The future of certified ethical labels

Image courtesy of The Soil Association

Image courtesy of The Soil Association

Certified organic, paraben free and 100% natural are claims that may catch your eye as you walk down the aisles of today’s supermarket. What was once an industry that lacked certified labels has now seen an abundance of logos that provide green, clean and eco-ethical stamps of approval. But what implications has the proliferation of certified ethical labels had on the natural and organic cosmetic industry?

The UK organic health and beauty market is worth an impressive £61.2 million, with a 20% growth year on year according to the Soil Association 2017 Organic Health and Beauty Report. This increasing demand for green beauty products is attributed to consumer’s attitudinal changes towards natural ingredients, according to a Mintel’s 2025 report. It even states that 42% of UK consumers prefer to buy natural and organic personal care products, as they are better for their health, and the environment.

Amarjit Sahota, president of Ecovia Intelligence, a specialist global organic and related product industry research company tells us: “Consumers are buying these products as they perceive them to be better for their health.” The researcher adds, “however if you also look at it in terms of sustainability, the ethical sourcing of ingredients, organic and sustainable production methods, and a lower carbon footprint also acts as a driver, because they avoid synthetic chemicals.”

The growing consumer demand for certified natural and organic beauty products however has led to an abundance of ethical labelling schemes and certified logos. According to Ecovia Intelligence, there are now over 30 logos of certification that symbolise natural and organic cosmetic standard. This has resulted in 3% of all cosmetics within Europe certified. Amarjit confirms this rapid growth in labels, “Natural and organic ethical labels have certainly proliferated in the last decade. Ten years ago there was just five logos you could find, however today we have over 30 labels here in Europe, North America, Asia and Latin America.”

The first certification body to develop standards within the natural and organic cosmetic industry was Ecocert in 2003. Fast-forward to 2017 Ecocert now has logos on over 12,000 of cosmetic products. Introduced to ensure all products were environmentally friendly, the natural and organic cosmetic specification requires products to contain a minimum of 95% plant based ingredients in order to be certified.

The most popular certification amongst the UK is Soil Association. According to its requirements, certified organic products must also contain at least 95% organic ingredients, with the remaining 5% natural and sustainable. Lauren Bartley, Business Development Manager Health and Beauty at Soil Association, explains that the whole process of making the product must also comply, “With both organic and natural certification the entire supply chain is considered. All ingredients must meet green chemistry principles, packing and cleaning materials are checked and all facilities inspected.”

From labels such as Eco Flower, which represents products that has a low environmental impact, Vegan society and Cruelty Free there has been an upsurge of ethical labelling schemes. Many ethical labels have also migrated from food products to the cosmetic industry. Take Fairtrade for example, which has played an integral role in raising the profile of ethical issues amongst food, ingredients and ethical sourcing.

What is interesting, however, is that we are also seeing labels emerge, not just for environmental, social and health issues but also because of religious issues. The Halal Logo has been increasingly used to cater to the 1.5 billion Muslim consumers, according to Ecovia Intelligence. The Halal certification ensures that the product does not contain any prohibited ingredients such as gelatine or alcohol.

As the market grows and the trend in natural and organic beauty rises we are seeing more of a proliferation amongst ethical labels. But with countless logos, stamps of approval and certifications displayed amongst products, there is still no specific legislation that a beauty product must follow when marketing itself as organic. Soil Association’s Lauren Bartley says, “Certified organic beauty matters because there is currently no legal standard in place for organic and natural beauty.” Because of this, brands have begun to green wash products. This is where brands market products as organic or natural, however the products contain little to no organic or natural ingredients. “It can be incredibly misleading,” says Bartley, “which is why organic certification is currently the only way you can trust the integrity and origin of the organic/natural product you are buying.”

Janis Kosma Covey, founder of green beauty brand Kosmatology says, “Greenwashing has had a negative impact on companies who are truly trying to do the right thing for the environment. By companies using fraudulent claims that their products are eco friendly and green, they have created scepticism in consumers as to if eco friendly claims by legitimate eco-friendly companies are true.”

This is why certification is incredibly important as it can help to understand which products consumers can trust. Lauren Bartley explains, “With there being no legal standard in place it is a minefield as you simply cannot know which brands to trust!” She adds, “Not many people can read the back of an ingredients list and understand what exactly has been put into that product either, which is why certification is important as it does the hard work for you.”

It is evident that certification can be incredibly useful for consumers when understanding which brands they can trust. However, as the number in certified logos rises, are consumers left confused by all of the competing labels and standards?

According to consumer rights site, Which?, consumers awareness of the nine main ethical labelling schemes in the UK is rates as Low. Further evidence has found that the specifics under each certification are also poorly understood. Unfortunately, ethical labelling schemes have been criticised as a marketing ploy, and as more logos continue to emerge, brands are beginning to use multiple logos on their products. US organic skincare brand Intelligent nutrients, for example represents itself as organic, gluten free, cruelty free, certified natural and eco society, but how many stamps of approval does one product need? Consumers are demanding ethical products, if there is a lack of awareness of what they all mean, is this causing unnecessary confusion?

With this in mind, how can we prevent eco label fatigue within the natural and organic cosmetic industry? Are ethically certified products and logos always necessary?

Caudalie is the current market leader for natural skincare within France according to Ecovia Intelligence. Formulated with vino based products, all of the ingredients do not include parabens and are chemically clean. Despite this, they do not take a certification stance. Or what about Aveda? A professional hair care brand and the most demanded buyer of organic essential oils in the world, yet they have also not taken a certification stance.

So whilst consumers want ethical products, may be it is less about logos and more important for brands to be transparent about what the products do and don’t have?

Or is the future with future technology? Instead of logos on products, what if QR codes on our products were the answer? Consumers could scan the product on their smart phones and receive as much or as little information as they need. This idea is something we are already seeing in the USA, with an app called ‘Good Guide’. Consumers can scan the bar code of a product and you can instantly get health impact, environmental information and societal information. It also tells you if the product is meeting organic standards or fair trade standards and how important the values are.

Considering the future of ethical labels, there are certainly implications of the proliferation. But what if transparency was the answer? Yes, consumers want ethical products and natural and organic cosmetics, but may be the answer is less labels, the use of technology a and more transparency.

Originally published on PURE.