Organic cosmetics settlement fails to settle organic debate

Organic cosmetics settlement fails to settle organic debate

The first settlement requiring companies to adhere to the California Organic Products Act (COPA) opens up more debate over organic personal care and the future of cosmetics legislation. Which COPA loopholes could nationally increase label confusion?

Six months after California-based environmental group Center for Environmental Health (CEH) filed a lawsuit against cosmetics manufacturers for falsely labeling “organic” products, it has reached a settlement with 11 companies, who have agreed to either reformulate or rebrand to comply with the California Organic Products Act (COPA).

CEH targeted 34 companies, including natural brands Kiss My Face, Pacifica and Organique by Himalaya, for violating COPA, which requires personal care products with "organic" on the front of the package to contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients.

“This is a victory for organic consumers who deserve to get what they pay for when they buy ‘organic’ labeled personal care products,” said Michael Green, executive director of CEH, in a release.

According to the settlement, the first ever under COPA, products manufactured after March 31, 2012 must be in compliance with COPA and older products still on the market must be somehow differentiated, information that will be on CEH’s website.

Based on availability of organic ingredients or ability to maintain efficacy, some companies will reformulate to get organic certification, while others will focus on adjusting branding and packaging, according to Charles Margulis, CEH communications director. 

Is COPA causing confusion in organic personal care?

Natural and organic personal care is the fastest growing segment of the personal care market, reaching about $8.2 billion in 2010, according to Nutrition Business Journal.

But what is organic personal care? Confusion over organic definitions and certifications has continued to “plague the natural personal care market,” leading to industry-wide controversy and consumer confusion, reports market research firm Mintel. 

CEH maintains that COPA will help bring consistency, and hence more clarity, to consumers. David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps filed a similar lawsuit in 2008, targeting some of the same companies as CEG and over the same issue: using "organic" marketing sans USDA certification.

CEH’s hope is that the market in California is large enough for COPA regulations to have effects on cosmetics retail and marketing nationwide.

But some experts point out loopholes that could increase label confusion nationally. In a market that includes products certified to international standards, including Ecocert, Cosmos, and Natrue, in addition USDA and NSF (NSF recently announced it will allow EU certified organic ingredients, which would be in violation of COPA), COPA is narrow and contradictory to other regulations, said Farah Ahmed, associate general counsel at the Personal Care Products Council.  

For example, under COPA, you need an asterisk to identify your organic ingredients, but FDA prohibits asterisks in the ingredient list, Ahmed noted. “This labeling conflict is, obviously, a huge problem.” COPA also is inconsistent with USDA/NOP statements, she said.

According to the USDA:

“[c]osmetics, body care products, and personal care products may be certified to other, private standards and be marketed to those private standards in the United States. These standards might include foreign organic standards, eco-labels, earth friendly, etc. USDA’s NOP does not regulate these labels at this time.”

Some experts like Ahmed argue that allowing more than one credible organic cosmetic standard, including international standards, in the organic cosmetic space is key to innovation and supporting organic farming. "It is critical that any and all 'organic' claims be substantiated, but COPA imposes an inappropriately narrow standard," said Ahmed.

Though some companies did make claims about other organic certifications, "COPA is the legal standard for all cosmetics sold in California," Margulis said.  

Retailer role in personal care standards

In addition to state, federal and other private organic standards, retailers also have developed their own organic requirements. Starting in June 2011, Whole Foods demanded that any product with “organic” claims needed the USDA Organic or NSF/ANSI 305 certification to back them up—similar to COPA, though not legally binding.  

Comparing manufacturers' retail availability, particularly of products sold in Whole Foods, to companies in violation of COPA leads to more contradictions. Ayurvedic personal care company Organique by Himalaya agreed to settle with CEH because “it was more cost efficient,” said Linda Sparrow, director of marketing for Himalaya Herbal Healthcare. Yet the line meets Whole Foods Premium Body Care standard (a strict regulation focused on pure, though not necessarily “organic,” ingredients) and five of its 20 body care products are 100 percent USDA Organic.

Other natural brands with pending complaints who have yet to settle, including Aubrey and Lafe’s, are facing similar issues, offering comprehensive lines that include USDA Organic SKUs and are available in Whole Foods, but are still cited for violating COPA.

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