Is organic food better for you? Maybe, but there is no actual evidence. But at least we know what organic food is. Grow a crop without pesticides or fertilisers and you can call it organic. You can give a farmer a certificate to prove his food is organic if you have monitored what he is up to. This works for the farmer who can charge a higher price, and it works for the consumer who can be confident that they are getting what they are paying for.
The trouble is you can’t really do the same for personal care and cosmetic products. They have never used pesticides or fertilisers in the first place. There are ingredients that come originally from agricultural sources, but they have generally been pretty heavily modified in the process. And while I wouldn’t be surprised if a paper was to be published that finally established that organic food does have some benefits in your diet, the idea that using organic products on the skin made any difference to their effects at all would astonish me.
But perhaps there are other reasons for supporting organic producers other than the benefit to yourself? You might accept that an organic body lotion – however that is defined – might not make your skin any more moisturised than a non-organic one and may not cause less skin reactions. (In fact if anything it is more likely to since it ought to have more different ingredients in it.) But nonetheless you might think that you want to encourage organic production because it is more ethical. If so, you might well be tempted to seek out products that have some kind of organic certification.
I don’t know how many consumers think like this, but there is a well known organic supermarket aiming to get all the cosmetics and personal care products on its shelves certified. They are struggling a bit, because it poses quite a few practical problems. The most serious one is that there are plenty of different bodies around offering competing organic standards which causes considerable confusion.
Nobody really knows what exactly an organic personal care product is. There is money to be made from these standards so there is a lot of incentive to come up with a definition that is widely accepted. But most of them are riddled with problems. I have to single out the Soil Association for having made the best attempt at a reasonably coherent set of guidelines. But others are not so good. I have actually burst out laughing at the stupidity of one of them. The trouble is that applied to cosmetics and personal care products, the notion of organic is all but meaningless.
I imagine that people working in the organic sector are longing for the day when a consensus finally emerges and they can all agree on what standard they should all be working to. But I think the problem is a bit bigger than that. Because ultimately, I don’t think that even a widely agreed standard is going to work. To explain why, here is a story from a couple of years ago. It did get some coverage in the press at the time but didn’t really hit the headlines.
A company called Daabon Organic was supplying Body Shop with palm oil. As the name suggests, Daabon is a very organic company. In particular it has lots of organic certifications. I have just counted 12 on its website. You might suppose that having not one but 12 certificates you would be pretty confident that this was an ethical company that was really producing proper organic stuff. And indeed I dare say it is. But that didn’t stop it getting criticised by Christian Aid for expelling 123 Columbian peasants from land they had been farming for years.
Of course, from a strictly organic point of view Christian Aid’s complaint is irrelevant. I doubt the peasants were farming following any particular organic standard. So the standard was working as intended and rewarding organic producers and not supporting non organic ones. This story didn’t get too much coverage at the time. This was because Body Shop were quick to react and dropped the unethical supplier as soon as the story came to light.
But I have a feeling that something like this could easily happen again. Organic is now big business in every sense of the word. It seems to me only a matter of time before somewhere a fully certified organic producer is going to be shown to be behaving badly.
And if organic personal care isn’t even ethical, just what is the point of it?
There are 12, count them, 12 different certifying bodies on Daabon’s very green, literally and metaphorically, website.
Here is the full Body Shop/Daabon story.