Tuesday 29 April 2008
A long-simmering dispute over the definition of organic personal care products boiled over into court Monday, when Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps filed a lawsuit charging many of its competitors with deceptively marketing their soaps and lotions.
The lawsuit - filed in San Francisco Superior Court - targeted many widely known cosmetic manufacturers including Estee Lauder, Kiss My Face, Hain Celestial and Stella McCartney America. It also named smaller firms such as Mill Valley-based Juice Beauty.
In the suit, Dr. Bronner's accused the firms of false advertising by labeling products "organic" that contain relatively little organic material, that contain synthetic chemicals, or that use petrochemicals in processing.
"This is the corrosive marketing of the cosmetics industry that hollowed out the meaning of 'natural' and now is doing the same with 'organic'," said David Bronner, president of the 60-year-old company.
The lawsuit is evidence of the growing clout of green consumers, particularly in the arena of personal care products. Sales of natural body care products grew from $499 million in 2004 to $685 million in 2006 - an increase of 37 percent, according to the consumer products research firm Mintel.
Both large and small companies have been wooing eco-minded consumers, with big corporations including Estee Lauder acquiring brands such as Aveda that market themselves as natural or organic.
At the same time, though, there are no federal regulations governing either natural or organic personal care products.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture sets strict standards for organic food. But it doesn't have a similar standard for soaps, shampoos and cosmetics.
Some firms like Dr. Bronner's have voluntarily adopted the USDA's organic food standard for their body care products, which requires that 95 percent of the ingredients be organic if
Some other firms like Juice Beauty adhere to California's standard for organic body care products, which is less demanding than the USDA food standard.
And still other firms simply label their body care products organic without trying to meet any external guidelines.
"Companies are all over the board with what the word organic means," said Stacy Malkan, the Berkeley author of "Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry."
For several years, cosmetic companies and consumer groups have started trying to sort things out by coming up with voluntary standards.
But they haven't managed to reach a consensus. A nonprofit standard-setting group called NSF International released draft rules for organic personal care products in January. Then in March, 30 cosmetic companies, including Estee Lauder's Aveda, came out with their own set of rules called Organic and Sustainability Industry Standards (OASIS).
"This particular industry seems incapable of coming to any agreement about it," said Ann Blake, an environmental consultant in Alameda.
In Monday's lawsuit, Dr. Bronner's accused OASIS as well as 10 individual companies of misleading consumers by watering down the term organic.
Who Decides What's Organic?
Among the issues raised in the suit are whether organic personal care products must contain a certain percentage of organic ingredients, whether they may contain petrochemicals and whether they may contain synthetic preservatives.
An OASIS spokeswoman declined to comment on the lawsuit because she hadn't yet seen it, but denied trying to mislead anyone.
Meanwhile, some companies questioned Dr. Bronner's right to define organic.
"We meet the standards of the California Organic Products Act, which is the only regulation in place for organic skin care," said Karen Behnke of Juice Beauty. "The last we know, Bronner was not appointed by any government agency to set a standard. I'm not sure why we would have to follow a standard set by him."
For now, it's unclear how or when a clear definition of organic body care products will emerge for consumers to rely upon.
It's possible that a new administration in Washington might take a more active role in setting organic standards. Or one of the competing industry efforts at standard-setting may win out.
Or - with the Dr. Bronner's lawsuit - the courts may end up deciding what constitutes an organic soap or skin lotion.
"The question that needs to be answered," said Malkan, "is, 'How organic is "organic" going to be?' It will be interesting to see how this plays out."
For More Information
To read a copy of Dr. Bronner's lawsuit over organic labeling of personal care products, see links.sfgate.com/ZDEV.
For information on OASIS, a new organic standard for personal care products that is criticized in the lawsuit, see links.sfgate.com/ZDEW.
Another proposed standard for organic body care products, by NSF International, is at links.sfgate.com/ZDEX.
The Organic Consumers Association has a list of personal care product companies that meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture's existing organic standards for food at links.sfgate.com/ZDEY.
Source: Chronicle research