What Does "Natural" Mean?

Carrots Dictionary.com defines natural as "not artificial" or "having undergone little or no processing and containing no chemical additives." When I think of "natural" I think of things "as Nature made them" - a tree, a flower, an apple, a bunch of carrots. I can recognize natural products in more or less their original form and can usually figure out whether they're good for me or instead pose some kind of threat (think "natural" poison ivy).

Cheese puffs Businesses have long appreciated how much they have to gain by marketing their goods as "natural." It's why they've plastered the word all over products that, ironically, couldn't be farther from their natural state...like "natural" cheese puffs, crayola-colored gummy worms, ice cream that contains partially hydrogenated soybean oil and cocoa processed with alkali, and cleansers, soaps, toothpaste, and make-up that contain lye or lead.

Gummy worms Products like these slide by as "natural" because no law prevents any manufacturer or retailer from claiming they are (unlike the label "organic," which is strictly defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and whose use is policed by both the federal government and consumer groups.) That's why I and many other consumer advocates encourage shoppers to ignore words like natural, earth-friendly, or something else equally appealing but ambiguous. There's no way to know what they really mean.

NaturalSeal_Homecare_150px The Natural Products Association wants to clarify the debate. The group, which represents more than 10,000 retailers, manufacturers, wholesalers and distributors of natural foods, dietary supplements, and health/beauty aids has issued a Natural Products Association Standard and Certification for Home Care Products like household cleaners, laundry detergents, and concentrated and ready to use hard-surface cleaners (they've previously issued a similar standard for personal care products). Only products certified under the standard can bear the NPA natural home care seal, which is supposed to signal to consumers that the product can be trusted.

Can it? Or is the standard just a clever attempt by companies better known for harsh and toxic ingredients to greenwash their products and cash in on the "natural" craze?

 

Dr. Cara Welch, NPA's Program Coordinator for Science and Regulatory Affairs, said the standard was borne out of "genuine concern by traditional natural-based businesses that the word "natural" had lost its meaning." As more and more mainstream companies have begun using "natural" to describe their products, Welch said NPA "wanted to challenge every company to keep all ingredients as close to nature as possible." In other words, NPA wanted to set a meaningful bar that was higher than what many companies might set for themselves while helping consumers make the right choice when they shop.

It's a step in the right direction.

  • Products certified by the NPA can can contain no parabens, phthalates, petrochemical ingredients or formaldehyde.
  • They must also be free of synthetic fragrances and colorances (though they may still contain anti-bacterials like triclosan which have been linked to antibiotic resistance in people and deformities in frogs and other wildlife.)
  • They may not contain more than 5% synthetic ingredients and those ingredients may not be toxic to human health according to information checked against data bases maintained by the National Institutes of Health and Environmental Working Group, among others.
  • They may not be processed using harsh ingredients and may not generate harsh by-products (though the word "harsh" is somewhat ambiguous).

But is it enough? No.

Why not?

  • The standard is not mandatory. Only companies who want to get certified will. There's still nothing to prevent those that don't from continuing to use -- and abuse -- the word "natural."
  • The standard does not reflect the product's entire life cycle,  which includes the environmental and human health impacts of manufacturing, energy use, waste, and disposal in addition to ingredients. As Mary Hunt has frequently pointed out, standards that focus on single attributes create a false sense of well-being about the entire product. But given how much we now know about resource depletion, water scarcity, climate change and packaging impact, how genuine is it to promote a standard that only focuses on ingredients?
  • The standard has been developed by those who have the most to gain from it financially - the manufacturers and retailers of "natural" consumer products. There was little or no input from independent third parties, whether consumers or scientists not paid by NPA or its members.  Is this a case of the fox guarding the henhouse? Lack of consumer representation is a growing concern as more and more industry standards abound; businesses should take a look at the opinions posted by the members of the Green Moms Carnival if they have any doubts that they ignore consumer input at their own peril.
  • It's almost impossible to understand the ingredients that NPA considers natural or a non-toxic, permissible synthetic. An orange, consumers get. The tocopherol that's a derivative of Vitamin E? What the heck is that? If NPA is going to list ingredients, it should at least explain what they actually are.

Dr. Welch said that the standard is a work in progress and will get stronger over time. But why wait to adopt several changes that would immediately address consumers' concerns?

  • Invite consumers and independent scientists to participate in setting the standard, not just the retailers and manufacturers who have so much to gain financially from legitimizing their use of the word natural.
  • Make it mandatory. Of course, this would mean that the federal government or enough state governments would have to step in to legally define what natural means. But until they do, marketers will continue to greenwash their products using the word natural, whether they're NPA-certified or not.
  • Make it popular. Until NPA issued this standard for natural home care products, I had no idea the association had previously issued a standard for personal care products. NPA and its certified partners need to use public media and social networks to make sure consumers know what to look for when they shop.
  • Get rid of antibacterials. Dr. Welch said that antibacterials continue to be allowed due to "health and safety issues" raised by manufacturers. Consumers and public health officials would argue it is healthier and safer to reduce the public's exposure to the antibacterials permitted in NPA's "natural" products.
  • Expand the standard so that it includes the life cycle of the entire product. NPA should take its cues from the Sustainability Consortium and expand its standard beyond ingredients. Consumers want and deserve a "complete package" - one that is safe from the inside out. NPA -- and any company or industry that's thinking about setting its own standard -- should aspire to that goal.
For more environmental living tips and discussion, visit my blog.

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