What’s in a name?

The industry has developed standards for labeling “natural” personal care and cleaning products.

By Carol Radice

Recognizing the growing need to standardize the term “natural” to help shoppers and retailers more easily navigate the health and wellness aisles, the Natural Product Association (NPA) has crafted guidelines for two natural product categories—personal care items and home care products, which includes laundry and cleaning products.

Officials at NPA note that the goal was simple—help shoppers become more educated about ingredients and processes considered natural. The thought was that by helping shoppers to recognize which products meet the standard for natural it would cut down on the confusion at the shelf.  “When everyone from Target to grocery stores are selling products labeled ‘natural,’ increasingly consumers were finding themselves in front of unfamiliar brands and no one was around to answer their questions,” says Daniel Fabricant, vice president of global government and scientific affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based organization. “Now consumers have a way to easily identify a natural personal care or home care product.”

What’s more, Fabricant says the standard gives manufacturers, suppliers and retailers the information and tools they need to maintain high levels of consistency among products labeled natural. “For retailers, this is an opportunity to build consumer confidence and loyalty. Our seal guarantees a product that is being called natural truly is. Added transparency can be a great equalizer.”

Why start with personal care and home cleaning? Fabricant says these two areas were experiencing tremendous growth and with that came an explosion of products making natural claims. For example, he says they found a number of companies making home care products that were positioning themselves as natural, but that don’t necessarily have clean ingredient profiles. “There are certain ingredients, like dioxins for example, that simply should not be in a product—period,” says Fabricant.

Oakland, Calif.-based Clorox was part of the consortium asked to offer input for the guidelines and was one of the first to pursue certification for its Green Works brand of cleaning products. Given the number of products making a natural claim today, company spokesperson David Kargas says the timing for a natural product standards was ideal. “Overall, there were about 13,000 new natural products launched in 2009 and as of this June of the number was 5,000,” he says. “Studies shows that people are being inundated with the natural claim, but the vast majority of them say they have no idea what the term means.”

Kargas calls the guidelines a good starting point. “As a living document, you can expect to see changes throughout time that further infuse consumer confidence,” he says.

Burt’s Bees, another supporter of the NPA guidelines, currently has more than 70 natural personal care products certified and approval is expected for their remaining products, according to company officials. “While many retailers have previously created special sections for natural personal care, we are finding that consumers would prefer locations more intuitive and consistent with their in-store shopping habits and for personal care, that’s in the HBC section,” says John Haydock, senior vice president, global brand marketing and activation for the Durham, N.C.-based company,. “How­ever, the growing proximity of natural to conventional products further reinforces the need to help consumers differentiate natural products at shelf via merchandising.”

Gaining momentum

Generating awareness will be an important component for the NPA’s program to gain additional traction, according to industry officials. To date, there are about 20 companies representing about 300 natural personal care products that have been certified, but that number is expected to grow.

The NPA is also in the process of certifying about 100 ingredients for personal care. “The response from ingredient makers has been very positive many of whom are responding by making more technology available to suppliers,” says Fabricant. As this continues to occur he says the NPA will move one step closer to asking that 100% of ingredients— not the current 95% level—be natural to achieve certification.

According to Kargas, the first Green Works products featuring the NPA seal began shipping in June. The NPA seal is displayed on the neck of the bottle to communicate clearly at retail that the NPA has certified the product, Kargas says. He says that Clorox will work with retailers on a case-by-case basis to determine the best way to implement the program and generate awareness.

Haydock points out the progress thus far is impressive and says he is optimistic that impact at shelf will only deepen as more products go through certification and incur pack changes. “For our part, we’ll continue conversations with retailers on the best ways to implement merchandising programs for certified products,” he says.

As for future natural category standards, Fabricant and his group are setting their sights high—focusing on the natural food category next. He admits it could take them a little longer to craft this set of guidelines due to the scope and complexity of the category, “I would expect that we’ll have something that’s workable in about a year,” he says.

Still evolving

The ultimate goal may have been to increase consumer confidence, but Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for Publix Super Markets says customers remain more concerned about what they ingest than what goes on their skin. “I’m not sure how much customer awareness there is of the seal or the ingredient list behind the seal,” she says.

Of the suppliers that have chosen not to pursue NPA certification, most agree that there should be a standard but differ on strategies for implementation. Others note the lack of promotion as a critical misstep of the program.

Company officials at Seventh Generation, based in Burlington, Vt., say that while they participated in the drafting of the NPA standard and applaud the group’s work, they are unlikely to apply for certification.

According to, Martin Wolf, a product director with the company, many factors were considered in the decision not to seek certification, including the company’s own standards, how consumers would interpret the presence of the NPA seal on Seventh Generation products, and the cost to certify. “Displaying the NPA seal might suggest Seventh Generation is at parity with other products that display the seal when, in fact, we rise to a higher standard,” says Wolf.

In addition, company officials point out that based on research there is very little consumer awareness of seals in general, in part because most organizations do not have the resources to generate consumer awareness around the value and meaning of the seals. “We believe this is definitely the case with the NPA,” says John Murphy, senior vice president of sales. “Without significant educational support this seal will simply become another icon on package and serve no clear purpose.”

Others, such as Allen Stedman, president of Planet Inc., based in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, says that the label “natural” can be misleading in the context of detergent-based cleaning products.  “The use of the fuzzy and appealing term ‘natural’ to identify a vegetable-based cleaner confuses the issues, and will ultimately undermine consumer confidence in what constitutes a green product,” he says. “Instead, we should identify what ‘green’ claims are important and meaningful, and promote certifications that authenticate and verify the performance of products in those areas.”

Some natural personal care companies are also questioning the research behind the new guidelines, including officials at derma e and Eco Lips. “It is not clear what scientific research, if any, they used to determine which ingredients should be excluded from natural skin care formulas,” says Linda Miles, vice president of derma e Natural Bodycare, based in Simi Valley, Calif.

She suggests the process to classify a personal care product as natural is multifaceted and that guidelines should protect the delivery of natural ingredients in order to provide the consumer with the healthiest and most beneficial skin care product. “Natural ingredients are powerful and complex with an incredible array of active compounds plus various other phytochemicals and must be formulated to ensure the best delivery possible in order to help restore balance and produce healthy skin,” says Miles.

Mark Patterson, CEO of Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based Eco Lips, says the National Organic Program’s USDA Organic certification is a better fit for his company’s products. “We hold ourselves to higher standard than what is currently in place by the NPA and feel that the NOP’s program requirements are more in line with the essence of the word natural,’ says Patterson.

The positive effect of the NPA guidelines, notes Patterson, is that it adds some credibility to products that hold the seal and has helped push some companies to improve on the ingredients contained in their products. He says while the number of personal care companies that have certified their products is relatively low, the fact that some key players have been early entrants should help the program gain traction. “Ultimately its success depends on whether or not consumers trust that products bearing the seal are natural enough.”

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