The Lowdown On Natural, Organic & Green

By Susan Stansbury , Contributing Editor | April 12, 2010

wipes manufacturers are trying to woo shoppers with green claims but it takes savvy consumer to know what�s real

There are so many warm and welcoming terms for wipes descriptions and they turn many shoppers’ heads. Labels offer big potential to push consumers over the buying line. But beware of the pitfalls. A letter from a savvy consumer...or even a warning from the FTC...can be the not-so-friendly result when unfounded or misleading descriptions abound.
It helps to look at where terms like natural, organic and biodegradable originate. Taking them individually, we find:

Natural is a general description that's one of those fuzzy-friendly terms that's often meaningless and whose substance is being discussed in U.S. Dept. of Agriculture meetings. Yes, the Dept. of Agriculture tackled this product labeling term for its industry, which is all about USDA certified branded meat programs—not exactly wiping products! Even in the agriculture arena, those involved recognize the need for transparency between USDA and FDA regulations. This could bridge the gap into FDA-regulated skin-contact products.

“When the definition of natural is being applied to personal care products, it may suddenly seem vague. For instance, to create olive oil castile soap, olive oil is altered from its original state by humans. Despite this, castile soap is considered natural,” noted Christie Bailey, a reporter in the industry. “Yet, sodium lauryl sulfate, a detergent that can be derived from coconut, is not.”
To many,  “natural” means that skincare products’ main ingredients are derived from plants. However, the plants may be produced with pesticides, and other details are not defined. “With no federal regulations on using of the term ‘natural’ to describe personal care products, retailers are setting their own quality standards,” wrote Julie Gallagher in Supermarket News last month.
Ms. Gallagher cited examples such as in Seattle, WA, where the natural food cooperative told its personal care product suppliers that they'd need to comply with the Natural Products
Association's Natural Standard  or risk delisting and ridding its shelves of items that don't comply.
Natural does not mean organic. Organic claims are regulated by the USDA for the agriculture industry, with standards for handling and production.  In a USDA investigative report issued in March, it’s charged that enforcement against falsely marketed organic products needs to be stepped up. It’s reasonable to assume a new era of monitoring and enforcement by government is coming.

In the world of wipes, the situation is still undefined. Some marketers such as Nature’s Child are attempting to explain their use of the term. So their Organic Cotton baby wipes are defined as organic “when it is internationally certified and recognized as being chemical free at every stage of production. Our cotton is GMO Certified Organic Cotton by SKAL.”

The same marketers who are selling the “organic baby wipes” are also marketing “bamboo nappies.” Recently the U.S. Federal Trade Commission  sent warning letters to 78 companies about household products marketed as being made from bamboo. Many of the products were actually made out of rayon that may have been derived from bamboo. The recipients of the warnings were retailers like Walmart, Kohl’s and Target. Industry does not need headlines like, “Bamboozled? Bamboo Fabric Far From Eco-Friendly” or “FTC Blows The Whistle On Bamboo”—seen on the internet.

Representatives of products said to be natural, organic, bamboo-friendly and biodegradable have been big presenters at some of our industry's largest shows while the less “exciting” options like regional sourcing to conserve fuel-transport consumption and high-efficiency, low-waste production is not as glamorous.

In these forums, we need to ask questions and cover the unanswered questions more closely.
Biodegradable nondeliverables and greenwashing are coming to the forefront. Products said to be biodegradable are not delivering that result in most North American landfills where they are buried without moisture, light and the environment to degrade.

Biodegradable product and material standards of­ten call for break down in 90 days, nine months or in various short term timeframes in defined conditions. In reality, the bottom line is that eco-deliverables are sorely lacking. While it doesn’t hurt to be ahead of your time by offering biodegradable products, there are many other things companies can do to make a real difference right now. Smart producers are concentrating more now on reducing waste up front, using recycled materials and recycling after use.

Catching up on bio­degradability labeling, the FTC states that misleading claims can result in consequences including corrective advertising, mandatory disclosures in future ads or labeling. And they are actively pursuing offenders.

As an industry, wipes developers, producers and marketers cannot let the attitude toward “Green” become overshadowed by  “GreenWashing.”  There are too many great wipes performance factors for consumers and buyers to have unnatural distractions take center stage. Industry leaders are working to eliminate those distractions.                   v

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