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Naturalwashing is the new greenwashing

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Beyond individual certifications or labels, there's still not a clear definition of what it means to call a product "natural." And it's hurting the natural products industry.

Of these five products, can you pick out which are actually natural?

 

Naturalwashing

 

Turns out, the majority of consumers can't identify the natural difference between Herbal Essences and Kiss My Face. (That "natural" Crystal Light pictured above contains aspartame, by the way.) And it's all due to something I like to call naturalwashing.

Remember when going green started to make it big? All the companies that had been doing it for ages were suddenly overshadowed by larger companies making eco-friendly claims, whether they were true or not. Greenwashing is when companies use marketing and PR efforts to deceive consumers into thinking that its policies or products are environmentally-friendly. Naturalwashing is no different, and its time has come.

At the NPA MarketPlace last week in Las Vegas, I spoke on a media panel about product trends with two other health, fitness and beauty editors who write for consumer magazines such as Real Simple andSelf. They noted a definite trend toward mainstream consumers preferring "natural" products, but also said that the consumers themselves don't know the difference between a "natural" Jiff peanut butter and Justin's Nut Butter.

You can get in deep trouble if you falsely call something "organic" because the USDA regulates organic. Why isn't the same true for natural?

Defining natural with a label

What the natural products industry needs is a definition for natural. One way to do this is to get certified with the Natural Products Association for your natural home care or personal care products. First-time NPA MarketPlace exhibitors and dog-duvet makers Molly Mutt just achieved the certification for their pet shampoo, conditioner and dog bed freshener. They're hoping this new label will help differentiate their product from the other "natural" options.

Are labels the way to go? The green industry is a great case study for what happens when labels run rampant.

The Ecolabel Index, an independent global directory of ecolabels and environmental certification schemes, answers the question, "Who's deciding what's green?" by tracking 378 ecolabels in 211 countries and 25 industry sectors. Co-founder Trevor Bowden spoke at the NutriCosmetics Summit, co-located with NPA MarketPlace, on the power of using ecolabels with products. He said 88 percent of U.S. consumers are familiar with an ecolabel, such as Energy Star, Fair Trade or Organic.

"Ecolabels are meant to tell the back story of the products you're holding your hand," he said. When you see natural on a non-natural products industry item these days, more often than not, the back story isn't natural at all. Labels can help clear confusion, but only if a consumer is aware of what the label means.

How do you think we should solve naturalwashing? Tell us in the comments.

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