Organic and natural – terms often used when describing food, beauty or home care products.
But what do they actually mean? Instinctively, organic and natural just sounds better but when we tried to articulate why they are in fact better we realized the answer was beyond us! So, we thought it was important that we get to the bottom of this!
WHY IS NATURAL AND ORGANIC IMPORTANT?
Impact on the environment: If a product is not truly organic and natural then it’s likely it’s been made using modern farming methods. These methods typically use genetically modified seeds, pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals to maximize yield and productivity.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with productivity. Except when it negatively impacts the immediate environment in which the plants are grown and the broader environment.
A good example is the runoff of wastewater or greywater from the use of pesticides and herbicides. This pollutes waterways, streams and rivers and eventually finds its way into the ocean.
Another classic example is the impact of pesticides on wild bee populations, which ironically has flow-on effects to the agriculture industry and our food supply as bees are critical for pollinating many of the crops that feed humans. Unsurprisingly, our stance is to avoid (where possible) consumable products that rely on modern farming practices that negatively impact our environment.
Impact on our health
When it comes to food, the jury is still out on whether organic and natural is better for you. Though, it’s been found that these types of food generally have higher nutritional value than non-organic produce. How much this benefits our health, in the long run, is still uncertain.
Considering the pesticides, insecticides and other chemicals used in the production process we take the precautionary approach to opt for organic and preferably local produce. Even though science doesn’t (yet) wholeheartedly support this position, our decision is not only based on our health but also the environment.
The same can be said for our skin. It’s our biggest organ and since it’s porous anything applied to it is absorbed into our bloodstream and lymphatic system.
While the FDA and large cosmetic companies maintain that chemicals typically used in beauty products (e.g. parabens, sodium lauryl sulfate, petrolatum, phthalates, synthetic polymers, synthetic fragrances) are safe in small quantities, no one really knows the long-term effects of their application.
It’s also telling that the EU has banned well over a thousand different personal product ingredients that have been linked to cancer, birth defects, genetic mutation and/or reproductive harm. It goes without saying that we think it’s best to avoid them!
For quite a few years organic and natural products have been trending. Which makes sense as we become more conscious about our health and the plight of the environment. But with this, of course, comes misleading marketing and false claims. Which causes confusion. It can be really tricky to know the difference between the real-deal and the not-so-real-deal. We try to shed a little more light on this below.
WHAT DOES ORGANIC MEAN?
Across the USA, UK and Australia certified “organic” has a very similar definition. If you’re buying certified organic generally your products (food or the ingredients in your cosmetics, for example) come for a farming system which uses:
- No manufactured herbicides or artificial fertilizers
- No artificial or synthetic colours, preservatives or chemicals (including parabens and sulphates
- No routine use of antibiotics
- No GMOs (genetically modified organisms) or growth regulators
- A very limited number of pesticides allowed
- More sustainable land management
Organic farms are one of the most environmentally, socially and economically sustainable methods of production. For example, old school crop rotation, animal and plant manures and hand weeding are used to maintain and grow produce. A real win for the environment!
WHAT DOES ALL NATURAL MEAN?
While “organic”, for the most part, is a fairly regulated term (across the US, EU, UK and Australia), the same cannot be said for “natural” or “all-natural”. Unless you spot a recognized certification label, natural doesn’t mean organic, in fact, it can mean just about anything.
Inconsistent? Yes! Especially in the beauty and cosmetics market which is worth (in the US alone) somewhere in the region of $62 Billion. You would expect there to be at least some regulation but, according to Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, this is actually one of the least regulated industries out there.
Some say the reason for lack of regulation is the difficulty in drawing the line between what is and what is not natural…for example, arsenic, mercury and poisonous mushrooms are “natural” but probably wouldn’t make the cut in a cosmetic or food context.
We think that’s a little weak. Most consumers trust marketing claims and slogans and generally don’t read the ingredient lists.
Thankfully, there are some certification bodies (more on these below) which have attempted to draw the line. Generally, “natural” means:
- Ingredients must come from plants, flowers and mineral origins found in nature
- No genetically modified (GMOs) ingredients
- No parabens, sulfates or other harmful substances
- Limited or no petrochemical ingredients
- Never tested on animals
- Manufacturing process retains the integrity of the natural ingredients
NAVIGATING ORGANIC & NATURAL LABELS
For the reasons above, we believe it’s important to look for certified natural and preferably organic products wherever possible. It’s not just about our health or the environment, it’s both.
We like to refer to our favourite Venn diagram below. Organic/natural is a critical sustainability criterion for choosing products or brands that are socially and environmentally conscious. As you’ll notice below, there are a couple more criteria to consider.
But how do you go about navigating the pitfalls of marketing claims and false advertising? Well, that’s a good question. Here’s our simple two-step approach that we use to sort out the good from the bad.
Let’s drill into this approach a little further…
NATURAL & ORGANIC: INGREDIENTS CHECKLIST
It takes less than 30 seconds to scan the fine print and identify if it’s the real deal. And the more you do it the easier it gets.
It’s also the most pragmatic way to deal with the issue of “greenwashing” (i.e. companies that make false or misleading claims about their products being natural or organic).
On the flip side, be aware that some companies, especially small start-ups, genuinely use organic and natural ingredients. Though they might not have the capital to get an “organic” or “natural” certification (or source organic ingredients), which can be a very expensive exercise. We support many brands which fall into this category!
As a rule of thumb, if you can’t quickly understand what the product is made of then it’s probably a bad sign. Ingredients that contain the likes of “poly”, “-eth-” or “oxy” are synthetic and usually a no-go. Phthalates (artificial fragrances), parabens and sulphates are also best avoided.
Having said that, there are ingredients that sound nasty but in fact, are perfectly safe. For example, sodium chloride is salt, Mentha Piperita is peppermint essential oil and Stellaria paradox is shea butter.
Organic and natural ingredients and products can be expensive. In the cosmetics context, they can also be unpredictable in the formulation and without synthetic preservatives their shelf life is limited.
With this in mind, it pays for manufacturers (in the short term) to use the latter wherever possible. As this directly affects profit margins. And where profit margins are at stake, companies can go to questionable lengths to gain consumer trust companies by making false claims.
Our preference is to go for organic or natural where possible. By choosing products that tick the organic and/or natural box you’re doing a few things:
- Making a conscious and healthy choice to avoid toxic chemicals.
- Living the environment a helping hand.
- Saying no to animal cruelty
- Supporting progressive companies who are trying to do the right thing.
So, look out for the certified organic and natural labels or read the ingredients list to ensure you’re getting what you pay for.
We hope this has shed some light on a rather grey area in the world of food and beauty.