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The Highs and Lows of Green Certifications

By: Dr. Sundeep Gill
Posted: June 24, 2014, from the July 2014 issue of GCI Magazine.

Editor’s note: For additional information on green certifications and labeling, check out “Labeling for Legitimacy: Certifications for Natural and Organic Personal Care” by Darrin C. Duber-Smith.

The need to differentiate one product from another predates the organic and natural movement in the beauty industry. But during the last two decades, consumers have been inundated by an alphabet soup of green, organic and natural standards. Although the path to certification can be very different in dealing with multiple standards, the ultimate goal is the same—solidifying your brand as more natural than the rest.

What’s Best

When choosing which standard is best suited for your brand, it comes down to one simple fact: the value of any and all certification is marketability. Designing a product using natural ingredients, avoiding hot button problematic ingredients and utilizing a generally favorable ingredient profile is a noble cause, and, in many cases, sales will do just fine. But often the question arises, “What will a certification add to the value of the brand?”

And it is simple—the more heavily marketed the standard is, the more it will add value to your brand. So far, most natural and organic standards have been beyond reproach due to their well-written nature. So choosing the “wrong” standard based on lack of strictness is relatively unheard of. However, there are multiple options that beauty brands pursue in green certifications.

Setting Standards

Touching on a few standards I have been intimately involved with, I can offer a firsthand perspective.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program (USDA NOP) is what many consider to be the pinnacle of any green/organic standard. This is likely due to it being the most heavily recognized and branded of any standard—and not because it is suited and designed for personal care. Using USDA-certified organic ingredients in place of conventional ingredients will generally increase a product’s stature, but, in some cases, turning your product into a full USDA organic certified product is a challenge due to the many limitations of this standard and applying it to produce a quality, stable product meant for retail.

A product that is allowed to carry the USDA seal of an organic product has at least 95% of its solids derived from organic ingredients, excluding water and salt. The certification process also involves a detailed label and formula review, as well as ensuring the product is made in a USDA organic certified facility. The certification process for a USDA facility involves many policies and procedures to comply with the complex tracking systems required by the USDA, and, in many cases, manufacturers must weigh if certification is a viable equity to their facility, as it can be very costly to upgrade to the necessary standards.

The NSF International organic certification is another green certification standard that has seen recent success, and typically is more feasible for the production of a functional and stable product. This standard saw most of its success when, in 2010, Whole Foods enforced that personal care products sold on its shelves and making a “contains organic ingredients” claim must be certified to the NSF 305 ANSI Standard for Organic Personal Care products, a consensus-based industry standard accepted by the American National Standards Institute and managed by NSF International. (Whole Foods’ guidelines also state “all products making an ‘organic’ product claim must be certified to the USDA NOP standard, the same standard to which organic food must be certified under U.S. law.”)

The fascinating part of the NSF International standard is its approval approach. Rather than have a fixed list of acceptable ingredients to work with, this standard has an acceptable list of processes of how these ingredients are made—i.e. you can have two ingredients from the same source and within the same end product but one could be approved and the other not simply due to its allowable process.

With this standard, certain original ingredients such as sulfate-based surfactants became allowable over newer, novel surfactants because the process to make the original surfactant was far more natural than some newer ones. However, the success of the NSF certification is not all in its originality. It is far more marketed and recognized than many other standards of its caliber thanks to its retail support.

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