We really felt that Burt's Bees, as a leader in natural personal care, has a responsibility to say, 'Just stop.' We need to help inform people, educate them and then solve the problem for them by setting the standard of what natural is and what natural isn't."

To meet the standard, products labeled as natural would have to be made with at least 95 percent natural ingredients, none suspected of posing risks to human health, and be manufactured in a manner that doesn't contaminate natural compounds. Indursky is meeting today with the Natural Products Association, a Washington-based organization to discuss natural manufacturing processes.

Reaction at LOHAS to Indursky's proposal was mixed. Kathi Lentzsch, chief executive officer and president of Elephant Pharm, a three-unit pharmacy based in Berkeley, Calif., applauded efforts to bring clarity to a natural personal care industry that can confound even the most educated shopper.

"Our challenge right now is that 'natural' is used on a lot of different products and how much of a product is natural varies greatly from product to product. It is difficult to represent that well to a customer," she said. "We want to be credible, so it would benefit everybody if there was a consistent definition."Others argued the proposed natural standard does not aim at the right target. Susan Griffin Black, co-ceo of EO in Corte Madera, Calif., which sells essential oils-based products to Whole Foods, Wild Oats, Elephant Pharm and Pharmaca, insisted regulation is necessary, but that regulation should center around organic — not natural — labeling.

"I don't think it [the word 'natural'] has much meaning for consumers. Herbal Essences can say that they are natural now. So, more important, is the standard for organic," she said. "Organic agriculture is something you can get a hold of and is sustainable. By having those standards be actualized in personal care, even though it is inconvenient, it is definitely directional and meaningful."

To Eli Halliwell, president and ceo of Australian skin care company Jurlique, the entire debate over natural and organic definitions is misplaced. Because those words are "so amorphous" and barely "mean anything to anybody anymore," he said, government regulators remain the only real authority in specifying what ingredients are considered unsafe.

"The government has a responsibility to protect consumers from negative impacts," he said. "You could say something like parabens cannot be used anymore. That would be easier to legislate than trying to define exactly what it means to be an organic [or natural] company."

Spas are not yet having the same debate over what constitutes an eco-spa, a relatively new concept in the burgeoning, nearly $10 billion domestic spa industry. But Jim Root, chairman of the International Spa Association and general manager of spa operations at Sea Island Resorts, prodded LOHAS attendees to open a dialogue about the role of spas in the sustainable marketplace. Last year, ISPA began a partnership with LOHAS and unveiled a pavilion at the conference with about 10 exhibitors, including Rancho La Puerta, Jane Iredale, Erbaviva and SpaRitual.

"The LOHAS consumer and the spa consumer are the same person, but those two universes have existed side by side practically speaking," Root said. "Our spa community doesn't really know about the LOHAS community to the extent that it could and the LOHAS community doesn't know about the spa community."

Celeste Hilling, founder of skin care company Skin Authority, pointed out one overlap between LOHAS consumption preferences and spagoers: a willingness to pay a premium for desired products and services. Steve French and Gwynne Roberts, both of the Natural Marketing Institute, told attendees in a session Tuesday that LOHAS consumers are insensitive to price when it comes to goods that fit their lifestyle goals."If you don't create a value proposition, then people just judge on price," said Hilling. "Without telling your message, it is hard. There is a story there and, in the [spa] industry, where you can sell a massage for $700 on a cruise ship, people are wiling to pay if the experience is there."

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