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Global harmonisation for organic standards looks a distant dream

By Katie Bird , 16-Jun-2009

Despite high hopes and noble thoughts, the Cosmos standard for organic and natural cosmetics is unlikely to lead to global harmonisation.

The standard, which is the result of 6 years collaboration between some of Europe’s largest certification bodies, was released last week and certification to the standard is expected to start in September.

At the beginning of negotiations the standard was conceived as a harmonised European effort, and potentially the first step towards a global model.

However, the certification landscape has changed significantly since talks began.

Competition has sprung up on both sides of the Atlantic in the six years it has taken the bodies to come up with a standard, and the power Cosmos now wields as an international entity has been seriously compromised.

In Europe the major competitor is the NaTrue standard, which was launched by a breakaway group from the Cosmos negotiations, frustrated by their slow development.

In addition, US standards have gained ground including that of the NSF International and the Natural Products Association (NPA).

In addition, there are fundamental differences between Cosmos and its competitors that make partnerships between them complicated.

One of the most important differences is the way the different standards treat water.

Cosmos is the only standard to include water in its calculations. Although water cannot be certified organic, by Cosmos or any other body, for Cosmos it cannot be deducted from the formulation when calculating its organic percentage.

In practice this means to qualify for organic status under Cosmos the total percentage of the formulation which is organic will be much less than that required by other certification systems.

Those behind Cosmos claim their system is more realistic and does not mislead the consumer as to the true organic percentage of the formulation. Regardless of whether this is true, they now find themselves in a sticky situation.

In order to capture the market in the US they need to form partnerships with some of the standards that have sprung up during their own long gestation period. But it is difficult to see how this is possible without one side or the other compromising on its principles.

NaTrue has already signed one equivalency agreement with Quality Assurance International (QAI) which certify to the NSF 'Made With Organic' standard and another is pending with the Natural Products Association (NPA), which leaves Cosmos behind in the race to get US standards on board.

But Cosmos is by no means a weakling within Europe and is unlikely to disappear from the market.

It is the result of collaboration between some of Europe’s biggest certification bodies and one can assume the majority of the companies already certified with them will take on the Cosmos standard within the next 18 months, giving it a very large company base.

Nevertheless, the opportunities for global domination are limited. Either Cosmos can persuade all other certification systems to adapt to its principles, or it must compromise its own.

If neither is possible then the industry is left with a fragmented certification landscape, impractical and illogical for an international market, and consumers are left even more confused by the addition of yet another standard to the marketplace.

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