Whatever opinion you may have about Whole Foods, you cannot deny that the company has had an enormous influence on consumer awareness about the sourcing of food. Now consumers are expressing more interest in the ingredients that are not only on their dinner tables, but comprise their personal care products. More large companies are capitalizing on this trend: if you were to believe the claims behind some leading brands’ marketing campaigns, you would think those bottles of shampoos and body lotions were full of fruits and vegetables.
Of course, reading the labels of many products at your local drugstore or supermarket closely reveals words that a master’s student in chemistry needs to decipher. By-products like sodium laurel sulfate are only the beginning—quite often that panacea in the bottle, whether it is avocado oil or something from the Amazonian rain forest, is such a small part of the ingredient mix—often having a smaller proportion of the mix than the ubiquitous “fragrance.” The labeling of such terms as “natural” and “organic” has moved from the plastic food wrapper to the plastic body wash bottle, so Whole Foods is trying to nip this potential issue in the bud.
Whole Foods is now informing its personal care product suppliers that they have less a year to verify their “organic” claims. Everything from eye cream to ear care on Whole Food aisles has got to meet the US Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program, or “NOP” standards.
So if the product is “organic,” it has got to meet NOP’s standards of having 95% organic ingredients in the mix. If it’s merely “made with organic” ingredients, or having a base that is 70% organic, the company had better follow NOP procedures. Curiously, products only “containing” organic material need to defer to the NSF / ANSI 305 Organic Personal Care standard, which many would feel is a more reliable benchmark: the Ann Arbor-based NGO consults a variety of stakeholders in the organic products community. Only have a smattering of organic ingredients? Better clear it with the USDA.
Are you acronym’d out by now? Or perhaps the question you may have is: why was it that Whole Foods and other retailers had not been doing this all along?
Perhaps the answer in part is that we are due for a broader discussion on the effects that all those toiletries on which we depend (or indulge) will be the next battle in the sustainability wars. Whole Foods and farmers’ markets have long become mainstream shopping experiences. But it has been a generation since the outcry over animal testing that made the Body Shop famous (and its founder wealthy) while shaming many department store brands; parabens and other additives that end up in our lotions and night creams will surely grab more attention soon as more incriminating scientific evidence comes out (many would say it already exists). Whether the company’s reasons are based on altruism or proactive marketing, Whole Foods, in my view, is making a smart move. Better to prevent a firestorm than having to put one out.