Editorial: Too Many Natural and Organic Beauty Certification Programs?

March 30, 2011

In case you haven’t noticed, there are a few more players in the certification business for natural and organic beauty products.

In case you haven’t noticed, there are a few more players in the certification business for natural and organic beauty products. As recently as February here in the States, NSF International (NSF; Ann Arbor, MI) and NaTrue (Brussels, Belgium) squared off with the Natural Products Association (NPA; Washington, DC), announcing plans to develop a new standard for natural personal care products. This standard will compete with NPA’s own natural personal care standard.

NPA’s program has only been active since 2008 but has been quite successful so far. (Last year, the association introduced a similar program covering home-care products.) Together, NPA says, the programs have now generated a milestone 600 certifications and earned the support of more than 45 companies. Its certification seal appears in retailers throughout the country. With the NPA seal gaining traction, is there a need for a new certification program?

Yes, according to NSF and NaTrue. The companies say that unlike NPA’s seal, their standard will be accredited by the American National Standards Institute, which oversees the creation of standards for a range of industries. The new standard will be created by consensus, developed jointly by stakeholders representing regulators, academia, industry, and consumers, as well as NSF’s organic certifier, Quality Assurance International. Moreover, it will be open to a public comment period. Also of note, because the standard will be public, NSF says companies can get their products certified by a choice of certifying bodies.

Free-market competition is always good for quality, and it’s no different in the certification field. However, as the number of certification programs increases, so might consumer confusion.

“How can it help to have multiple seals in the marketplace? Is this other standard being proposed because NPA’s standards are too high?” asked Cara Welch, PhD, NPA’s director of scientific and regulatory affairs and now a member of Nutritional Outlook’s editorial advisory board.

Organic Monitor (London) addressed this question in a March report on the overwhelming number of certification programs being introduced to the natural and organic personal care market-not just in the United States, but globally. The market researcher concluded that the global industry “is becoming increasingly divided because of the proliferation in standards and certification.”

“It will be consumers who will be losers, as they question why one certified product is more ‘organic’ than the other,” Organic Monitor concluded.

Organic Monitor made another interesting point-that even as beauty industry commerce becomes global, the use-and recognition-of a particular certification program or seal is generally limited primarily to one country or region. “Standards are mainly adopted on a national basis, with few transcending national boundaries,” it said.

Is there a need for an international standard then? To some extent, that is what the Cosmos certification program has tried to do. After eight years, it is finally being activated in Europe. The program was developed by five major European standards companies with the goal of serving as a major, unifying international standard.

However, the program has been criticized for its long development time, during which other certifications have sprung up. Is Cosmos now just another certification crowding the market? “A major critique of the new Cosmos standard is that it will not replace or unify the plethora of existing symbols and logos,” said Organic Monitor.

Also, what role should regulatory agencies play? Competition over developing U.S. standards for natural products has occurred in the absence of a government-defined, legal definition for natural. By contrast, USDA has set standards for organic with its National Organic Program. (Despite this, companies still flock to private organic certifiers.)

It will be interesting to see how crowded the certification market becomes for natural beauty products. FDA has intervened in the front-of-package nutrition label market by devising its own seal. Will the time come when we need similar intervention in the personal care space?

Jennifer Kwok
Editor