Words Mean Nothing: The plight of natural and organic beauty labeling

By Deanna Utroske contact

- Last updated on GMT

Words Mean Nothing: The plight of natural and organic beauty labeling

Related tags: Cosmetics

Depending on whom you ask, personal care and cosmetic regulations in the US are overly nuanced, too convoluted, or not exacting enough. All the same, trends and marketing strategies have collided in recent years to make ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ beauty product labeling delightfully problematic. Here, Cosmetics Design explores the challenge.

At the end of the day, ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ mean nothing.

But this is only true because these terms mean so many things to so many different people, including the full and diverse range of beauty industry constituents.

As clean living advocate and green beauty blogger Sarita Coren wrote this Spring, “There has been a dilution of the meaning of natural and organic and somewhere along the way, the truly authentic, natural brands are paying the price.”

Concern with the meaning of terms like ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ isn’t unique to the blogosphere. Consumers what legible clarification too, and countless industry insiders believe their perspective is the right one and are eagerly awaiting the day when the rest of the world catches up.  

Leaders of every sized brand, scientists in labs as well as those working unconventional settings, as well as consumers would very much like to find a truth in the consequential language pertaining to that which is clean, green, natural, organic beauty.

While some are awaiting the day that terms like these are carefully legislated at the national or global level, in the meantime, marketers, shoppers and executives are calling the shots. 

Truth in advertising

This March ACI and ICMAD co-hosted the annual Legal, Regulatory, and Compliance Forum in New York City​. Over the course of three days, expert speakers and knowledgeable attendees from across the country discussed, debated, and dissevered the wants, the needs, and the reality of beauty product claims as well as the nuances of marketing and labeling language.

In trying to clarify the issues around ‘naturals’ and ‘organics’, speakers at the event, instead, made clear that the definition and application of these terms in the beauty industry is at best fragmented and otherwise completely arbitrary.

“To the FTC ‘all natural’ means no synthetic ingredients,” ​according to Deborah Marrone, assistant director of the Northeastern region for the Federal Trade Commission.And, the “FDA [was, at the time,] in the process of defining ‘natural’,” ​according to Annie M. Ugurlayan, senior staff attorney with the Advertising Self-Regulatory Council.

Consumer perception

Once the term ‘organic’ became attached to plants grown for use as food without an assist from pesticides, growth hormones, genetic modifications, etc., the word lost its meaning as an adjective describing carbon-based gasses, liquids, and solids—unless, of course, a cosmetic chemist is involved, which in the world of beauty and personal care product formulating is necessarily the case. And, therein lies the rub.

The expectation for items labeled ‘organic’ varies radically; and until there is a consensus, it and similar terms will remain meaningless. “I think natural beauty consumers are still confused as to which products are truly natural versus naturally inspired,” ​Naira Aslanian, project manager of the consumer products division at Kline Group,told the press earlier this year.  “At times, they can look at naturalness claims with skepticism,” ​she added. 

Realistically sustainable

Most manufacturers of packaging, intermediaries, ingredients, and finished product formulations would very much like to deliver against governmental and consumer expectations (should they ever become transparent); but in the interim, running a business that has a steady supply of inputs and a steady supply of buyers and steady growth is all it takes to be ‘sustainable’.

Environmentally conscious supply, manufacturing, formulations, and even waste initiatives are on the rise. Yet until the ecological and the economical balance out, natural FMCGs at industry scale may be completely unrealistic.

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