“Organic” and “natural” – terms often used when describing food, beauty or home care products.
But what do they actually mean? Instinctively, organic and natural just sounds better but when we tried to articulate why they are in fact better we realized the answer was beyond us! So, we thought it was important that we get to the bottom of this!
WHY IT’S IMPORTANT
Impact on the environment: If a product is not truly organic or natural then it’s likely it’s been made using modern farming methods. These methods typically use genetically modified seeds, pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals to maximize yield and productivity.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with productivity. Except when it negatively impacts the immediate environment in which the plants are grown and the broader environment.
A good example is the run off of waste water or grey water from the use of pesticides and herbicides. This pollutes waterways, streams and rivers and eventually finds it’s way into the ocean. Another classic example is the impact of pesticides on wild bee populations, which ironically has flow on effects to the agriculture industry and our food supply as bees are critical for pollinating many of the crops that feed humans. Unsurprisingly, our stance is to avoid (where possible) consumable products that rely modern farming practices that negatively impact our environment.
Impact on our health: When it comes to food, the jury is still out on whether organic and natural is better for you. Though, it’s been found that these types of food generally have higher nutritional value than non-organic produce. How much this benefits our health in the long run is still uncertain.
Considering the pesticides, insecticides and other chemicals used in the production process we take the precautionary approach to opt for organic and preferably local produce. Even though science doesn’t (yet) wholeheartedly support this position, our decision is not only based on our health but also the environment.
The same can be said for our skin. It’s our biggest organ and since it’s porous anything applied to it is absorbed into our bloodstream and lymphatic system. While the FDA and large cosmetic companies maintain that chemicals typically used in beauty products (e.g. parabens, sodium lauryl sulfate, petrolatum, phthalates, synthetic polymers, synthetic fragrances) are safe in small quantities, no one really knows the long-term effects of their application.
It’s also telling that the EU has banned well over a thousand different personal product ingredients that have been linked to cancer, birth defects, genetic mutation and/or reproductive harm. It goes without saying that we think it’s best to avoid them!
For quite a few years organic and natural products have been trending. Which makes sense as we become more conscious about our health and the plight of the environment. But with this, of course, comes misleading marketing and false claims. Which causes confusion. It it can be really tricky to know the difference between the real-deal and the not-so-real-deal. We try to shed a little more light on this below.
WHAT IS “ORGANIC”?
Across the USA, UK and Australia, certified “organic” has a very similar definition. If you’re buying certified organic generally your products (food or the ingredients in your cosmetics, for example) come for a farming system which uses:
- No manufactured herbicides or artificial fertilizers
- No artificial or synthetic colours, preservatives or chemicals (including parabens and sulphates
No routine use of antibiotics
No GMOs (genetically modified organisms) or growth regulators
Very limited number of pesticides allowed
More sustainable land management
Organic farms are one of the most environmentally, socially and economically sustainable methods of production. For example, old school crop rotation, animal and plant manures and hand weeding are used to maintain and grow produce. A real win for the environment!
WHAT IS “NATURAL”?
While “organic”, for the most part, is a fairly regulated term (across the US, EU, UK and Australia), the same cannot be said for “natural”. Unless you spot a recognized certification label, “Natural” can mean just about anything.
Inconsistent? Yes! Especially in the beauty and cosmetics market which is worth (in the US alone) somewhere in the region of $62 Billion. You would expect there to be at least some regulation but, according to Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, this is actually one of the least regulated industries out there.
Some say the reason for lack of regulation is the difficulty in drawing the line between what is and what is not natural…for example, arsenic, mercury and poisonous mushrooms are “natural” but probably wouldn’t make the cut in a cosmetic or food context. We think that’s a little weak. Most consumers trust marketing claims and slogans and generally don’t read the ingredient lists.
Thankfully, there are some certification bodies (more on these below) which have attempted to draw the line. Generally, “natural” means:
- Ingredients must come from plants, flowers and mineral origins found in nature
- No genetically modified (GMOs) ingredients
- No parabens, suflates or other harmful substances
- Limited or no petrochemical ingredients
- Never tested on animals
- Manufacturing process retains the integrity of the natural ingredients
NAVIGATING ORGANIC & NATURAL
For the reasons above, we believe it’s important to look for organic or natural products wherever possible. It’s not just about our health or the environment, it’s both. We like to refer to our favorite Venn diagram below. Organic / natural is a critical sustainability criteria for choosing products or brands that are socially and environmentally conscious. As you’ll notice below, there are a couple more to consider which you can read more about here and here.
But how do you go about navigating the pitfalls of marketing claims and false advertising? We’ll, that’s a good question. Here’s our simple two step approach that we use to sort out the good from the bad.
Let’s drill into this approach a little further…
CHECK THE INGREDIENTS LIST
It takes less than 30 seconds to scan the fine print and identify if it’s the real deal. And the more you do it the easier it gets. It’s also the most pragmatic way to deal with the issue of “greenwashing” (i.e. companies that make false or misleading claims about their products being natural or organic).
On the flip side, it’s important to be aware that some companies, especially small start-ups, genuinely use organic and natural ingredients. Though they might not have the capital to get an “organic” or “natural” certification (or source organic ingredients). Which can be a very expensive exercise. In fact, we support many brands which fall into this category!
As a rule of thumb, if you can’t quickly understand what the product is made of then it’s probably a bad sign. Ingredients that contain the likes of “poly”, “-eth-” or “oxy” are synthetic and usually a no-go. Phthalates (artificial fragrances), parabens and sulphates are also best avoided.
Having said that, there are ingredients that sound nasty but in fact are perfectly safe. For example, sodium chloride is salt, mentha piperita is peppermint essential oil and vitellaria paradoxa is shea butter. Have a look at the list we put together for the most common and effective natural skincare ingredients used today. Alternatively, use technology to help you identify the good from the bad by scanning the barcode using these apps, chemical maze or THINK DIRTY.
LOOK FOR RECOGNISED LABELS
Another easy(ish) way to ensure you’re purchasing a healthy product is to look out for recognized certification labels. Again, there are a few ‘fake’ certifications out there to be aware of. It’s just about knowing what to look out for.
Here’s a list of the various labels in the USA, UK and Australia that we’ve collated. We hope this summary helps you make easy but informed choices!
- Products that have a USDA Organic Seal and/or a 100% organic claim. This guarantees that 100% of the ingredients (which must also be identified on the product) are certified organic and that the processing aids are also organic.
- Products that have a USDA Organic Seal and/or an organic claim. In this case, 95% of the ingredients must be certified organic and the other 5% can be non-organic (excluding salt and water) and be on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.
- Products that are “Made with Organic ingredients”. Which means at least 70% of the ingredients are certified organic. The the remaining 30% must again only contain ingredients per the National List. These products are not allowed to display the USDA Organic Seal or claim to be “organic” or “made with organic ingredients”.
- Products which contain less than 70% certified organic ingredients. Only the specific ingredients can be labelled as certified organic. Again, no display of the USDA Seal or other organic claim is allowed
So far this is pretty straightforward. At least as far as food is concerned. But these standards were traditionally created with food in mind which meant that it was not appropriate to apply them all to cosmetics which undergo a different manufacturing process.
As a result, the NSF created the “Contains Organic Ingredients” standard. This is currently the only American National Standard for organic personal care products. To be certified under this banner the product must contain at least 70% organic content by weight.
The difference between NSF and USDA’s standards are that specific material and production specifications required for certain personal care products that would otherwise not be allowed under the USDA’s regulations are now accepted.
If you live in the USA, the most well-known certification for natural cosmetic personal care products is probably the NPA’s Natural Standard. If you see that label, it means:
- All, or almost all ingredients in the product come from / are made from a renewable resource found in nature (flora, fauna, mineral) with no petroleum compound
- Manufacturing process has retained the integrity of the natural ingredients
- No animal testing in the product’s development
- Ingredients are biodegradable
- The packaging is environmentally sensitive
The position in the EU is a little more straight-forward. The European Commission’s Agriculture Ministries drafted a set of principles which regulate the entire organic market from production to labeling.
In a nutshell, products can only be labeled as “organic” if at least 95% of the ingredients are certified as organic. But the regulations go even further. To gain certification, each party in the supply chain (from growers to importers) must be registered with an approved certification body.This way there’s no weak link in the system.
The most well-known and highly regarded independent certifier in the UK is the Soil Association. Typically their certification is used for produce. However, the Soil Association together with four other EU partners (BDIH, Cosmebio, Ecocert and ICEA) developed a unified cosmetic standard known as the Cosmetics Organic and Natural Standard (COSMOS).
COSMOS was developed because organic standards at the time were designed specifically with agriculture (i.e. food) in mind. And, cosmetic and skincare products do not always come from an agricultural source. COSMOS has strict rules and requirements which apply to environmental impact, ingredients, processing and packaging (and of course, includes those criteria we mentioned above under Organic).
The gold standard certifier for “natural” in the UK is also the Soil Association. This standard ensures that the product’s ingredients have:
- No genetically modified (GMOs) ingredients
- Never been tested on animals
- Limited use of petrochemical ingredients
- Only colours and fragrances from plants, flowers and mineral origins
- A manufacturing process that must minimise the environmental impact and creation of waste
In Australia, the term “organic” is not regulated for domestic and imported goods. It’s simply used as a marketing tool. So, it’s important to look out for certified organic labels from recognized certifiers. When it comes to beauty products the most popular and widely recognized certifiers are:
While each certifier in Australia has their own slant on the rules they each have to achieve the minimum National Standard – which applies to both food and cosmetics. Similar to the USA, there are also four tiers of certified organic:
- The product claims to be 100% organic – it must contain 100% organic ingredients.
- The product is labelled as organic. 95% of the ingredients must be organic and without getting too technical the remaining 5% either comes from (i) an agricultural origin that cannot be easily sourced and/or (ii) are listed in the National Standard’s Appendix (for example, certain food additives or processing aids)
- The product is labelled with a statement that says “made with organic”. In this case, at least 70% of the ingredients are organic and the remaining 30% must come from (i) an agricultural origin that cannot easily be sourced and/or (ii) are listed in the National Standard’s Appendix.
- Finally, the product’s ingredients list that “organic production methods” have been used. Where you see this, less than 70% of the ingredients are organic and the ingredients will appear in their descending order of weight – this way you can tell if there’s more of the good or bad stuff.
As for “natural” certifications, if you live in Australia, the most well-regarded certifier is the Australian Certified Organic (CCO). Like the Soil Association, they are an accredited certifier under COSMOS for organic and natural cosmetics and raw cosmetic materials.
If you see this logo you’ll know that the product has the same standards as the Soil Association COSMOS Natural standards in the UK.
While each country has their own recognized certifiers and rules around labelling, there are also a few international organizations that certify products as organic. Here’s a list of a few of the more reputable organisations to look out for and some of their requirements:
Natrue – at least 75% of all a brand’s products must be Natrue compliant. For organic certification at least 95% of the ingredients must come from controlled organic production and/or wild collection.
Organic and natural ingredients and products can be expensive. In the cosmetics context, they can also be unpredictable in formulation and without synthetic preservatives their shelf life is limited. With this in mind it pays for manufacturers (in the short term) to use the latter wherever possible. As this directly affects profit margins. And where profit margins are at stake, companies can go to questionable lengths to gain consumer trust companies by making false claims.
Our preference is to go for organic or natural where possible. By choosing products that tick the organic and / or natural box you’re doing a few things. A. making a conscious and healthy choice to avoid toxic chemicals. B. giving the environment a helping hand. C. saying no to animal cruelty and D. supporting progressive companies who are trying to do the right thing.
So, look out for the certified organic and natural labels or read the ingredients list to ensure you’re getting what you pay for.
We hope this has shed some light on a rather grey area in the world of food and beauty.
If you have any questions or comments or other “organic vs natural” suggestions for the Sustainable Jungle Community, leave a comment, get in touch – we’d love to hear from you!