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Guest Comment

Why the US needs private organic cosmetics standards

By Gay Timmons, founder of Oh Organic and chairman of standards body Oasis , 08-Mar-2010
Last updated the 08-Mar-2010 at 18:08 GMT

Organic certification creates an even playing field for the industry, it provides answers for consumers, and it supports credible exports; broadening the marketplace for both American-produced cosmetics and for organic raw materials.

It allows clear education and communication and is vital to the development of new ingredients and technologies. It provides a platform that supports investment in this industry sector.

However, in a recent survey by the Organic Trade Association, 26 percent of its personal care members were certified to any standard, while only 8 percent were certified organic to the USDA National Organic Program.

Meanwhile, over 60 percent of European companies making organic claims are certified. This means that American companies are at a disadvantage in international markets and in their ability to answer US consumers' questions about organic claims.

Why USDA-NOP is not good for certifying cosmetics

The existing USDA-NOP works well for food, not for cosmetics. Cosmetics require synthesized chemicals (surfactants, emulsifiers, preservatives) for functionality.

As a result, the NOP rule has been used to certify as organic, non-food synthetics like soap (potassium cocoate) and mono-and di-glycerides. Synthetics are not “bad”, but they are very different from organic food.

Separate standards for cosmetics will channel the creation of cosmetic ingredients to an appropriate industry sector and protect organic food while supporting increased use of organically farmed materials.

In addition, the NOP must reconcile with the FDA how to regulate ‘organic’ cosmetics. This process will take many years. We are wasting time if we wait for it to become final.

Furthermore, the NOP program never fully included “sustainability” in processing standards as they did in farming.

Farmers are required to prove that they improve their environment as a result of farming, but processors are not required to meet these criteria.

We can have a better standard that includes sustainable practices for manufacturers and drives sustainability throughout the supply chain.

Role of retailers

Retailers did a great job supporting organic food certifiers in the 1990’s, but have seriously dropped the ball for cosmetics claims. In the mid-90s, one could not sell a food product labeled “organic” to a retailer unless one was third party certified to a private standard.

Today, instead of requiring this in the US, retailers are making up their own ‘standards’ that are only lists of ‘allowed’ ingredients and are not focused on ‘organic’ but exclusively support ‘natural’ claims.

In the 90s, we had the perfect confluence of private certifiers, market demand, and retailers demanding third party certification. This drove organic market innovation, supported consumers, and increased the demand for organically farmed products.

During this time the infrastructure of the organic food industry grew to support the need for the NOP. This model gave us a great food program. Retailers should once again support certification, not unverified ingredient claims. They should be the gatekeepers for all of the stakeholders.

Get off the Fence!

The personal care industry needs a clear, sustainable future; that future should give better products and better information to consumers.

As long as we avoid the responsibility for certification of organic claims, we can do neither. Avoiding certification causes us to lose out in our efforts to ‘grow’ organic farming, and few will invest in the future of companies making self-professed ‘organic’ label claims.

The European companies exhibit a robust market for investing in ‘organic’ companies, using private certification.

American personal care companies need to make a choice and get certified - to any of the organic standards.

Choose a standard and go with it

All of the ‘organic’ personal care companies should stop ‘waiting for things to settle down’ and commit to a standard, and tell the National Organic Standards Board to back off; the industry needs to try private certification in the marketplace.

Likewise, retailers should recognize and support the important role they play. As a result, all the stakeholders would benefit.

Fear of lawsuits and lack of market incentives and consumer understanding has effectively stopped the conversation about what defines an ‘organic cosmetic’.

Until we allow this conversation to move forward in the US, we will continue to deal with ‘wishful’ organic labels, an uninformed public and ‘organic’ retailers who support ‘natural’ cosmetics.

This is a betrayal of the original goal of the organic movement: to nurture and grow the organic market place for farmers.

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