National Organic Program

Seeking standards for “organic” products

by Thomas Garvey May


he organics industry is a demand- driven entity; it attracts customers willing to pay a premium for products based on myriad criteria - from environmental concerns to personal health. Regardless of the motivation, deciding to buy organic products often marks a lifestyle choice. The foods they buy are only part of that. More consumers are looking for the added value of organic in fiber, personal care and household cleaning products.

    Trouble is, the Oct. 21 deadline for implementing the National Organic Program (NOP) is fast approaching, and currently none of those categories are recognized. (NOP does address agricultural commodities used to make these products, but not processing or end products.) Also, customers may not realize that the organic label claims on nonfood products doesn't necessarily represent the same standards as they do on foods.

    As was the case with organic foods makers before the federal program, a host of cleaning, clothing and personal care companies with organic aspirations are working to develop industry standards for the organic claims on their products. But so far, only the fiber standards have internal industry consensus. So if customers ask about the organic status of nonfood products, the best news available is that many products have differentiating characteristics from mainstream options, and if all goes well, a hard set of industry standards to certify these products as organic may come soon. Inclusion in the NOP, however, is a long way off.

    “We're where organic foods were five or 10 years ago,” says Jeffrey Hollander, president of Seventh Generation, based in Burlington, VT.

Demand grows for organic textiles


     The Organic Trade Association reports that sales of organic fiber products by US and Canadian manufacturers increased 22 percent annually over the past five years. Sales of non-clothing items, such as linens and personal care products, increased 39 percent a year; clothing sales increased 11 percent a year.

    OTA projects average annual growth of 44 percent for all organic fiber products through 2005. Organic cotton growers stand to benefit most from the trend.

    Just as the food market was transformed by organic products, so will other categories be, said Steve Hughes, president of Frontier Natural Brands and the Aura Cacia line of personal care products. “Ingredients that go on one's body will be just as important to discerning shoppers as those that go in the body,” Hughes said. “The underlying concerns that drive [demand for] organic foods will also be the ones that drive [demand for] organic in personal care products.”

    Demand for organic products exists, but developing processing guidelines to bring nonfood products to market has proven difficult. Fiber is the farthest along, and Bena Burda, who cofounded Ann Arbor, MI-based Maggie's Organics more than 10 years ago, says defining standards for processing fiber organically was exhaustive. The number of steps involved complicates the work. “It's not like food,” Burda said. “T-shirts don't come off T-shirt trees.”

    There are agricultural standards for producing organic cotton and wool. But the steps between commodity and cloth – ginning, spinning, knitting, wet finishing and then on to the cut-and-sew house – makes codifying a process difficult. “Hopefully, within a few years, we'll have standards from field to the finished product,” said Sandra Marquardt, a member of with the Organic Trade Association (OTA) fiber council. “But right now, we only have standards for what is grown in the field.”

    The council's task force researched fiber-processing standards created by other organizations. They used information from the Drug Enforcement Agency concerning low-impact dyes and culled work from IFOAM, the Soil Association, and the Texas Department of Agriculture. “We started with fiber in the ground,” Burda said, “and we went through, as specifically as we could, each process that fiber undergoes on its way to being every product in the marketplace, from tampons to T-shirts.”

    At press time, the task force had written standards for processing organic fibers and submitted them to the OTA's Quality Assurance Council. If adopted, the standards would become part of the trade group's American Organic Standards, the same document the Department of Agriculture adopted to form the current NOP.

    But just as the foods faction of the organics industry didn't wait for federal oversight to begin processing under its own standards and marketing to consumers on the strength of those standards, fiber folks want to move forward as well. “Once we're part of the AOS document,” Burda said, “as an industry, we should start using these guidelines.”

    Industry leaders have also formed a personal care task force, but it is a bit further behind the fiber council. Currently, the word “organic” appears on the labels of many personal care products, but the only thing certifiable about that the claim is the growing methods used to cultivate the botanical ingredients. There are no agreed-upon standards for processing personal care products organically.

    “The crops that end up in those products are subject to the same standards as the crops that are grown for food consumption,” said Chris Schreiner, quality control director, Oregon Tilth. But when the term organic appears anywhere but an ingredient panel, it doesn't have a specific meaning.

    “Right now, it's really a free for all,” said Kerin Franklin, VP of research and development for Norway, Iowa-based Frontier. Each company administers internal guidelines. She worries this could create consumer confusion. Companies that cut corners and adhere to lesser standards have an advantage.

    “You do put yourself at a competitive disadvantage,” Franklin said. “But over time there will be standards in place, and hopefully, if you're holding to the higher ground now, it's going to be easier for you down the road when those are implemented and enforced.”

    “The natural products industry is under fire for false and misleading labeling all the time,” said Mark Egide, CEO of Petaluma, CA-based Avalon Natural Products. “If we as an industry do not aggressively police ourselves, then we invite the media to do it for us.”

    Avalon has been involved with the personal care organic standards group, and Egide said a draft of standards is complete and set to be discussed at the group's meeting, during Expo West in Anaheim, CA. The most significant provision of the standards addresses the percentage of organic ingredients necessary to call a product organic, and the inclusion of botanical blends and infusions in that computation.

    Tom Hutcheson, quality assurance director at OTA, said the biggest hurdle for the organic personal care niche will be to convince the overall organic industry that the synthetics it uses in processing products are as necessary as the allowable synthetics in food processing.

Coming clean

    An organic designation for household cleaners is probably the farthest off. Green cleaners are distinct from mainstream offerings because they use vegetable-based surfactants instead of petrochemical versions. Although “green” means a vastly different product than conventional, it doesn't mean organic. “Organic is probably a little premature,” Seventh Generations' Hollander said. “It's not that it technically can't be done, but at the moment I don't believe it can be done at a price people would be willing to pay.”

    The processing steps involved in making cleaning products are more complicated than the ones used in fiber processing, Hollander said. No industry coalitions have yet been formed. But the market is growing, and he said that organic designation is a one of the category's long-term goals.

    “The education, the understanding and the way of looking at the world that causes someone to be an organics consumer is similar to the thinking that causes someone to buy natural household cleaning products,” Hollander said.

    But for now, consumers excited about organic and natural alternatives to mainstream fiber, personal care and cleaning products, especially those who are encouraged by USDA oversight, need to know that the NOP only certifies foods, at least for the foreseeable future.

    This article originally appeared in Natural Foods Merchandiser, March 2002: