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Demand for transparency prompts organic, fair trade labeling reform

Jessica Rubino

September 21, 2012

3 Min Read
Demand for transparency prompts organic, fair trade labeling reform

Two years ago, Whole Foods made an announcement that would require a lot of personal care companies to make a lot of major changes. One that would significantly impact nearly every stage of the personal care manufacturing and marketing processes. And now that it’s strictly enforced, one that could shift the trajectory of the natural and organic personal care industry.

This week, Whole Foods announced that any personal care product on its shelf labeled or marketed as organic has a third-party organic certification—USDA Organic or NSF/ANSI 305 “contains organic” ingredients. 

There were some bumps along the way. But in the personal care industry, where unsubstantiated natural and organic claims run rampant, executing consistent industry self-regulation is impressive. It may not have been easy for the companies forced to either reformulate or rebrand. However, the payoff for the natural and organic personal care category will be more than worth it. Consumers will become more trusting and aware of the industry, fueling continued growth of natural and organic personal care products.

And the changes we’re seeing in labeling don’t just pertain to organic.  

This week also hosted an important announcement, which represents a similar shift toward more transparency, for fair-trade beauty. Under pressure from Fair World Project (FWP), a campaign of the Organic Consumers Association, the National Advertising Review Board decided that Fair Trade USA should include percentages of fair-trade content on of its beauty products.

Fair trade does, by nature, indicate a certain level of transparency. Under the current standard, products boasting the Fair Trade Ingredients label must contain a minimum of 10 percent fair-trade ingredients; but beyond that, the package doesn’t need to provide any details. The new standards would require companies to make another layer of information available to consumers. 

Redefining the labeling paradigm    

Transparency starts with this type of honest labeling. If you say you’re organic, be certified organic. If you’re fair trade, tell us which ingredients have earned the certification—and how much of them you use in your formulation.

(And then there’s “natural” … we’ll save that for another day.)

Even before these policies were adopted by Whole Foods or Fair Trade USA, there have been many companies in the natural products industry that far exceed these increasingly stringent consumer expectations. But the reason these two announcements are so noteworthy is because they indicate how consumer demand and industry advocacy can lead to real reform on a bigger scale.

These shifts also lead me to believe that in the foreseeable future, even without legislative change, honest labeling with become the norm.

Currently, about 40 percent of products claiming to be natural or organic don’t have a certification to back them up. Much of the greenwashing is still in mass. But now that we’re striving to entirely eliminate consumer fraud from the natural personal care industry, I think that we’ll see the demand for—and the resulting manufacturer response to—transparency in conventional retail, too. 

What, then, is the next phase for the natural products industry?

Traceability takes transparency to the next level 

This means not only telling us candidly what your products are, but also showing us. If you source fair-trade coffee for your body scrub or USDA Organic lavender in your lotion, don’t think the seal is enough to make you stand out. Describe the growers, the community it supports and why this is a meaningful piece of your brand.

Some of this can happen in the aisle (Alaffia excels in its POP storytelling). Some of it can happen on your web site or through social media (Aura Cacia’s online videos track the sourcing process with vivid detail). Some of it will go unnoticed by busy consumers. But some of it will help to redefine consumer-packaged goods like One Degree Organics has done.

I hope to see more organic personal care companies following the lead of this USDA Organic food company that allows consumers to track every single ingredient back to the source. And I think they will. Now that honest labeling is becoming the baseline, an expectation not an exception, for natural and organic personal care, I can’t wait to see all the ways this category innovates.

About the Author(s)

Jessica Rubino

Vice President, Content, New Hope Network

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