As the popularity of natural personal care products grows, so do concerns about how the plant ingredients in these products—many of which come from overseas—are obtained.
Are these botanical ingredients sustainably grown, and are fair-trade practices in place to protect the workers? These questions are increasingly on the minds of naturals retailers and consumers. In late 2007, the Union for Ethical BioTrade formed to help companies deal with these issues and to source ingredients to meet its standards.
"Many companies in our industry are already cognizant of these issues," says Ellen Deutsch, senior vice president and chief growth officer for The Hain Celestial Group. The Melville, N.Y., company is coming up with its own ethical guidelines along with checks and balances.
Nature's Gate in Chatsworth, Calif., "reviews each ingredient carefully through extensive documentation we require from our raw material suppliers," says the company's vice president of marketing, Laura Setzfand. "Each ingredient is evaluated to ensure it is harvested sustainably, is not genetically modified and, if appropriate, is certified organic according to [National Organic Program] regulations."
Consumers are becoming more inquisitive, exploring definitions beyond natural and organic, says Emma Mann, director of marketing for EO Products in Corte Madera, Calif. "Increasingly, many are asking the critical questions, wanting to know how the components of their products are sourced."
EO conducts "extensive and exhaustive searches to identify key suppliers whose ethical production of ingredients mirrors our own green initiative," Mann says.
For example, EO's jojoba oil supplier "helps sustain farming in rural communities and helps save limited desert water while encouraging natural growth," she says. "Additionally, this supplier, based in North America, adheres to strict [Environmental Protection Agency], organic and [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] standards to protect not only the end user but the farmers and the product they produce. While the cost of organic jojoba affects our bottom line, we feel that we must go with our conscience and make the right choice."
Ingredients standards are also on the radar for Aurora, Colo.-based Natracare. "With regard to all of our products, and in particular to our wipes' ingredients, we only use Soil Association certified organic ingredients whose standards include rigorous requirements for sustainable and ethical ingredients," says Susie Hewson, founder. "Since 1989, we have always upheld this principle and source only certified organic ingredients that can validate this adherence to organic standards. We sell in over 45 countries around the world, and in all markets fair trade is an area of equal concern as organics."
Union for Ethical BioTrade President Gus Le Breton says, "Two things are needed to make sure natural personal care companies are getting the right ingredients handled in the proper way: First is a practical and intelligible standard. Second is a transparent mechanism for assessing whether or not specific ingredients meet that standard. And these are the two things that the Union for Ethical BioTrade is setting out to provide."
UEBT's standard is based on the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. Le Breton says it's "a daunting piece of international legislation," but it has two advantages: Many countries have signed up for it and it includes elements of fair trade, equitable access, benefit sharing and biodiversity conservation.
"What we've done already is taken this meaty international convention and translated it into a practical standard that companies can use to assess the degree to which they and their ingredients comply with the convention," Le Breton says. "What we're just now starting to work on is helping companies to get these assessments done and verified by independent auditors."
The UEBT opened what Le Breton calls a "rigorous" membership application process in October. Once everything is set, Le Breton says, "It shouldn't be difficult for natural personal care companies to make sure they're getting the right ingredients the right way."
That isn't the case now.
"Much of the documentation that is needed to know a product is sustainably sourced or fair trade simply isn't readily available," EO's Mann says. "That's the reality of today's market."
Setzfand of Nature's Gate admits it's difficult to ensure these qualities because the company must "rely on outside suppliers for information. Most natural personal care brands do not have sufficient volumes to go to foreign communities to purchase ingredients directly."
Definitions also are changing, Le Breton says: "What was once described as the 'right ingredient' simply because it was organically produced would no longer be considered 'right' if its production resulted in the conversion of native biodiversity to monocultural plantations."
Couple that trend with consumers' hunger for more information, and manufacturers face a challenging situation. "How actually can you prove that a natural ingredient you are using meets all of these criteria?" Le Breton says. "Can you even be sure it does yourself, let alone proving it to anyone else?"
Le Breton says reaction among the personal care industry has been positive, and Mann says he sees value in the UEBT.
"Ultimately time will indicate whether [UEBT] can make a lasting impact as per their intention," Mann says. "As many companies begin to realize that consumers care about ethical and sustainable products, supply will increase, documentation will be required, and sourcing as we know it today will shift. As such, we welcome groups such as this union, as together with other like-minded companies we can create a combined demand which will change the tide of supply."
Pete Croatto is an East Brunswick, N.J.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 3/p. 52,54