Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps today filed suit under California’s Unfair Competition Law against 10 makers of personal-care products for allegedly using the term “organic” in a deceptive way. The “cheater brands” named in the lawsuit include Avalon Organics, Aveda, Jason, Kiss My Face, and Nature’s Gate.
Dr. Bronner’s products—which include the nation’s top-selling
natural brand of liquid soap, as well as lotions, hair rinses, shaving
gels, and balms—
sport USDA-certified “Organic” and “Made with Organic” seals. are USDA-certified, either to the “Made with organic ingredients” level (for which at least 70 percent of the product must be organic material, excluding water and salt) or to the “Organic” level (at least 95 percent must be organic material, excluding water and salt).
The use of the term “organic” for personal-care products is contentious. Historically, an anything-goes climate prevailed over the sector, since there were no standards governing the “organic” claim for such products. That changed in 2005, when the USDA issued a memorandum clarifying that
its National Organic Program did indeed apply to personal-care products that are made up of organic agricultural content. personal-care products made up of organic agricultural content could be USDA-certified according to its National Organic Program. (They are not required to be, however.)
So now the question is, under what circumstances can the term “organic” be used for personal-care products that don’t adhere to USDA standards? And is it permissible for companies to use the word “organic” in their brand or slogans (as does Avalon Organics, for example) when their products aren’t necessarily organic in the true sense of the word (whatever that may be)?
The press release drops a lot of science, but the basic complaint is that the main cleansing ingredients in the soaps, shampoos, and body washes made by Dr. Bronner’s so-called organic competitors come from conventional (as in nonorganic) agricultural material produced with synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, and often contain petrochemical compounds. The release cites as an example the brand Jason (whose slogan is “Pure, Natural & Organic”) and its use of sodium myreth sulfate, “which involves ... the carcinogenic petrochemical Ethylene Oxide, which produces caricinogenic 1,4-Dioxane as a contaminant.”
Reasonable consumers, the suit contends, expect cleansing ingredients in “organic” personal-care products to be made from organic (not conventional) agricultural material, to be produced without synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides, and to be free of petrochemical compounds.
Dr. Bronner’s vice president Mike Bronner told me that one thing organic doesn’t mean is the common practice of the targeted brands of using hydrosols and floral waters, which he equates to “dropping a tea bag of organic material into tap water—and the product is 85 percent water anyway—and than calling that organic, when the other 15 percent contains petrochemicals.”
Now, back to this issue of standards in the personal-care sector. Just last month, a new standard for personal-care products was announced: OASIS (Organic and Sustainable Industry Standards). OASIS is also named in the Dr. Bronner’s lawsuit, which seeks to prohibit it from certifying personal-care products as “organic” because it allows for hydrogenation, sulfation, synthetic petrochemicals, and for cleansing ingredients to be made from nonorganic material.
More on OASIS later this week.
I’ll end this post with the full list of brands named in the suit:
Avalon Organics and Jason (owned by Hain Celestial)
Aveda (Estee Lauder)
Desert Essence Organics (Country Life)
Head Organics (Cosway)
Kiss My Face
Nature’s Gate (Levlad)