From our groceries to our bath products, the term ‘organic’ has become somewhat of a buzzword for the retail industry. It’s used to indicate to shoppers that a product has been created with environmentally friendly principles in mind.
But what do we actually mean when we talk about something being organic? And does this label genuinely indicate that the clothes we buy or the moisturiser we use are good for both people and the planet? Let’s take a look at the different definitions of an organic product, and what this means for anyone shopping with sustainability in mind.
What does organic actually mean?
The word organic is typically used to describe animal or plant products that have been cultivated with minimal use of artificial chemicals. But the criteria used to certify materials as organic vary between countries.
In EU countries, for example, farmers must be registered with a controlling body, which determines whether they are growing their produce in accordance with the EU’s regulations on organic farming.
These regulations restrict the use of artificial herbicides, pesticides, and fertilisers, as well as the use of antibiotics for animals. They forbid the use of GMOs, ionising radiation, and hormones for livestock. Many toxic chemicals are also banned, and animals must be fed on organic feed.
The regulations additionally put protections in place for animal welfare, stating that animals should have access to open-air grazing, should not be overcrowded, and should be tended with consideration for their health and welfare.
Although the UK has now officially left the EU, the current rules on organic farming are still in line with EU regulations. A list of certifying bodies can be found on the UK government’s website. While they use the EU regulations as a basis, many of the control bodies will put additional standards in place – when it comes to textiles, for example, the UK’s Soil Association uses international labelling schemes that include consideration of water and energy usage, and the rights and welfare of textile workers.
In both the EU and the UK, products that are labelled as ‘certified organic’ must contain at least 95% organic materials.
In the US, organic certification is overseen by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). As well as forbidding GMOs, hormone use, and restricting the use of synthetic fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, the USDA labelling scheme takes its standards a step further and requires that land used to grow organic produce must be free of forbidden chemicals for at least three years prior to harvest.
Products that carry the USDA’s Organic Seal must contain 95% certified organic materials. To carry the label ‘made with organic ingredients’, products have to include at least 70% organic materials. Fines can be enforced for anyone who labels a product as organic knowing that it doesn’t meet these criteria.
Which products can be certified as organic?
You’ve likely seen the organic label in one form or another used most often for food, but it is increasingly employed by the fashion, beauty, and homeware industries too.
Since materials can only be considered organic if they are made from animal or plant products, you will find organic labelling on textiles such as cotton, hemp, wool, linen, and silk. Items made from wood or bamboo might also be labelled organic, including both fabric and homeware.
In the beauty sector, skincare or bath products that are made from plant-based ingredients may be labelled as organic if enough of their contents have been grown organically. You may also see labels that identify specific ingredients as being organic, even if the product as a whole is not. Products must also not contain chemicals that can impact on human health, such as parabens, phthalates, and dimethylol.
Organic vs natural: what’s the difference?
The beauty industry especially likes to refer to products as being made with natural ingredients. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always mean very much when we’re scanning labels looking for a better choice for skincare or cosmetics. The term natural is not currently regulated, although it is commonly understood to mean that the ingredients can be found in nature (i.e. they are not manmade).
Some natural ingredients can’t be certified as organic because they aren’t derived from plants or animals. Minerals, salts, and clays can be natural but not organic.
The general expectation is that cosmetics and beauty products that use the word ‘natural’ will be free from harmful chemicals, such as parabens and phthalates, as well as GMO ingredients. Sadly, the term is often misused. To help prevent misleading labelling, there are now certification schemes in place that require brands to meet certain standards to use their labels. We’ll discuss some of these later on.
Being labelled as natural doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about how the raw materials were produced nor how the final product is made. If you are simply trying to avoid using harmful synthetic ingredients on your skin, then natural skincare might be something to choose. For reassurance about the chemicals used in the growing of plant-based ingredients, it is the organic label you want.
Is organic better for the planet?
The organic movement began in reaction to the increasing use of chemical fertilisers, herbicides, and pesticides in farming. These chemicals cause several issues, both for the environment and for human health.
Conventional cotton growing, for example, is estimated to use 16% of the world’s insecticides and 6% of the world’s pesticides, according to Pesticide Action Network UK. That is because the demand for cotton is high and it is a difficult crop to grow, putting pressure on farmers to use chemicals to increase their yields.
These pesticides are also extremely hazardous to human health, causing seizures, respiratory diseases, and even death for the growers who work with them. The chemicals are also expensive, taking around 60% of the annual income of small cotton farmers.
Pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides are harmful to the environment too. They can lead to contamination of the soil and are toxic to more than just the targeted pests, potentially causing harm to birds, fish, beneficial insects (such as bees), and other plants. They can easily get into the water supply, killing aquatic life and contaminating drinking water.
You might think that synthetic fertilisers would be more benign but, unfortunately, these can also cause a whole host of environmental issues. When fertilisers contaminate local waterways, they can cause eutrophication – the over-growth of aquatic plants like algae, which upsets the balance of the ecosystem and can cause a loss of biodiversity.
It seems that conventional methods of growing textile crops like cotton are a disaster for both the environment and the people who grow them. But is organic growing better?
Organic methods forbid the use of most pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, and synthetic fertilisers. By removing these harmful chemicals from the process, organic growing protects human health and prevents the contamination of the environment making it a better choice for all.
Growing textile crops organically can also reduce water use and the carbon footprint of the raw materials. When the Textile Exchange carried out a comprehensive life cycle analysis of organic vs conventional cotton, for example, they found it reduced water usage by 91% and carbon dioxide production by 46%.
When it comes to animal products -things like wool – organic farming encourages a move away from intensive farming methods that are bad for animal welfare. It bans the use of hormones, which are thought to have harmful effects on both animal and human health. And it avoids the use of toxic chemicals in processing the fibres to make fabric.
So far, so good. But there are some other impacts of organic growing methods that we still need to consider, so let’s take a look at them here:
Lower yield can mean greater land use
Organic standards encourage farmers to develop other methods of increasing yields and protecting their crops against insects and disease. But moving away from the use of chemicals has an impact on how much farmers can grow. This has a knock-on effect on the income of growers and also on land use. Organic crops require more space to produce the same yield as conventional farming methods, potentially leading to more land being cleared for use in agriculture.
Organic labelling doesn’t necessarily protect workers’ rights
At its core, organic certification is concerned with how animal and plant products are grown, not with the welfare of the people involved in creating them. With well-documented human rights violations known to impact the fashion industry, an organic label may not be enough to ensure that workers are protected along the supply chain.
Fortunately, standards have been developed that do consider the rights of workers as well as animal welfare and organic growing methods. We’ll look at these in more detail in just a moment.
The transition period can impact on farmers’ incomes
While the EU’s base regulations on organic labelling don’t require it, the USDA and many international organic standards demand that land be free of forbidden chemicals for three years before crops or animal products can be labelled organic. This can leave farmers struggling as they can’t command the higher price for their crops, but already see an impact on the yield they can get from their land.
To combat this, there are grant schemes available for growers who want to switch to organic farming, to assist them with the transition period. Still, the risk of reduced income at first may be a barrier to farmers participating in organic schemes.
Although there are some limitations to organic standards, the benefits for the environment, and for human health, will outweigh the negatives for most people. So, if you are convinced that buying organic is the more sustainable choice, how can you recognise if a product you’re considering is truly organic?
Organic labelling schemes and what they mean
There are several different labelling schemes in place for organic products, which can be confusing for buyers. Here are some of the ones to look out for and what they mean:
Clothing and textiles
In the UK, the control body that certifies most organic clothing is the Soil Association. They work with two international labelling schemes that you’ll see used on clothing around the world, as well as on homeware products like bedding and rugs:
Organic Content Standard (OCS)
Overseen by the Textile Exchange, the Organic Content Standard tracks organic raw materials through the supply chain. This allows brands and consumers to buy with confidence – supply chains in the fashion industry are notoriously complicated so it can be difficult to be sure of how raw materials are grown without this certification. However, it doesn’t address the use of chemicals in the manufacturing process, just the growth of the raw materials.
Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
An internationally recognised standard, the Global Organic Textile Standard requires textiles to contain at least 70% organic fibres to qualify as being labelled ‘made with organic’ and 95% to be labelled ‘organic’.
GOTS looks at the manufacturing process as well as the growth of the raw materials, banning harmful chemicals and dyes. Water and energy management are also covered, as are human rights – manufacturers must comply with the International Labour Organisation’s standards on wages, working hours, and health and safety. Child labour is forbidden.
Beauty and wellbeing
While the use of the word organic for food and drink is regulated under UK law, there is less oversight for the beauty industry, meaning products may be labelled as organic (or natural) even though they contain few organic ingredients.
In an effort to combat this, a variety of organic certification schemes are available to help you determine which skincare, make-up, and bathroom products are genuinely made with organic ingredients. These include:
Soil Association and COSMOS
UK organic control body, the Soil Association, has teamed up with international certification scheme COSMOS for this symbol, which is used to indicate beauty products that don’t contain any harmful chemicals, haven’t been tested on animals, and don’t use any synthetic dyes, colours, or fragrances. They are also GMO-free.
There are two different COSMOS standards used. To carry the ‘organic’ one, products must contain at least 95% organically grown ingredients. The ‘natural’ label can be used for products that contain a high percentage of materials that can’t be called organic, like water, salt, or clay. However, it does mean that products that carry the ‘natural’ label may contain non-organic plant ingredients too.
You may also see the COSMOS standard being used in conjunction with an ECOCERT label – ECOCERT is an organic certification company that is based in Europe but certify products in many different countries around the world.
NATRUE is an international standard for natural and organic cosmetics and beauty products. Like COSMOS, it offers two standards: Organic and natural.
The organic standard can be used by products that contain 95% organically grown materials. Like COSMOS, the natural standard is for products that can’t meet this because they are based on non-plant derived ingredients. NATRUE only certifies products when 75% of the product line meets their standards to discourage greenwashing.
Should you buy organic?
As we’ve seen, choosing to buy organic clothing and beauty products has numerous benefits for both the planet and human health, making it a good choice for sustainably-minded and environmentally conscious shoppers.
Compared to conventionally produced textiles, organic fabrics are less polluting, less hazardous, and better for animal welfare. Look out for the GOTS label to be sure that clothes have also been produced with workers’ rights in mind or choose textiles that are labelled Fairtrade as well as organic if possible.
For the beauty industry, choosing products that are certified as natural or organic under COSMOS or NATRUE means you can buy with confidence, knowing that you are not putting any hazardous chemicals on your skin.