CREDIT: <a href="">Alfredo Neto</a> (<a href="">CC</a>).
CREDIT: Alfredo Neto (CC).

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Briefings: Organic Cosmetics Break Out

Jul 25, 2007

Maybe she's born with it, or maybe she's just using organic cosmetics.

In July, the Hain Celestial Group, a leading natural and organic products company, launched the first skincare line made from ethically sourced cocoa butter. Shoppers already know the company for its Earth's Best organic baby food and Soy Dream products, but its Queen Helene® Naturals skin cremes are the first-ever cosmetics to bear the Fair Trade Certified™ logo.

Is the makeup counter poised to go green? Maybe. What's certain is the global cosmetics industry is enjoying an unprecedented boom and the organic market is the next frontier.

In 2000, the U.S. market for natural and organic products was $190 million. In the years since, that figure has risen 67 percent, now topping $318 million. The success of niche retailers such as Whole Foods and Wild Oats has inspired larger retailers to get in on the organic and fair trade craze. You can now buy Fair Trade Starbucks coffee at Target and organic fertilizer at Home Depot. Wal-Mart has introduced Natural and Organic Bodycare Oasis displays into 366 of its North American stores.

Organic lifestyle products now offer consumers more than a one-off chance to buy green. It's no longer just about hormone-free milk. Consumers are now looking for the organic imprint on everything from clothes to cars to cosmetics.

"As consumers become more interested in what they're taking into their bodies, they've also become more interested in what they're applying topically to the body," Euromonitor International senior research analyst Virginia Lee recently told the Wall Street Journal.

Sales growth in the beauty care industry topped 5 percent last year according to Euromonitor, a global market research firm that tracks statistics and trends in cosmetics. Demand for natural and organic products drove much of this growth. Skin care, the industry's largest sector, saw worldwide sales of over $60 billion in 2006.

With all this money spent on organic and natural cosmetics, who is policing the industry? The U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program allows companies to label cosmetics as organic if they meet the same criteria governing its organic certification of food. But the USDA has been criticized for allowing companies to greenwash their products by incorporating organic ingredients with little or no chemical function. The Food and Drug Administration is also powerless to enforce the rules. Its website notes: "[The] FDA does not have the resources or authority under the law for pre-market approval of cosmetic product labeling. It is the manufacturer's and/or distributor's responsibility to ensure that products are labeled properly."

"Under federal law, companies can put virtually anything they wish into personal care products, and many of them do. Mercury, lead, and placenta extract—all of these and many other hazardous materials are in products that millions of Americans, including children, use every day. Mothers shouldn't have to worry about what is in the baby lotion they use," said Jane Houlihan, Vice President of Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization. EWG runs Skin Deep, an online cosmetics safety guide that tracks nearly 25,000 products for the presence of toxic chemicals.

Published reports suggest that daily makeup wearers absorb up to five pounds of harmful chemicals a year. Bad publicity has led many companies to abandon the use of common chemical preservatives such as parabens. But the reluctance of the USDA and FDA to provide effective oversight of the organic cosmetic industry means that self-enforcement is likely to remain the order of the day.

"We really need to start questioning the products we are putting on our skin and not just assume that the chemicals in them are safe," biochemist and organic advocate Richard Bence told the UK Telegraph recently.

British fashion designer Stella McCartney's skincare line, Care, claims to be 100 percent organic and packaged in recyclable materials. (McCartney even encourages customers to send their empty containers back to be recycled.) Care moisturizers and cleansers bear the certification mark of Ecocert, a French organization accredited by the USDA to perform certification activities under the National Organic Program. They also verify the conformity of organic products to regulations in Europe and Japan and carry out inspections and certifications in more than 80 countries.

In Germany, the trade federation BDIH has been enforcing comprehensive guidelines for certified natural cosmetics since 1996. The Queen Helene® Naturals skin creams are certified fair trade by TransFair USA, an independent, third-party certifier that seeks to guarantee fair market prices and fair wages for farmers and workers in the supply chain.

In Japan, too, the popularity of organic beauty products has exploded in recent years. But Japanese cosmetics firms such as Shiseido, Kanebo, and SK-11 are seeking greener living through history, not chemistry. Drawing on traditional recipes, many firms are trotting out products featuring natural ingredients such as seaweed, rice bran, and ground adzuki beans.

"Japanese culture has a constant need for innovation. As a nation we are always looking for something new, extreme and strange. At the moment, it's by reinventing ancient beauty practices by giving them a new high tech edge," Mikiko Ashkiri recently told the UK Daily Mail. Ashkiri is a Cambridge University research associate studying modern Japanese cosmetic practices.

The Japanese ethos, while likely closer to the spirit of the organic movement, is not free of potentially controversial labeling issues. Some ingredients found in traditional Japanese recipes may prove less than appealing to Western consumers. Treatments that feature nightingale droppings and bull semen are likely to find new names when they reach shelves in the United States. (There is precedent for such name-switching. The widely used food dye cochineal is made from ground up beetles.)

The international hodgepodge approach to organic certification and labeling clearly has limited effectiveness. And many cosmetic companies, whether in Japan or the West, knowingly make unverifiable claims about the provenance and potency of their products. An industry that doesn't mind marketing such dubious products as anti-aging and anti-cellulite creams seems prone to resist the imposition of uniform regulatory standards.

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