Harmony or Sustainable Public Policy?

There has been a lot of talk about the need to harmonize the few organic standards out there for cosmetics. I don’t believe we need to do this just yet. This does not mean that I don’t recognize that there is confusion – there is! Let’s ask the question – how do harmonized standards come into being? History, conveniently, shows us in the story of how we got organic food standards; I lived it for the organic food standards and only recently really came to understand how I lived through the creation of “public policy”.

Once upon a time a bunch of farmers decided they wanted to “certify” their growing practices. So they each inspected the other and this evolved into 3rd party certification of organic practices (this is the really short story of certifiers like CCOF, Oregon Tilth, OCIA, an most of the non-profits). This happened in the ’70s and ’80s. Then in the ’90s, people wanted to have “certified” processed foods. So the various certifiers (of whom there were over 40) started to write “processing” standards borrowing parts of standards from each other, and eventually we had over 40 certifiers in the US with over 40 different standards and every one was “better” than every one else but it was all “organic”. This went on for 11 years. There were over 40 seals and everyone had the chance to develop a market without too many restrictions – good or bad as that may be. In the late ‘90s there was a real problem with reciprocity – for example, a CCOF product may not accept a QAI certified ingredient.

The lack of reciprocity prompted the OTA (The Organic Trade Association) to push to harmonize the standards. A draft harmonized Standard was written by an OTA commissioned group and, in 1999, most of the larger certifiers signed on and agreed to use it, (of course this meant they had many meetings with their members and collected their thoughts). This was just as the NOP draft standard was being designed in Washington DC. A note – the first draft garnered something like 360,000 written comments sent to Washington. This is the heart and soul of the public working on their own regulatory policy.

By October 2002, when the NOP was implemented, there was a robust “organic” food industry and a clear perception by many manufacturers that the idea of making ingredients for the organic industry was a great niche. This motivated the creation of multiple specialized organic ingredients and motivated better and more organic products. So – what we had was 12 years of education of growers, inspectors, manufacturers, retailers and consumers. We “grew” the market along with the idea of organic. It was clear that processed foods could be “organic” and were a viable market force. This gave people the time to develop the necessary infrastructure to make organic food a reality.

Somehow we went off the tracks when we tried to do the same thing with cosmetics. People seemed to think there should be a single, regulated standard for cosmetics without any of the opportunities to develop the infrastructure that goes along with building the standard. It is important to realize that no government will regulate anything that does not have a consensus in the intended industry. While we may find “organic” clearly better, the FDA does not perceive the use of organic ingredients to be a health issue. They are not going to go out of their way to support this and USDA cannot do it without FDA – USDA has no regulatory authority and they do not have any chemist on staff that could credibly oversee the program. I believe USDA would be extremely averse to regulating cosmetics in any way without buy-in from FDA. You’ve got to ask yourself, is that what you want?

In the mean time we have people announcing they have the “one true standard” (gee, why does that feel like England in the 1700s?) and people suing other people over “ideas” (and why does this feel like the 1950s?) of what a standard should look like and certifiers who are certifying organic cosmetics that have no idea of what happens in a cosmetic manufacturing environment. Yes, it is confusing. It is also normal when new ideas butt up against people who have a business in the mix.

The way I see it, everyone; the manufacturers, the ingredient people, the consumers, and the advocates, need to hammer away on various standards until we get closer and closer and can all, finally, agree on what “organic” means” when it is on a cosmetic. We can’t do that until we get some standards out there and stimulate more ingredient innovation and production and get people involved! Right now we have all sorts of ideas but not much action

Based on history, we should do the same thing that occurred throughout the ’90s for organic food; respect and support the various standards out there, keep demanding more credibility and more organic ingredients, and continue to evolve this very important path to clean and sustainable cosmetics and personal care products. The folks who are extremely concerned about “organic” can buy USDA certified organic personal care products until such time as other standards are acceptable to them. In the mean time, I want to participate in the good old messy American process of “public policy” work.

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