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Organic Integrity

Organic Standards Fighting for Truth and Integrity

Beginning in the 1940s, the world was flooded with cheaply-made synthetic products and ingredients, ranging from pesticides and food additives to detergents and plastics, all created in the laboratory largely from non-renewable petroleum. It was hailed as “Better Living Through Chemistry,” but unintended consequences included pollution of the air and water, deterioration of soil tilth and health, unhealthy and overly-processed foods, and synthetic ingredients in personal care products — more than a few with significant toxicity issues. In response, the organic movement over the last few decades has rejected the intensive synthetic inputs and processes used in conventional agriculture and food processing, recognizing that traditional methods and materials result in better soil, and improved human and environmental health.

Likewise, the organic philosophy rejects the highly-processed synthetic formulations of mainstream body care. Organic integrity in body care means an organic product is composed of certified organic ingredients produced with minimal processing in compliance with the USDA National Organic Program (NOP), the same program which is used to ensure the integrity of organic foods. Real organic personal care does not utilize synthetic preservatives that can irritate skin. Natural, unrefined oils and waxes are used as emollients and moisturizers, instead of hydrogenated oils and synthetic silicones. Traditional natural soaps are used in hand and body washes, instead of modern synthetic surfactants usually made in part with petrochemicals.

Dr. Bronner’s is fighting for a marketplace where organic consumers are not misled into purchasing bogus “synthetic-schlock” products masquerading as real certified organic personal care.

Organic Integrity in Body Care

Organic integrity in body care means a product is labeled as “organic” only when it meets basic consumer expectations for organic body care, which can be summarized as follows:

  • All major cleansing and moisturizing ingredients are made from certified organic, not petrochemical or conventional, agricultural materials.
  • The product is 100% free of any petrochemicals and petrochemical compounds.

There are two main certifying standards in the U.S. used to certify personal care products made with organic ingredients:

usdaThe “Gold Standard” is considered certification by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). This is the same standard used to certify organic food, and it is the only standard in the U.S. recognized by law. The two most common levels of “organic” certification under the NOP are for products that are over 95% organic by content (which may bear the USDA Organic seal) and for products that are between 70-95% organic (which may not bear the seal, but may instead say “Made with Organic…”).

nsfThe relatively new NSF/ANSI 305 “Contains Organic Ingredients” standard was developed specifically for personal care products. It allows for some chemical processes typical of personal care manufacturing that the USDA Organic certification does not. It indicates that a product contains at least 70% organic content, and, importantly, it does not permit a product to be called “organic” outright unless it meets USDA Organic standards. It is a voluntary standard only and thus does not have the backing of the law.

We are in a better place now than we were ten years ago, when all kinds of synthetic schlock products were making outright “organic” claims, even in health food stores and cooperatives. Now all organic body care products sold in Whole Foods Market, as well as in cooperatives organized under the National Cooperative Grocers  Association (NCGA), and by extension the natural marketplace, must be certified to comply with established organic standards.

However, other than this self-policing practice implemented in the natural channel by Whole Foods Market and the NCGA, there are still no legal regulations to prevent a body care product from being inaccurately labeled as “organic” – even those that have no more organic content than your average Proctor & Gamble product. Whereas very strict standards are enforced by the USDA for organic food products, there are no enforcement or legally binding regulations for body care products yet.

Taking advantage of this loophole, some companies unfortunately continue to use the words “Organic” or “Organics” in their brand names as a misleading marketing shtick in order to inflate the consumer’s perception of their organic content, even when they are in fact certified at a much lower level and/or do not include anything substantially organic.

Here is a brief timeline of the “Fight for Organic Integrity in Body Care” to date:

2000 The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) is created to restrict the use of the term “organic” to only those products certified as organic. Certification is handled by state, non-profit and private agencies that have been approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Violators who claim they are organic but are not certified can be prosecuted. Personal care companies may voluntarily certify products under the program; however, confusingly the USDA will otherwise not police “organic” claims on cosmetic products.

2003 Dr. Bronner’s identifies or develops organic sources for all raw materials and certifies its classic liquid and bar soaps as organic under the USDA NOP.

2004 Dr. Bronner’s certifies and launches USDA Organic lotions and lip balms that are above 95% organic and meet the rigorous requirements of the USDA NOP, essentially meeting the same standards as organic food.

2005 Due to heavy lobbying by “organic cheater brands,” the USDA briefly attempts to stop use of the USDA Organic seal on body care products, even if they are actually certified to the same organic standards.

Dr. Bronner’s sues the USDA on the basis that they did not follow correct law-making procedures, and because there is really no difference between organic coconut oil when used in lotions versus lemon meringue pies.

The day before they must respond to our lawsuit, the USDA reverses itself and states that all certified body care products may continue to use the USDA Organic seal, assuring that consumers will continue to have a way to know what is and what is not a legitimate organic body care product.

2008 After working very hard, but to no avail, within the natural personal care industry for years to try to stop the ever-increasing tidal wave of false “organic” claims, Dr. Bronner’s sues a group of “greenwashing,” so-called “organic” body care companies for false advertising. The suit only claims $1.00 in damages, as the real point is to simply put a stop to the unfair and deceptive practices.

2010 Whole Foods Market, soon followed by the NCGA, acts where the government does not and implements criteria for selling organic body care in their stores, thus forcing brands to address the bulk of the complaints in our lawsuit. Brands must now either get certified to USDA NOP standards for outright “organic” product claims, or to NSF standards for lower-level claims – or else they must remove all “organic” claims from their labels entirely.