Organic Certification: Industry Standards, Non-Profit Organizations, and Greenwashing

Today I am exploring Organic certifications, the role of federal agencies, and the growing trend of “Greenwashing.”

The whole “environmentally friendly” thing has become a bit of a fad as of late, and one crafty trick many companies have begun doing is something called “greenwashing”. This is when a company advertises its products as being “natural” or “eco-friendly”, but this is just a front they are putting on for the consumer. As a consumer, you must be aware of this and fall victim. This makes me angry personally because its so easy to get bitter and resentful to the environmental movement and to going organic. I’ve encountered times when I think I’m buying from an okay company and then I read the ingredients of a product and way down the list there are several toxic chemicals. And I roll my eyes in frustration and think, “damn, that’s not all natural and hypo-allergenic like the name and front label says.” So the question is, how can you tell if a company or a product is luring you with greenwashing?

First off, think about the company:

Is this company known for deceiving its customers? Are they known for violating human or environmental rights and laws in the past? What are the values of the company and its top executives/major share holders?

Secondly, simply check the ingredients of the product:

Many products that claim to be “natural” actually contain harmful chemicals, and its easy to catch these. If you see a promising thing and check the ingredients list and see something like “propylparaben” listed – that’s not natural.

Lastly, check for labels that certify the product and the ingredients.

There are a variety of labels that can verify a product as being natural, organic, or not tested on animals. These labels come from a variety of government and independent organizations that I will go into more detail about.

USDA Organic Certification:

The USDA certifies personal care products under the National Organic Program (NOP) only if they contain ingredients that are considered to be agricultural products. This is a marketing program under the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service and was developed as a result of the Organic Foods Production Act passed by congress in 1990, which required there be regulations in place to standardize and regulate organic practices and substances. Farms and production facilities have to be certified through a state or private agent who is accredited by the USDA. The USDA has standards that these agents must follow to ensure unbiased and consistent certification methods.

The NOP regulations deal with production and handling standards, and labeling of products. For the organic label, crops cannot have supplemental nutrients through conventional pesticide or petroleum-based fertilizer use. Animals on organic farms must be given organic feed and cannot receive antibiotics or growth hormones. The use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation or sewage sludge is prohibited in production and handling. In general, only natural substances can be used, but there is a list of specific exceptions to this rule called the National List of Allowed Synthetic and Non-Synthetic Substances. The labeling standards address how products can be labeled in reference to the amount of organic ingredients. There are four categories of labeling for products. The first is “100 percent organic”, which is when a product contains only organically produced ingredients with the exception of water and salt. These can show the USDA organic seal on the front of the product, and have the name and address of the certifying agent. The second classification of “Organic” requires a product to contain at least 95% organic ingredients; the other components have to be either non-agricultural and on an approved list, or non-organically made agricultural products that have no available organic option and are still on the approved list. These products can also display the organic seal. The third classification of “made with organic ingredients,” includes products containing at least 70% organic ingredients. These cannot display the USDA seal, but they can list up to three of the main ingredients that are organic. The last category contains less than 70% organic ingredients and cannot display the organic seal or use the word organic on their front label. They can mention the specific USDA certified ingredients under the ingredients information area. The USDA doesn’t regulate the production or labeling of personal care products that do not contain agricultural ingredients and the standards do not include regulation of food safety or nutrition. Selling or labeling a product as organic by the USDA standards without certification can result in a fine of up to $11,000.

Other Organic Certification Programs and Labels (plus some organizations)

There are a number of organizations that certify organic and natural products as either independent agents or certifying agents of the USDA. The blog Nurture Nature Project compiled a reasonably complete list of certifying labels to look for on products:  There are also a number of important organizations aiming to improve organic standards and corporate integrity with respect to environmental and social responsibilities.

Oregon Tilth Label

Oregon Tilth: Tilth is a non-profit organization dedicated to environmentally friendly and socially equitable agriculture. Based in Oregon, Tilth is dedicated to research, education, and advocacy concerning sustainable agricultural methods. They advocate for rural and urban agriculture, and provide classes on organic and sustainable procedures. They are also USDA accredited certification agents.

NPA Logo

Natural Product Association/NPA: The NPA is a US organization that promotes and advocates for natural products. The NPA is one of the oldest organizations in the natural products industry and has a strong lobbying presence in DC as an industry watchdog. The NPA focuses on natural products and ingredients, but have no organic requirements.

Campaign for Safe Cosmetics: Co-founded by the EWG in 2004, this is a coalition of non-profit organizations supporting environmental awareness and public health. The campaign is dedicated to consumer and worker protection through legislative reforms and corporate responsibility. Many organic and natural products also show the cruelty-free label that is the jumping bunny logo. This logo means the product has not been tested on animals.

OTA membership label

Organic Trade Association: Founded in 1985 in the US and Canada, the OTA is a member-based business association for organic products and services in North America. Their mission statement is to promote organic trade within the food, personal care, and textiles industries to benefit society and the environment. Their goals are to help promote organic standards in business, assure consumers of organic integrity, and aid in pushing forward legislation affecting organic regulations. The membership list for the OTA is extensive and diverse, and upon scanning their list I noticed some of their members include: Annie’s, Aubrey Organics Inc, Celestial Seasonings, Dr. Bronner’s Magin, Full Circle Organic Farm LLC, Giovanni Cosmetics, Oregon Tilth, ONEgroup, Seventh Generation, Sierra Club, Stash Tea, Tom’s Maine, and Whole Foods.

The Organic Consumers Association is similar to the OTA, but is specific to consumer trust and public out-reach.

Well, this post is getting exceeding long, so I’m going to wrap up and post this already! In my research I have come upon contradicting information that I want to explore deeper. For instance, I have noticed some companies that are members of the OTA or use the organic certification, but they contain ingredients that I don’t consider natural or organic. I’m not sure if this is a loophole with the four categories of being organic, or if there are more detailed regulations on the kind of chemicals that can still be found in products. It’s frustrating for consumers to have to sort through all of this information to simply know what is safe to use, and I think that’s a big flaw with this whole environmental and organic movement. In the end, we shouldn’t have to worry about what we use or what we eat – if its available, it should be safe. Companies shouldn’t be allowed to make products containing toxic and dangerous chemicals. It seems like simple logic, but the economics and politics behind the whole industry causes changes to occur incredibly gradually, and industry almost always has a strong hold over the government – and industry generally is concerned only with the bottom line. It’s unfortunate that we have come so far, but still we have to fight to simply be assured that what we’re using and eating is simply safe for our bodies. It doesn’t seem right, but that’s how it is at the moment. Hopefully we’ll see changes in the next decade.

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