There is a roaring trade in hot dogs from street sellers in Oxford Street. Who doesn’t love a hot sausage and onions? The cheery vendors rarely have a good grasp of English, but there is nothing wrong with their grasp of economics. The London police often have to cope with violence between rival hot dog salesmen over pitches. The more sellers the more choice for buyers and they have to work harder to earn their money.
The spammers and scare mongers who latch onto the natural and organic skin market market are rather similar. They don’t actually beat each other up, but they are quite happy to rubbish one another’s green credentials, and even take one another to court. I think this is what is behind what is on the face of it a rather curious story that was e-mailed to me by a friend in America a few days ago.
It seems that a whole load of natural organic skin care companies are being sued. And they are being sued by some environmental campaigners. A group called the Center for Environmental Health (sorry about the spelling, that is just the way those guys are) is upset with no fewer than 26 natural cosmetic companies. Not many on the list are particularly well known in the UK, with the exception of our very own Boots.
Given major environmental issues like global warming, population growth, resource depletion and so on you are probably wondering what might have provoked the activists to contact their lawyers. It must, you would imagine, be something serious. Well judge for yourself. The issue is that the organic content of their products isn’t high enough. The law in California only allows a product to claim to be organic if it contains at least 70% organic ingredients.
I haven’t heard of the Center for Environmental Health before. The name suggests that they are out to save the planet, though given their actions you might wonder which planet they think they are living on. I can’t comment on whether the law in question is being breached or not. It is a specific Californian one that I don’t know much about. I dare say the lawyers can cover that aspect. But it is clear enough that an infraction of labeling regulations hardly registers in terms of a serious environmental issue. So what is going on?
While this case isn’t going down in history in the same league as Three Mile Island and Love Canal, I wonder if there is more to it than some overzealous green fanatics with appallingly bad prioritisation skills? Bringing a lawsuit after all is a fairly pricey business. Could it be that there is some commercial interest involved here that is quite happy to see some green brands tarnished? But I don’t want to assert anything without evidence. After all, that would make me a scaremonger too.
What I can say is that the whole issue of trying to define what is organic in the context of personal care and cosmetic products is a tough business. The difficulty arises from the fact that there isn’t really anything much to distinguish organic products from non-organic ones. There certainly isn’t a litmus test. I imagine that with very clever and expensive chemistry you might be able to devise a test to tell the difference between organic and non organic carrots say. But you would have to come up with another test again for potatoes and so on. And as far as I know, nobody has ever even actually tried to do so. To tell the difference between a personal care product and a non-organic one is completely beyond the ability of current science.
Let me repeat that for anyone reading this who regularly pays a premium for an organic product purely because it is organic. There is no way of telling the difference between an organic shampoo or lotion and a non-organic one. That is something to think about, isn’t it?
This means that the only way you can be sure that your product is really organic is to monitor its manufacture and distribution. This in turn gives rise to the idea of certification. Certified products certainly do cost a lot more to make than uncertified ones. Someone has to do all the paperwork and that all has to be paid for. So all the certification bodies charge the companies that they certify. So it is easy to see why a company that has paid a lot for its certification might get cheesed off with ones that are making do with putting a picture of a leaf with few drops of dew on the label and hoping to pass it off as organic.
But the question I ask myself is any of this doing any actual good for the customer or the planet? I think that is something I will come back to in a future post.
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Here is the original news story with a full list of the 26 naughty green brands.