The controversy that has been brewing in the natural body care sector for years hit a new high point today, as counterculture icon Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps filed a lawsuit against other major players.
The advocacy group Organic Consumers Association (OCA) reports that the family-owned Dr. Bronner's filed suit in California Superior Court today against numerous brands "to force them to stop making misleading organic labeling claims." Dr. Bronner's and the OCA have been campaigning on this issue for a long time, and had warned the companies that they would pursue legal action if they did not conform to their requests.
The debate is pretty complicated and nuanced, and I first wrote about it back in 2004. The moderate industry group Organic Trade Association has been working to develop guidelines for the personal care industry that will be clear for consumers, perhaps along the lines of the USDA's strong organic rules for food. Hopefully they will be third-party verified, like the food system.
But that hasn't come about yet, so there is still a lot of uncertainty when it comes to "natural" body care. On one hand are those who insist that body care products be held to the same levels of natural and organic as foods, whereas others say the unique properties of the products necessitate different standards to reflect that. For instance, few Americans are likely to want to refrigerate their shampoo to keep it from breaking down quickly.
In the case of the Dr. Bronner's lawsuit, the company is naming brands that are labeled as organic and natural but that also include some nonorganically raised plant material and petrochemicals, or even ingredients that were processed with petrochemicals. The lawsuit calls out such brands as Avalon, Nature's Gate, Jason, Juice, Giovanni, Desert Essence, Estée Lauder, Stella McCartney's CARE, Ecocert and OASIS.
Dr. Bronner's claims its own body care products are made only from certified organic oils, and not any petrochemicals. But the products remain on the relative fringe of the market, and a glance at even the OCA post reveals testimonials from customers who aren't happy with the products. To be sure, they have a place in the market, but what standards should be applied to all companies?
At the current time, consumers have no easy answers when it comes to choosing natural personal care products. As usual, education is key, and trying things out to see what works best for you. The relative greenness of a particular brand or item will have to be evaluated by each consumer, until national standards are approved.
It remains to be seen what effect this lawsuit may have, if any, on the industry.
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