Organic Certification Doesn’t Mean Ethical

Organic Certification Doesn’t Mean Ethical
Should poor non-organic farms give way to large rich organic ones?

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.



11 thoughts on “Organic Certification Doesn’t Mean Ethical”

  1. Organic, ethical, fair-trade, distance travelled etc
    I am of the opinion that say, palm oil, however it is produced/processed, has come half way around the world either by plane or boat ( not sailing using wind power) so I try as hard as I can to only use UK grown and processed oils / ingredients etc( that means sometimes I don’t read place of origin properly!)
    So it means I don’t have access to some ingredients but I think in society we have lost sight of what is important.
    My mother had problems with her skin and a leg ulcer and when she was in hospital they only dunked her in water and used nothing else. Her skin was the best it had ever been and her hair was really soft and looked really nice.
    I know cosmetics etc is a multi billion pound industry but I think we need to get a grip of the future of our planet.
    The Soil Association is an excellent organisation and the one to look for on products in this country.

    1. I’d agree that the Soil Association are a pretty sincere group of people who genuinely believe in what they are doing, if my experience is anything to go by.

  2. Hi Colin,

    I think the last post I commented on was the one where you said organic food can make you fat if you eat enough of it. This one is a return to the theme – organic certification doesn’t mean companies are ethical.

    OK – organic certification means a product or ingredient is produced to organic standards. You’re right, it doesn’t auto-confer ethical status as well.

    Reading the Daily Mail doesn’t automatically mean you are a Tory, but it is a pretty strong indicator that you might be. Having organic certification is also a strong hint that a company is striving to be more ethical than its peers.

    How so? Well, firstly, it means that any organic claims made by a certified company tend to be true and verifiable by a third party.

    I’m not saying that all non-certified companies making organic claims are unscrupulous green washers freeloading their way to an easy buck, only that most of them are.

    Also, the standards themselves require a certain level of ethical compliance. You have to buy the organic version of an ingredient if it is available, and that tends to be from an organic supplier that tends to have fair trade certification as well.

    Now I used to read the Daily Mail at uni and also voted Labour – and Daabon acted unethically while having their products certified, so there’s always exceptions to the rule.

    Are all organic personal care companies longing for the day when the Soil Association joins up with BDIH and ECOCERT to create a new pan-European harmonized organic standard?

    Not really, but it is happening anyway. It is called COSMOS. Rather surprised you don’t know about it actually!

    Now – prepare to be astonished Colin! It may be possible to make organic products that are not only as good as non-organic…..but better.

    If you go to In Cosmetics you’ll meet suppliers who are pouring millions into ingredient research – the vast majority into producing those ingredients to organic standards.

    Funnily enough, when our team goes round and meets suppliers, they tell us, you’re the only British brand we’ve see all day….which is funny, because all three of our formulators are actually French, but that’s another story.

    Turns out that UK formulators aren’t going to the ingredient shows and aren’t learning about new developments or hot new ingredients with superb efficacy data until they are already old news.

    These same formulators seem to prefer telling brand owners – you can’t get performance from organic so let me whip you up a nice cream with a couple of botanicals in it – and don’t worry, if you’re not certified organic, you’re allowed to make far more organic claims for your products than if you were!

    And this is what it comes down to at the end of the day. An organic product is only as good as the formulator who made it. Admittedly, it is a bit harder and more expensive to make an organic product that good, which is why most formulators don’t bother.

    So yes Colin, there are lots of crap organic products out there. Not because organic is inherently crap, but because the formulators are.

    There are far far more crap non-organic products out there too – for the same basic reason. Organic doesn’t mean good – but it more frequently than not means a bit more ethical than the next guy (but not always).

    1. Well I was at the last In Cosmetics in Barcelona, so not all British formulators are stay at home stick in the muds. Actually there is an excuse for people who didn’t make the trip. We have the Formulate show in the UK itself every year which attracts a lot of the same suppliers. But I’d agree that the formulator has a lot to do with how good products are.

  3. Ultimately things like organic certification and anticruel treatment of animals are branding. Or they are a lot like branding. And all branding is is a way of persuading you to buy stuff that costs more than non branded stuff.

    I try and buy stuff from markets, farmer’s shows, craft fairs and pound shops. When I go the supermarket I buy the value brands.

    I never buy brands unless I have no choise.

    Thanks for a great blog Colin.

  4. Hello Colin,

    Love the blog.

    Having ‘badges’ does not necessarily mean you have ethics! I know a few companies with BUAV that are trading without even having safety assessments and from the sounds of it do not even know about PIF files. How ethical is that? Seems that BUAV doesn’t even check. They dont agree with testing on animals but on human subjects, thats fine. Not worth the paper it is written on in my opinion.

  5. BUAV only care about animal testing, so being BUAV certified means a company doesn’t test on animals, and that’s it.

    Unfair to say that BUAV is unethical because they don’t check for a PIF file – not their job.

    Also, law of the land that companies pay their taxes. BUAV doesn’t check that either.

  6. Actually I was saying the company is unethical. BUAV can affiliate themselves with unethical companies if they like but they may lose credibility.

  7. I see what you are getting at Melonsmania. (Can I call you Melons?) Not only have you got an interesting point of view, it is great to hear from someone who absolutely doesn’t fit in with marketing archetypes of consumers.

    Cara’s point about the BUAV is something that is a big problem for accreditation bodies. How can they not award their accreditation to a company that complies with their standard? But equally, they don’t want their name linked to people who will bring them into disrepute. Their audits are very thorough, but they simply can’t check everything. I suppose the ultimate question is whether their activities do any good. In the case of the BUAV I think they have done a lot to reduce animal testing. In the case of the Soil Association – talking here only about their activities in personal care products – it is hard to see any benefit to anybody given that their fees don’t really do much more than cover their costs (or so I am told and I can easily believe it). I have a feeling that other organic accreditation bodies might be more profitable but don’t achieve much else.

  8. The motivation to buy organically has a lot to do with the use of pesticides and GMOs from an environmental standpoint. Personal health is only one factor.

    There are numerous studies that prove the nutritional superiority of organically grown plants. What is particularly attractive to a skin care formulator is the higher level of antioxidants. When I began purchasing certified organic plant oils, I was surprised at the difference in quality. Customers noticed an improvement too. Although my COGs are higher, I have a superior product and a loyal clientele that continues to build.

  9. I too am very skeptical about whether organically-produced products are any more effective than typically-produced ones. I think the main (if single?) motivation would therefore be environmental, as Jessica mentioned.

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