Fragrance. Several years ago, the word would drift past me, hinting that a product’s scent would either be appealing or prompt flashbacks of awkward seventh grade boys dousing themselves in Cool Water. Now it’s much more powerful; it sits defiantly in the face of my scrutiny, representing a major issue facing the cosmetics biz—and in consumer products as a whole.
The problem with fragrance is that due to loose cosmetics regulations, which do little to promote cosmetics safety, fragrance” can contain a number of chemical ingredients, presented ambiguously as this single word. Of those ingredients, many could be among the more 1,300 potentially harmful ones that aren’t allowed in Europe but are used in the U.S., which has banned only about a dozen.
Fortunately, although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to enforce stricter regulations, the natural industry’s self-regulation has had an important impact on honest labeling. Companies that have joined the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics’ Compact for Safe Cosmetics choose to list every single constituent ingredient in their products. They band together in the name of transparency and in the absence of banned ingredients. Brava!
Consumer demand and the transparency movement
Various approaches to transparency have taken shape over the past decade, a result of consumer awareness and a new generation of mission-based brands caring as much about how they’re doing business as the products they sell. There is an awakening, which has given way to major reform and impassioned movements. "It is the consumer who is driving these changes," retailer Val Matta, owner of Natural Food Exchange said. "There is an increasingly awareness that we need to take responsibility for what we choose to consume and that our choices can create big change."
Perhaps the most notable current example of consumer advocacy is the “Right to Know” movement, which gained tremendous momentum for GMO labeling because—as the name simply states—consumers believe they have a right to know what is (and is not) in their products.
Yup. “Big Food” and the corporate cosmetics world are finally listening. With more than 8 in 10 consumers voicing that transparency is very important when buying food and personal care products, I’m not sure they really have a choice. In 2014, Campbell, Kellogg, General Mills and Kraft cut costs and/or lost market share. One reason: “…mounting distrust of so-called Big Food, the large food companies and legacy brands on which millions of consumers have relied on for so long is having a profound impact on the company,” said Campbell CEO Denise Morrison at the Consumer Analyst Group of New York conference.
Is it enough?
Consumer scrutiny around artificial or simply unhealthy ingredients in food products, and chemicals such as triclosan in personal care, have led massive food, beverage and personal care players to start reformulating and even shift their entire corporate practices.
That’s nice, really. But do such efforts represent transparency? Does this reactive approach to our concerns have the power to earn our trust? As Morrison points out, trust is lost. And consumer research that we conducted here at New Hope shows that the dynamics of trust are linked to the size of a company. Of consumers surveyed, 67 percent had a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of trust in small companies; while only 21 percent had that degree of confidence in big businesses.
While any progress and healthy change is positive, it’s going to take more than that to restore faith. I often refer to Johnson & Johnson’s decision to reformulate its No More Tears line when looking at the complexities of mass-market reformulation, or reform. Commendable, yes, yet also distressing to consumers who were suddenly privy to what was lurking in their kids’ products all those years.
In an Atlantic article from June, senior editor James Hamblin, MD, explores the implications of General Mills (which is taking a hit--closing its Pillsbury plant and aiming for $31 million annual savings) removing artificial colors. What this shift doesn’t address, he notes, is the bigger problem of sugar-laden products such as Lucky Charms fueling rates of childhood obesity. “It’s still marshmallows for breakfast.” (Be sure to check out my interview with Hamblin at Expo East). For these companies, is it too late or better late than never? And, are these changes enough?
The heart behind the brand
What I do know is that for me, trust doesn’t come down to big or small. It’s about authenticity, a matter of being truly transparent with everything you do—from how you treat your employees to communicating the quality of every ingredient that makes its way into your product. It’s the difference between being proactive and reactive, between creating an innovative, long-term solution rather than merely acknowledging a problem out of self-interest because profits are down. Big companies can do this. Small companies can do this. But only the ones that really want to do it will do it well.
And what I think is most important in this conversation now is that I’m realizing our desire for transparency isn’t merely about peeling back the layers to reveal the bad but getting to the core mission and heart of a company’s practices. It’s about recognizing the people harvesting crops, the complex and fascinating practices that make your supplements safe and effective, the beautiful natural ingredients that are in that nontoxic beauty product. Transparency doesn’t need to be a grand reveal of poor practices; it can be a celebration of the progress we’re making towards a cleaner, safer, healthier environment supported by awesome, innovative, heartfelt brands. Yes, I said it, BRANDS CAN HAVE A HEART, PEOPLE!!
Transparency in action
These issues come across my desk (and my mind and my shopping cart) regularly. But I am giving them particular thought now as we launch Transparency In Action—an exclusive package of content dedicated to digging into what we believe are the most important issues shaping the natural products industry: transparency and traceability. In this e-guide, we explore the consumer demand at the root of these changes, the approaches to better business practices that are reshaping the consumer packaged goods world and the retailer policies that are encouraging a new model of commerce.
Please take a moment to download this e-guide because, I promise you, it matters. And, better yet, take another moment to share your thoughts about transparency. Do you know a person or a company or an organization doing it well? Are you doing it well? Post in the comments or tweet us using the hashtag #TransparencyInAction.