Fighting for organic integrity in body care

Beginning in the 1940s, the world was flooded with cheaply made synthetic products and ingredients, from pesticides and food additives to detergents and plastics, all created in the laboratory largely from non-renewable petroleum. It was hailed as “Better Living Through Chemistry,” but unintended consequences included pollution of the air and water, deterioration of soil tilth and health, unhealthy and over-processed foods, and synthetic ingredients in personal care products—more than a few with significant toxicity issues.

In response, the organic movement over the last few decades has rejected the intensive synthetic inputs and processes used in conventional agriculture and food processing, recognizing that traditional methods and materials result in better soil and improved human and environmental health.

Organic integrity in body care means an organic product is made from certified organic ingredients—in compliance with the USDA National Organic Program (NOP), the same program that certifies organic foods. Real organic personal care does not use synthetic preservatives that can irritate skin. Natural, unrefined oils and waxes are used as emollients and moisturizers, instead of hydrogenated oils and synthetic silicones. Traditional natural soaps are used in hand and body washes, instead of modern synthetic surfactants made in part from petrochemicals.

Dr. Bronner’s is fighting for a marketplace where consumers are not misled into purchasing bogus synthetic-schlock products masquerading as real certified organic personal care. We are in a better place now than we were ten years ago, when all kinds of synthetic products were making organic claims, even in health food stores and cooperatives. Now, all organic body care products sold in Whole Foods Market, as well as in cooperatives organized under the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA), and by extension the natural marketplace, must be certified to comply with established organic standards.

Still, there are no legal regulations to prevent a body care product from being inaccurately labeled as organic. While very strict standards are enforced by the USDA for organic food products, there are no legally binding regulations for body care products.

Taking advantage of this loophole, some companies continue to use “organic” or “organics” in their brand names in order to inflate the consumer’s perception of their organic content—even when they are certified at a much lower level and/or do not include anything substantially organic.

A brief timeline of the battle:

2000
The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) created to restrict use of the term “organic” to only products certified as organic. Certification is handled by state, non-profit and private agencies approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Violators who claim they are organic but are not certified can be prosecuted. Personal care companies may voluntarily certify products under the program; however, confusingly the USDA will otherwise not police organic claims on cosmetic products.

2003
Dr. Bronner’s identifies or develops organic sources for all raw materials and certifies its classic liquid and bar soaps as organic under the USDA NOP.

2004
Dr. Bronner’s certifies and launches USDA Organic lotions and lip balms that are above 95% organic and meet the rigorous requirements of the USDA NOP—the same standards as organic food.

2005
Due to heavy lobbying by organic cheater brands, the USDA briefly attempts to stop use of the USDA Organic seal on body care products, even if they are certified to the same organic standards.

2005 April
Dr. Bronner’s sues the USDA on basis that they did not follow correct law-making procedures, and because there is really no difference between organic coconut oil when used in lotions versus lemon meringue pies.

2005 September
The day before they must respond to lawsuit, the USDA reverses itself and states that all certified body care products may continue to use the USDA Organic seal.

2008
After several years of trying to stop the ever-increasing tidal wave of false organic claims within the natural personal care industry, Dr. Bronner’s sues a group of greenwashing, so-called organic body care companies for false advertising. The suit only claims $1.00 in damages, as the real point is to simply put a stop to unfair and deceptive practices.

2010
Whole Foods Market, soon followed by the NCGA (National Cooperative Grocers Association), acts where the government does not and implements criteria for selling organic body care in their stores. Brands are forced to either get certified to food-level USDA NOP standards or to cosmetic-level NSF standards—or remove all false organic claims from their labels.

2013
Dr. Bronner’s creates a special agitprop label for its quart-size liquid soaps in support of GMO labeling and the Washington state voter initiative to label GMOs, Yes on I-522, “The Washington Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act.” Natural product stores throughout all 50 states stock the limited-edition soap.

2014
David Bronner publishes article in Huffington Post: “Herbicide and Insecticide Use on GMO Crops Skyrocketing while Pro-GMO Media Runs Interference; Former EPA Senior Scientist’s New Article Sets Record Straight,” including a major Dr. Bronner’s ad-buy to present clear evidence from former EPA Senior Scientist of skyrocketing herbicide and insecticide use on GMO crops. Dr. Bronner’s ramps up efforts in support of voter-led initiatives to label genetically engineered foods in Oregon and Colorado, Measure 92 and Initiative 105. The company donates $1 million to Oregon and $25,000 to Colorado, and reworks its iconic quart soap labels to educate consumers across the country about the importance of labeling genetically engineered foods.

2016
Dr. Bronner’s resigns from the Organic Trade Association (OTA), citing the association’s betrayal of the consumer-led GMO labeling movement, and general drift away from the core principles that drive the organic movement. Following the resignation, Dr. Bronner’s pledges to instead use its organizational resources to help power consumer, farmer and industry organizations that more authentically and courageously represent the vision of regenerative organic agriculture, versus the disaster of soil-destroying industrial agriculture.

2018
The Regenerative Organic Alliance is created, becoming a diverse coalition of organizations and businesses led by Rodale Institute as board chair and spearheaded by Dr. Bronner’s and Patagonia in the areas of farming, ranching, soil health, animal welfare, and farmer and worker fairness, and announces the Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC). ROC is a holistic agriculture certification structure that encompasses robust requirements that uphold three pillars: soil health and ecological land management, pasture-based animal welfare, and fairness for farmers and workers. It is created to model an ecological and ethical system for agricultural production that addresses the problems of factory farming, climate change, and economic injustice, locally and globally.

2020
Dr. Bronner’s announces the debut of its first Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) product, Whole and White Kernel Virgin Coconut Oils, sourced from Dr. Bronner’s sister company in Sri Lanka, Serendipol. The first Regenerative Organic Certified Coconut Oil in the world, this product goes above and beyond USDA Organic and fair trade standards, demonstrating that regenerative organic agriculture can be practiced at the scale needed to meet global market demands.