Personal Care: OASIS organic-certification programme dead in the water

More than 18 months after OASIS unveiled — under much fanfare — a voluntary organic standard for the US personal-care industry, the trade association has yet to certify any products under its seal. And don't expect them to do so anytime soon.

"It's because of the lawsuit that was filed by Dr Bronner's Magic Soaps," says Gay Timmons, cofounder and chairwoman of the board of OASIS. "After (David Bronner) sued us, we stopped the (certification) process. It basically put a damper on the whole thing."

At the time OASIS unveiled its standard in March 2008, the group had 60 members — many of whom "were dying to have an organic certification of some kind" for personal-care products, Timmons explained. "But it would have been irresponsible to certify anyone not knowing the outcome of the lawsuit. Bronner continues to threaten to sue people, and the Organic Consumers Association is threatening to start boycotts, which would hurt a lot of organic farmers."

OASIS Standard
  • "Made With Organic" for products with organic content of 70 per cent or more
  • "Organic" for products with organic content of 85 per cent or more. The designation increases to 90 per cent content in January 2010 and 95 per cent organic content by 2010
  • Allows for limited chemical processes typical for personal-care products but not allowed for organic food products

The OASIS trade group was formed by 30 founding members, including Aveda Corp, Cognis Corp, Estee Lauder, L'Oreal and The Hain-Celestial Group. Its acronym stands for "organic and sustainable industry standards."

The standard the group unveiled last year includes two labelling criteria: "Made With Organic" for products with a minimum of 70 per cent organic content, and "Organic" with a minimum 85 per cent organic content. The latter was set to increase to 90 per cent by January 2010, and to 95 per cent by 2012.

Dr Bronner's filed its lawsuit in California Superior Court in April 2007, over what it believes is the improper and misleading use of the term 'organic' on personal-care products. In addition to OASIS, other defendants include several individual personal-care brands, as well as Ecocert, a French-based private certifier of organic personal-care products. \[See Fi's interview with Dr Bronner's CEO here.\]

"We are confident we are going to win this lawsuit because judges don't like to make regulation or law — it's not their job," Timmons said. "It is really a First Amendment issue. The First Amendment says you can't inhibit trade groups from their First Amendment rights just because you don't like what they are saying. We believe it is unlikely a judge is going to say we cannot certify people to a private standard that is transparent and voluntary and not in violation of any law."

Dr Bronner's disagrees. "The First Amendment does not apply to commercial speech such as product labelling and standards," said David Bronner, the company's CEO. "For example, a company cannot label something as 'orange juice' that is actually artificial orange-flavoured water. OASIS is making a very weak argument."

'It's the Wild Wild West'
Timmons has been involved in standards creation for 20 years. In 1991, she was one of the founding members for the CCOF Processor Chapter, helping write the first organic processing standards used by CCOF, an organic-certification and trade association. She also served as the chairwoman of the California Organic Products Advisory Committee for 11 years. Now Timmons owns and operates a cosmetics-ingredients distribution company, Oh, Oh Organic.

She, along with other founding members of OASIS, created their standard because they believed they were filling a dire need for personal-care products that are true to organic principles. As it is right now, any sunscreen, lip balm or bath oil can claim to be 'organic' or 'natural' and, in addition to the fact there is no uniform definition for those terms, there is literally no one monitoring products' ingredients or claims.

The personal-care industry is the "wild, wild West," says organics and food-industry veteran Mary Mulry, PhD, president of Foodwise, a consulting firm dedicated to the creation and marketing of high-quality organic foods. "Historically speaking, personal care is now back where organic foods were in the '80s, when there was a different standard in every state."

In June 2008 — only three months after the OASIS Standard was launched — the Environmental Working Group painted a dire portrait of the situation to a House of Representatives committee. Testifying at the hearing was Jane Houlihan, EWG's vice president for research.

Among the highlights:

  • Personal-care products are essentially unregulated under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act (FFDCA). The act includes 112 pages of standards for food and drugs, but just a single page for cosmetics. This page provides the Food and Drug Administration with virtually no power to perform even the most rudimentary functions needed to ensure the safety of an estimated $35 billion in personal-care products purchased by consumers annually.
  • An EWG analysis of 30,000 personal-care products found that more than one in five contain chemicals linked to cancer, 80 per cent contain ingredients that commonly contain hazardous impurities, and 56 per cent contain penetration enhancers that help deliver ingredients deeper into the skin.
  • The average woman uses 12 personal-care products containing 168 unique ingredients every day; the average man uses six products with 85 unique ingredients.
  • Children are exposed to an average of 61 different chemical ingredients every day, and on average, 27 of these ingredients have not been found safe for children by the government or the cosmetics industry's expert safety panel.
  • Although there are some 29,000 ingredients in personal-care products in the US, the FDA has prohibited or restricted only nine of them.

"The findings of the EWG make clear the need, in the absence of FDA regulation, for transparent and credible certification of organic products that include all the ingredients used," Timmons said. "Whether it is OASIS or EcoCert, each of these standards provides the consumer with a way to know what they are getting in the bottle. It is unfortunate that the Bronner lawsuit has blocked this important tool for American consumers."

Competing standards
The OASIS Standard is, in fact, not the only effort that has been made to remedy this situation in the US.

NSF International joined with the American National Standards Institute to establish materials, processes, production criteria and conditions specifically for personal-care products that contain organic ingredients. Their seal, launched in February 2009, is known as the NSF/ANSI 305 Standard.

Although this standard was launched nearly a year after the OASIS seal, the OASIS group actually formed "as a reaction to NSF Standard — or more like as a result of what we learned from the process," Timmons said.

"Many of us in OASIS were involved in the creation of the NSF/ANSI 305 Standard, and we were looking to create a standard that differed in several ways. One, we wanted it to address the broader issues of sustainability, which means production and packaging, not just the ingredients in the product. Two, we wanted more input from people in the industry. We didn't feel that the people who actually make the products had enough say in the NSF/ANSI process."

For its part, NSF believes the process by which its standard was inclusive. "Organic-personal-care manufacturers, trade associations, regulators, organic program administrators, organic-product retailers, and other stakeholders from the organic product community participated ... via open forums," NSF said. The fact ANSI accredited the standard "verifies that NSF develops standards in a manner to ensure openness and due process," the group said.

The NSF/ANSI 305 standard allows a "Contains Organic Ingredients" designation for products with organic content of 70 per cent or more. Like the OASIS seal, it allows for limited chemical processes that are typical for personal-care products but would not be allowed for food products, provided they are environmentally and biologically benign. This includes hydrogenation, hydrolysis, esterification and transesterification.

Now, eight months after it was unveiled, NSF International has yet to certify anyone with its seal either. The first products carrying its seal, however, are due on store shelves by the end of 2009, NSF reports. \[See Fi's article on NSF here.\]

The USDA and personal care
Both the OASIS and NSF/ANSI 305 standards differ in their requirements from the USDA's National Organic Program seal, which went into effect in October 2002 specifically for the agricultural-food industry.

If a cosmetic, body-care product, or personal-care product meets its standards, it may be eligible to be certified for a USDA Organic seal. The reality is, however, that few personal-care products can do so, due to the unique manufacturing and shelf-life requirements the Food and Drug Administration has for these products.

"The bottom line is, a majority of the stuff that goes into body care has to be synthesized, which the organic-food rules were intended to prohibit," Timmons says. "Another thing is, you can't use preservatives under organic-food law, but most personal-care products are lying around months or years at room temperature. How can you not preserve them? You do not need preservatives for massage oil, lip balm or body butters, which are the easiest products to make to the NOP, but for other products, you do.

"Foods that combine oil and water need an emulsifier, but the only emulsifiers allowed under the USDA's organic food rules are eggs and lecithin, which is usually made from soy. Those really don't work well in cosmetics, however, so, for cosmetics, the only preservative you are left with is alcohol."

In other words, Timmons is saying, this is why personal-care products need their own organic standards, and why they need to use certain benign chemical processes that would not be permitted for organic foods.

On this point, OASIS and NSF agree.

"Such processes as hydrogenation, hydrolysis, esterification and transesterification — these are allowed in NSF/ANSI 305 because they have been judged to be benign," said Lorna Badman, senior standards specialist with NSF International. "They are needed to produce ingredients or pre-cursors to ingredients for many personal-care products. These processes allow for a number of ingredients (not allowed under the USDA) such as surfactants, emulsifiers, and emoillents."

Want to learn more?
For details on the NSF/ANSI 305 certification standard, click here.
What's the difference between the NSF/ANSI, OASIS and the USDA organic seals? Click here.
To learn more about Dr Bronner's lawsuit over 'organic' labels, click here.

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