Could ISO standards be the answer to natural and organic confusion? Keith Nuthall and MJ Deschamps investigate
With the plethora of private organic, environmental and sustainability certifications hitting the personal care products market, retailers and consumers could be forgiven for being confused about which system is the most reliable.
It could perhaps be time to go back to basics and rely on internationally accepted standards such as those set by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).
This long established Geneva-based body is developing a global standard on the technical definitions and criteria for ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ ingredients and products. Once approved, this could bring some order to the current international chaos surrounding such certification schemes. ISO has its key work driven by sectoral technical committees, and as regards the personal care product industry, there are committees for cosmetics and essential oils. There are also cross-cutting committees, with relevance to a number of industries – such as on nanotechnology – that are of importance and relevance.
These committees are comprised of representatives of national standards organisations; for example in the UK it is the BSI – the British Standards Institution. They will appoint specialists, with industry links, able to devise standards with intelligence, experience and knowledge. Such standards have to be approved by two-thirds of the ISO members (again national standards organisations) that have participated actively in developing a particular standard and approved by 75% of all members that vote. Existing cosmetics technical committee standards include packaging and labelling for cosmetics products; general instructions for microbiological examination for all cosmetic products; sun protection test methods and others.
“Worldwide, there is an increasing interest in products perceived as ‘organic’, ‘biologique’ and ‘natural’. Personal care manufacturers have followed this global tendency. This has led to a proliferation of cosmetic products which are positioned as ‘natural’ or ‘organic’,” says Mojdeh R Tabari, secretary of the ISO cosmetics technical committee responsible for the developing standard.
“However, what exactly constitutes a ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ cosmetic ingredient or product is being interpreted differently by cosmetic ingredient and product manufacturers and by other stakeholders, such as certification organisations.”
She says that as a response to this fragmented market “with no clear rules and a lack of international coherence on the technical basis, a highly credible, transparent and scientifically sound set of technical definitions and criteria for natural and organic cosmetic products is required.”
A business plan for the committee underlines the importance of this kind of work: “The role of international test methods and other technical information is very important, and the reliability of test data is a critical factor when making decisions on purchases and usage. The cosmetics industry is rapidly improving and the technical requirements are becoming more and more strict.” Without agreed global norms, trade barriers could impede imports and exports, it says. “As a consequence, the need for reliable standardised analytical methods and production procedures is becoming very clear.”
Paul Crawford, head of regulatory and environmental services at the Cosmetic, Toiletry & Perfumery Association (CTPA) in the UK agrees that there is a great need for an international standard for ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ ingredients in cosmetics products, in order to promote harmonisation between all the different standards that exist in Europe and beyond.
“There are three different organic standards in the UK alone, as well as a split between ‘natural’ and ‘organic products,” says Crawford. “This becomes difficult if you’re a company wanting to export products to other markets, and your certification isn’t necessarily recognised by the consumer in those markets.”
In fact at the beginning of 2011 the newest natural and organic cosmetic certification system in Europe – the Cosmos standard – was launched in a bid to harmonise various certifications and labels in order to create a more internationally recognised standard. The Cosmos standard association consists of five founding members who authorise and oversee the certification, including the Soil Association (UK), Ecocert (France), Cosmébio (France), BDIH (Germany) and AIAM/ICEA (Italy).
“All the different standards that exist have the same basic philosophy, but the technical details are different,” says Crawford. “From an industry point of view we’re hoping that national governments will allow products that conform to ISO to appear on the market under that label. Conforming only to a national label doesn’t really help international trade or competition – any national standards that crop up are really a barrier to companies entering that market since it means they have to reformulate to match national standards.”
Claire Braithwaite is founder of Love Lula, a natural and organic beauty retailer in the UK. From the point of view of an organic cosmetics brand, she says it would be helpful to have an international standard, but only if it was adopted across the board “and universally accepted as the standard on organic and natural ingredients.
“The problem we’re having in the industry at the moment is that there are lots of different standards and criteria – none of which are legally required, so you can call anything ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ irrespective of what’s actually in the formula. [An ISO standard] would help, but it could also be confusing to consumers since it’s just adding certification to the pot where there are already so many.”
It is worth noting that certification is not a requirement of any ISO standard – a standard is developed to meet a market need and is always voluntary rather than mandatory.
So there is plenty of advice available at ISO, with ISO cosmetic standards ranging in price from CHF66 to CHF136. Standards can usually be ordered through national standards organisations allied to ISO and can be bought in hard copy or digital downloadable format from ISO’s detailed website. Using standard codes is an effective way to find relevant documents.