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Whole Foods drives the personal care bus

Love ’em or loathe ’em, Whole Foods Market is really driving the bus when it comes to personal care ingredients and product claims. I witnessed this first-hand at Natural Products Expo West two weeks ago, specifically in how manufacturers are responding to the company’s organic-certification mandates and to its now-3-year-old Premium Body Care Standard.

First up, organic. Whole Foods announced last June that it would require every “organic” PC product sold in its stores to be certified organic by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or “made with organic” by NSF/ANSI 305 by June 1, 2011. We predicted this would prompt many manufacturers to seek certifications, reformulate their products or rejigger product names, packaging, marketing claims, and perhaps even brand names in order to maintain shelf presence at this national retail giant. And unless these manufacturers were to take the unlikely course of rolling out two different versions of their products—one for Whole Foods and another for every other retailer—the result was bound to be cleaner products and more honest product labeling in all retail outlets. 

I visited the booths of a few companies that already had or were in the process of renaming products and redesigning labels. For instance, Lafe’s Natural and Organic Body Care, an Austin, Texas-based PC company best known for its natural deodorants, showed me a few prototypes for new label designs. Each displayed updated logo options, and none included the word organic as the old labels had. Hauppauge, N.Y.-based Desert Essence is also renaming its products that currently have organic in their names but aren’t able to nab USDA or NSF/ANSI 305 certification.

Second, ingredient standards. Whole Foods launched its Premium Body Care Standard in March 2008 with the intent that, eventually, all products sold at its stores would meet it—meaning they’d contain zero of the more than 400 ingredients deemed unacceptable for health or environmental concerns. In my previous job as the beauty and wellness editor for a national consumer natural health magazine, I used the Premium standard as a guide for vetting which products I’d recommend to my readers, and trust me—this standard is tough to meet. And that’s exactly the point. Whole Foods hopes that Premium will challenge companies to create products with safer, natural, higher quality ingredients. And sure enough, it already has. At Expo, I came across several companies that promoted their products as meeting the Premium standard; some even weave this fact into their marketing platforms and display it on their websites.

Perhaps one of my most interesting discoveries along these lines was Andalou Naturals, a brand-new Novato, Calif.-based company created by Stacey and Mark Egide, founders of natural PC giants Avalon and Alba. According to Stacey Egide, Andalou formulated its skin care, hair care, and bath and body products line with the Whole Foods Premium standard in mind. Right now, 35 of 37 Andalou products meet the standard and just two are still awaiting full approval. The line is set to launch at Whole Foods April 1.   

Now, certainly it might be easier for a just-now-launching company to formulate products to meet the Premium standard than it is for an existing company to reformulate products that customers embrace. But the fact that a company placed this standard at the forefront of its strategy speaks volumes—and shows that it’s possible to create über-clean products.    

As part of the Expo West Retail Store Tour on Thursday before the show floor opened, I visited the spanking-new 35,000-square-foot Whole Foods Market in Huntington Beach, Calif., which featured an impressive PC section. I asked the store’s Whole Body team leader about Premium and if and when the store would require that all products to meet the strict standard. He told me that, while established non-Premium products had been grandfathered in, any potential new products must the standard in order to score shelf space. When I mentioned this tidbit to a few companies on the show floor over the next few days, some were surprised, so I’m not sure whether this policy is specific to the Huntington Beach store or to that region, or if it will indeed take effect nationwide. And since Whole Foods has a long-standing policy of not releasing info to trade publications, I unfortunately can’t solicit the whole skinny.

Again, whether you’re a Whole Foods fanatic or you shun that sparkly super-sized store down the block, this mega-retailer’s role in shaping the scope and scape of natural and organic personal care is undeniable.    

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