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Are personal care labels the solution to greenwashing?

Are personal care labels the solution to greenwashing?

During a recent trip to our office, Horst Rechelbacher, founder of Aveda and Intelligent Nutrients, told me the greenwashers will disappear. Actually, his exact words were that they “must disappear because they are doing things which are not legal. They’re creating consumer fraud.”

If greenwashers are criminals, the crime scene is the mass market where “naturally inspired” products have been a big source of confusion for consumers and are becoming an even bigger problem as the demand for natural personal care products increases. Natural and organic personal care is growing fast in mass, but could this growth be the result of false claims and greenwashing?

Not only does the FDA not require premarket approval or ingredients safety testing—meaning basically any ingredient goes in personal care—but products using toxins can claim to be natural and even organic. The Huffington Post recently asked me to comment on corporately owned beauty products marketed as natural—some of which are guilty of making these false claims; some of which are actually trying to do the right thing.

A greenwashing antidote

In the absence of tighter legislation, one way that brands can take a stance is to get a legitimate certification. For the May issue of Natural Foods Merchandiser, I broke down the many labels consumers and retailers will see on personal care products: USDA Organic, NSF/ANSI 305 “contains organic,” NaTrue, EcoCert, and more; plus, the proposed regulations that could help sort out the confusion. 

Certifications are a good antidote to greenwashing. If a company is going to make an organic or natural claim, discerning consumers will demand it has a certification (and for Rechelbacher, USDA Organic certification is the only way for a company to assure consumers it's not committing consumer fraud). But labels also present problems of their own. Natural HABA departments are totally saturated with them—and the industry has done a poor job of educating consumers about what they really mean.

There's a lot of room and need for this education. And we also have to remember that it's okay for a company not to have an organic or natural label—as long as its marketing isn’t misleading consumers. In fact, some of my favorite brands in the nontoxic space fall into this category. They’re safe and they have a story to tell. For me, that can be just as relevant as any certification.

What consumers should look for

Regardless of our priorities and preferences, as responsible consumers, we all need to think more critically about purchases. This is especially necessary in the mass market where legitimate natural products and complete greenwashers co-exist—and the retailers aren’t doing much of the screening for you (many natural stores like Whole Foods Market, Vitamin Cottage and Tunies have strict requirements for their HABA departments).

It's important to remember that being critical doesn’t mean shunning all corporate brands: A large company owning a natural brand doesn’t necessarily make the products less natural. Clorox owns Burt’s Bees, which has products that boast the NPA Natural seal. Colgate-Palmolive owns Tom’s of Maine, a brand that was using questionable ingredient sodium sodium lauryl sulfate before the acquisition.

Being critical also doesn’t mean embracing any product that has a certification: Just because it has the label to back it up doesn’t make it safer than the product next to it.  

Horst, I don’t know if the greenwashers are going away because when it comes to greenwashing, there is no blanket statement, no cheat sheet. The only way we can crack the case is ingredient by ingredient, brand by brand, claim by claim.

I'm continuing to look at how greenwashing will impact the natural beauty industry for our NEXT Forecast. Please share your thoughts on the future of personal care in the comments.

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