Reaching for a bottle of organic rosemary shampoo in the sanctity of my neighbourhood health food store, I feel my soul rinsed squeaky clean. For a few extra dollars, I can buy a little piece of purity and maybe redeem some of the guilty moments I spent in that flashy new pharmacy up the street. But while my conscience is temporarily assuaged, consumer advocates warn that if you're pouring faith and cash into organic body care, you're probably being duped. There are, after all, no rules in place safeguarding organic standards on a national level in either Canada or the U.S., at least for personal care products.
"We used to think the main threat to organic integrity was corporate agri-business," says Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association. But he now believes the threat lies within the natural body care community. The Minnesota-based advocacy group has launched a vigorous campaign against a slew of "natural" brands for what Cummins says amounts to misleading marketing: selling so-called organic goods that often contain more synthetic and chemical ingredients than organic ones. Some are even slipping in petroleum-derived foamers and fillers, a major no-no with green shoppers and many of the health stores that cater to them. And more and more are boosting their green quotients with ingredients like organic floral water or botanic infusions - which Cummins says boil down to little more than fancy water (a substance that can't be legally counted toward the percentage of organic content in food products).
Who's pumping out these pseudo-organic soaps and scrubs? Cummins points to some of the biggest names in natural body care: Nature's Gate, Jason, Kiss My Face and Avalon. A couple have even trademarked the word "organic" in their names but offer products like Jason's "pure and organic" No Nicks All-Natural Shaving Butter, in which not one organic ingredient can be found anywhere in the label.
This subterfuge is sparking outrage in health food stores like Toronto's Big Carrot, which is calling for more rigorous labelling and asking Carrot customers to join in. Its standards committee has also started assessing the ingredients of the scrubs and soaps it carries to ensure they're up to snuff.
Tomas Nimmo, manager of the Canadian office of Quality Assurance International, the body that certifies organic ingredients for many of the companies in the line of fire, says body care brands are being unfairly targeted. "Why the Organic Consumers Association is on a rampage is not really certain," says Nimmo. Conventional body care products and cosmetics are, after all, far worse in terms of chemical content than any of the so-called organics out there. And, adds Nimmo, "If you went 100 per cent organic, you'd basically see the industry disappear, because you'd have to be so pure, and that quantity of organic product isn't available."
The health food store brands also rush to defend their use of synthetics. "There is no product available today in bath and body care that is 100 per cent natural or 100 per cent certified organic, because if you were using a natural shampoo with natural ingredients it would spoil within about three days," says Avalon's director of communications, Ellie Weiser. "If we weren't using certain (synthetic) preservatives that are safe, you'd have to refrigerate your shampoo, conditioner and moisturizer," something Weiser and her peers feel consumers aren't ready to do.
But the Big Carrot can point to several products on its shelves that are indeed 100 per cent organic and don't call for any fridge time.
"When there is a natural replacement, we do by all means use the natural and organic replacement," says Angella Green, Jason's marketing coordinator, though she couldn't explain the absence of organic ingredients in products like No Nicks despite labelling claims. "That product hasn't been reformulated yet," offers Green.
But even Jason customer service rep Christy Rawlings (who first told NOW that the company only uses natural ingredients) admitted, "Anyone can call anything organic and natural." And until recently, no one seemed to notice. California is the only state with any regs on the matter, and it doesn't take a stand against the use of synthetics, petrochemicals or floral waters in organic goods. That sage shower gel only has to contain enough certified matter to meet quotas.
While there's been no move to tackle the topic in Canadian law, Quebec's accreditation board stepped up this spring and announced that by 2004 all cosmetic and personal care products with the word "organic" in their labels will have to be, at the very least, verified by the provincial board.
To fill in the gaps in the rest of the continent, the Organic Trade Association (OTA), a North America-wide industry group, formed a personal care task force to draft voluntary guidelines for its members. Debate is now raging as to whether beauty products should be held to food-grade organic standards (which would bar the use of most synthetic preservatives and petrochems) and whether floral waters should be allowed in the final tally of organic content.
"There's quite a bit of difference between how some products are made versus others," says Holly Givens, the OTA's communications director. "There's a need to develop consistent standards and have consensus on what those should be." But Givens says it will probably take a couple of years for that consensus to be reached and for standards to be completed.
"Does that mean companies can (mislead) the public for the next three or four years?" asks Cummins. "By that time, they will have driven every honest company off the market."
But some of the companies accused of greenwashing have already started reformulating their product lines, bumping up their organic content and phasing out some of the most contentious chemicals.
"We've been going organic and even more natural," says Jason's Green. "It's just very difficult when you want a shampoo to lather great, smell good, make your hair shiny and still have a three-year shelf life."