Organic cosmetics lawsuit: Is your personal care falsely labeled?

Many manufacturers are removing "organic" from their front labels to meet Whole Foods' new requirements, but a California-based environmental group recently filed a lawsuit—against some of the very companies making adjustments—alleging false organic claims. We take a look at the issues surrounding personal care marketing and how consumers and retailers can get clarity. 

The lawsuit filed last week against 26 cosmetics companies proves the organic labeling debate is still very much a concern for the natural personal care industry. According to California-based environmental group the Center for Environmental Health (CEH), dozens of shampoos, lotions, toothpastes, and other personal care products are violating a California law stating any personal care product with "organic" on the front of the package must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients, and those with less than 70 percent organic ingredients can only use "organic" on the ingredient lists.

"For years, organic advocates have called on personal care companies to fix their improper 'organic' labels, but our recent purchasing shows the industry is still rife with unsubstantiated organic claims," Michael Green, executive director of CEH, said in a press release.

After purchasing products from a variety of conventional and natural products retailers including Target, Walgreens, and Whole Foods, CEH reported that many products weren't 70 percent organic and some even contained harsh ingredients like BHA, cocoamide DEA, and parabens linked to health concerns including cancer and hormone disruption. What gave these products away, according to the CEH? Their ingredient lists. 

Could new-labeling time lag be to blame?

Whole Foods announced last year that by June 2011 it would require every personal care product claiming "organic" on the front label to have USDA Organic or NSF/ANSI 305 certification to back it up (USDA's "Made with Organic" ingredients requires use of 70 percent organic content as does NSF/ANSI 305's certification; USDA Organic requires 95 percent organic content). As a result, manufacturers valuing their Whole Foods business either adjusted packaging and marketing or reformulated to obtain organic certification.

But did they act soon enough?

Included in the CEH lawsuit are companies like Lafe's Natural and Organic and Aubrey Organics, which are among those taking "organic" off their labels and out of their logos to meet the Whole Foods criteria. The CEH collected some samples in May, before Whole Foods was set to enforce its new guidelines. And as companies phase out their old packaging (or old formulas), consumers are likely to see the word "organic" on the front labels of noncertified products at retailers other than Whole Foods—an unavoidable issue resulting from a large industry-wide shift.

Product line variety can cause labeling, branding inconsistencies

While some of the companies mentioned in the lawsuit don't have any organic certifications to back up their products' marketing claims, others offer comprehensive lines that include certified organic SKUs. These companies have used their branding to showcase organic efforts across products, which has led to issues surrounding SKUs that aren't organic but boast the same brand name and marketing. Some examples:


Aubrey Organics

Aubrey has taken on multiple natural and organic certifications, including Natural Products Association Natural Seal, BDIH Certified Natural Cosmetics (a German natural cosmetics standard), and USDA Organic, but not all of the products are certified organic.

Lafe's Natural and Organic

This deodorant brand contains 20 SKUs, 12 of which are over 70 percent USDA Organic. Lafe's Organic Baby line contains five SKUs meeting USDA Organic standards.Prior to adjusting packaging, logos on all product labels contained "Natural and Organic" regardless of varying certifications. 

Nature's Baby Organics

This line of baby body care also includes several products that are USDA Organic certified—and others that are not.

The verdict? Lawsuits put on the pressure, but retailer, consumer decisions shape change

Manufacturer, retailer influence

In 2008, Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps filed a lawsuit against personal care manufacturers, targeting some of the same companies as CEG and over the same issue: using "organic" marketing sans certification. While the courts didn't rule in Bronner's favor, the lawsuit—and pressure from environmental and consumer groups—led the way for retailer actions like Whole Foods' labeling requirements, which has had a significant impact on the personal care industry.

But last week's lawsuit also reveals that advancements in marketing clarity don't eliminate all of the guesswork facing a consumer shopping for natural or organic shampoo, toothpaste, or skin care. In the absence of nationwide organic labeling regulations, labeling inconsistencies will continue to exist in the personal care aisle.  

Importance of reading ingredient lists

"Organic" marketing doesn't truly address specific ingredients. The purity of a product that makes its way onto store shelves depends on retail requirements: The stringent Whole Foods Premium Body Care standard, which deems more than 400 ingredients unacceptable, was developed with the hopes that at some point all products on store shelves will meet it—but in the meantime, not all do. Vitamin Cottage, too, has created a list of criteria for what lands on their shelves but again, ingredients will vary.

Unless a product contains the USDA Organic or NSF/ANSI 305 seal, the only way for consumers to know what they're getting is to read the ingredient labels on the back of the package—whether the branding on the front includes the word organic or not. 

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