Whole Foods Takes on Organic Label Claims

Posted by Jeremiah McElwee


Jeremiah McElwee, head of Whole Body—Whole Foods Market's body-care section—on the company's stringent new organic-claims standard.

"Organic." "Natural." "Pure." It’s not news that there is much confusion over the labels on personal-care products. What most of us don't know is the reason behind it: As it stands there is no government regulation on how personal care products are labeled when it comes to organic and natural claims. And it’s a fact that most body-care products in the United States contain countless completely unnatural ingredients, sourced and processed in completely unnatural ways. Even those products labeled "natural" may contain harsh preservatives or ingredients with environmental concerns. Inevitably, there is much confusion about what really is natural, what’s really organic, which companies have genuine label claims, and which ones don’t.

Because of this, we at Whole Body, decided to take matters into our own hands. Two years ago we developed our Premium Body Care standard—a stamp that signals to our customers which products meet our strict standards for environmental impact, results, safety, and quality sourcing.

In the last few years, organic claims have proliferated—and with is consumer confusion—so we've decided to go a step further: We have recently announced official guidelines that any company wishing to sell products labeled with the word "organic" in Whole Body must meet a similarly strict criteria, and must be able to prove it. We believe that the “organic” claim used on personal care products should have a very similar meaning to the “organic” claim used on food products, which is currently regulated by the USDA’s National Organic Program. Our shoppers do not expect the definition of “organic” to change substantially between the food and the non-food aisles of our stores. In efforts to provide this level of authenticity and transparency, we’ve created a set of requirements that must apply to all personal care products which use the word “organic” in any way on the product label. We expect all products sold in our stores to be in full compliance by June 1, 2011 and have asked each of our suppliers who are making an “organic” claim to submit their plans for compliance to us by August 1, 2010. Meanwhile, products where “organic” is part of the brand name must be certified to the United States Department of Agriculture National Organic Program (USDA NOP) or NSF 305 standards.

Here are the requirements and examples:

1. Products with an “organic” claim

Examples: “Organic Jojoba Shampoo,” “Organic Sea Mineral Body Wash”

Certification requirement: Must be certified to the USDA’s National Organic Program standard for organic products (at least 95 percent of the ingredients must be organic).

Documentation required: Suppliers must present an organic certificate, issued by a USDA-accredited certifier and showing certification to the NOP standard. The certificate must name the specific products being evaluated.

2. Products with a “made with organic” claim

Examples: “Made with organic oils,” “Made with organic essential oils and botanical ingredients”

Certification requirement: Must be certified to the USDA’s National Organic Program standard for "made with organic" (meaning that at least 70 percent of the ingredients must be organic).

Documentation required: Suppliers must present an organic certificate, issued by a USDA-accredited certifier and showing certification to the NOP standard. The certificate must name the specific products being evaluated—not just the brand as a whole.

3: Products with a “contains organic” claim

Examples: “Contains organic oils,” “Contains organic aloe and rosemary”

Certification requirement: Must be certified to the NSF/ANSI 305 Organic Personal Care Standard.

Documentation required: Suppliers must present certification documentation demonstrating current compliance with the NSF/ANSI 305 standard.

4: Products with an organic ingredient on the “ingredients” list

Example: “Ingredients: WATER, ALOE BARBADENSIS LEAF JUICE (ORGANIC ALOE VERA)”

Certification requirement: Organic ingredient must be certified to the USDA NOP standard.

Documentation required: Suppliers must present an organic certificate, issued by a USDA-accredited certifier and showing certification to the NOP standard. The certificate(s) must name the specific ingredient(s) being evaluated.

Customers come to Whole Foods Market looking for truly natural and organic personal care and we want them to be able to trust the quality and authenticity of the products they find in our stores. We also want to encourage suppliers to use higher amounts of organic ingredients, thereby supporting organic ingredient suppliers and farmers. We are confident that this initiative will raise the bar, pushing companies to create safer, higher-quality products that are better for our bodies, and the environment.

This is the fifth installment in a series inspired by No More Dirty Looks: The Truth About Your Beauty Products and the Ultimate Guide to Safe and Clean Cosmetics, a forthcoming book by GOOD's features editor Siobhan O'Connor and her co-author Alexandra Spunt. It will run every Monday and Thursday.

Illustration by Brianna Harden