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OASIS provides relief in regulatory desert

Mitchell Clute

April 24, 2008

5 Min Read
OASIS provides relief in regulatory desert

Since the establishment of the National Organic Program in 2002, the word organic has had a clear meaning, backed by law and identical for all manufacturers. However, a similar standard has never been established for cosmetics and personal care items —but a new industry group hopes to change that.

Manufacturers and cosmetics industry insiders have announced the formation of a new trade association, OASIS, which is an acronym for "organic and sustainable industry standards." The group announced an organic industry standard, and hopes to introduce additional standards, such as one for green packaging, in the future.

"The first thing to understand is that these are not regulations, but voluntary standards," said Gay Timmons, chairwoman of OASIS and owner of Oh, Oh Organic Inc., based in Los Gatos, Calif., a manufacturer that is among the 30 founding members of OASIS. One of the benefits of a trade association and voluntary standards, Timmons said, is that the standards can be changed on the basis of scientific discoveries, industry pressure and consumer demand.

The organic personal care market has been growing at 15 percent annually for many years, and now has $9 billion in annual sales, or 15 percent of the total personal care market, according to statistics from Nutrition Business Journal, NFM's sister publication. Previously, if a personal care products manufacturer wanted an organic seal of any kind for a product, the only option was to meet the NOP's food standards, which were never intended to deal with the complicated chemistry of personal care.

The OASIS standard will initially offer two levels, organic and made with organic. The made with organic standard will start at 70 percent minimum organic content, with additional criteria for the remaining ingredients. The organic designation will start at 85 percent, shifting to 90 percent in January 2010 and 95 percent two years later. This timeline, OASIS officials say, will give manufacturers of raw ingredients such as surfactants and emulsifiers time to craft ingredients that meet the OASIS standard.

The announcement has been met with a tentatively positive response from groups concerned with cosmetics safety. "We're still looking at the standards, so I can't say whether they're sufficient," said Jovana Ruzicic, a spokeswoman for the Environmental Working Group, based in Washington, D.C. "In general, we think all these initiatives are great, and all are steps in the right direction. But ultimately, deciding what to call organic shouldn't be up to the manufacturer or retailer. There should be a federal guideline, and a federal governmental body to regulate [organic personal care]."

Timmons said, though, that any potential national standard is still years away. She pointed out that, prior to the establishment of the NOP, there were 42 different organic-certifying agencies, each with slightly different rules and guidelines.

"The industry as a whole benefited from going though that somewhat painful process," she said. "The vision in my mind is that we need several groups working on organic standards, but we believe that OASIS is a great first step toward identifying what an organic cosmetic can be." The OASIS program will be certified by International Cosmetics and Regulation Specialists LLC, a Manhattan Beach, Calif., firm specializing in chemical analysis.

The cosmetics industry uses more than 10,000 ingredients, and nearly 90 percent have never been tested for safety. "The cosmetics industry has worked very hard to stay unregulated," Timmons said. Thus the big surprise in the OASIS announcement may be how many mainstream companies have signed on. Alongside naturals companies like Hain-Celestial, which owns Jason and Zia, founding members include L'Oreal, Aveda Corp. and Est?e Lauder.

The only regulation on organic personal care now comes from the NOP's oversight of the use of the word organic for any agricultural product, which includes botanical ingredients in personal care, and the California Organic Products Act, which mandates that any product sold in California with an organic label be made of at least 70 percent organic ingredients, exclusive of water.

Whole Foods has announced its own initiative, the Premium Body Care standard, focused on product quality and safety. Products qualifying for the seal will have to meet ingredients guidelines, which limit products to natural fragrances and certain gentle preservatives and surfactants. The OASIS organic standard includes a similar "allowed ingredients" list.

The Whole Foods initiative was endorsed by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which works to eliminate cosmetics ingredients thought to cause cancer and birth defects. "The Premium Body Care standard is a starting point and an opportunity to raise the bar even higher for the natural products industry," said Jeremiah McElwee, senior global Whole Body coordinator for Whole Foods Markets, in a statement.

Organizations such as EWG will likely continue to call for federal regulation, but manufacturers may see OASIS as the right next step. "We have huge international issues, and reciprocity between the EU and North America is the first thing I'd like to see in terms of regulations. But by creating OASIS we have a platform to start solving our problems," Timmons said. "We can't let the perfect become the enemy of the good," she added, quoting Voltaire.

Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 4/p. 1,11

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