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Soapbox :: Do You Care About The Difference Between Natural And Organic? Would You Support A Green Brand If You Knew It Was Owned By A Mega-Corp??

I usually rave and because I believe balance is important, it's time for a rant.  And time to ask what you think.  

I came across an article today titled 'Supporting Organic 'Green' Business Must Become More Do Than Say' (note: as of 1/5/11 when I last checked, the author removed her article from the site) and I hurried to read it because I also believe this wholeheartedly since I know first hand that companies can say, write, market or spin all they want, however they want to, but when it comes right down to it - it's what they do that really matters. After all, that's how trust is built.  This goes for companies slapping cert seals on their products; some do it knowing full well that their products aren't certified, some invent their own legit-looking seals in hopes to impress and some do it out of pure ignorance of the process and qualifications.  Can you tell it's one of my hot buttons?!  I digress.  While I truly appreciate some of the points in this article, I just couldn't get past some of the staring-me-in-the-face statements and thoughts it provoked.  It reminded me once again that many consumers, retailers, and editors for that matter, still do not know the difference between "natural" and "organic", why it really matters and why it's important to help clear up the confusion whenever possible.  I couldn't help but notice a handful of things that stood out to me in a big way, like this statement for starters:

"Falling in love with an organic line like Burt's Bees isn't soul satisfying if within three years the beloved 'green' company is purchased by Clorox." (via)

#1: Burt's Bees is not organic.  Never has been, doubt it ever will be.   

This isn't the first time I've heard or read the statement that Burt's is "an organic line" but I usually let it go because I tell myself that the person who said or wrote it means no harm.  It's an honest mistake.  They mean well.  For me though, it's a matter of perpetuating inaccurate information, not semantics. Burt's is a low price point natural brand and if they were to go organic it would undoubtedly raise their famously low prices and it's my understanding they have no plans to do so.  Though not organic, I'm still a major fan of their three dollar original beeswax lip balm.  It's been a gold standard of mine for years, one that I use to hold most other lip balms to.  I'm not however in love with the fact that some of their products contain artificial fragrance but I do give them props for their Res-Q Ointment that healed a persistent rash o' mine six plus years ago and I did use their Citrus Facial Scrub fairly consistently ten or so years ago.  My feathers aren't ruffled exclusively with comments like this about Burt's Bees (and for the record, I've never seen or heard Burt's claim to be organic - only by others), it's with any organic claim for a non-organic product.  

#2: Mistaking the terms "natural" for "organic" and haphazardly using them interchangeably.

Natural, organic....tomato, tomAto, potato, potAto.  What's the big deal anyway?  Well, I'm glad you asked!  I'd be happy to break it down.  Imagine yourself standing in the produce section of your grocery store.  To your left is the conventionally grown (non-organic) produce and to your right the organically grown produce likely emblazoned with a small organic sticker with 5 numbers on it (that always begin with 9) if you're in America. There's a reason why you are buying the organic apples instead of the conventionally grown ones - because you have learned that the conventional apples are one of the most heavily sprayed (with pesticides & insecticides) in the plant kingdom and you don't mind spending more for the ones that aren't, the healthier choice, if you can afford it.  You carefully place the organic apples into your tote or cart and mentally pat yourself on the back because you feel like you made a better choice.  So what's your point?  The point is that with most things in life you are going to pay more for a higher quality product, because it took more time and effort to grow, produce and/or create said product, like an organic apple versus a conventional one.  And there's another important distinction to be made: that a "natural" product very likely means it is the equivalent of the conventionally-grown and pesticide/insecticide/fungacide-sprayed produce in your grocery store.  If the ingredient list reads "apple juice" that's quite different from "organic apple juice".  One is natural because it came from fruit and one is organic because it came from fruit that was grown using organic farming principles.  If you care about such things, it's important to know the difference, how you're spending your money and why. 

As a side note and for those who can't afford it: if you're strapped for cash and have one dollar in your pocket and you ask me if you should buy gummy bears or a conventional (non-organic) apple, I'm going to tell you to buy the conventional apple since it is, without question, better for you.  Seems like a no-brainer, right? Likewise, if you tell me you're at the drugstore and only have eight bucks to spend on face wash, I'm going to tell you to buy the Burt's Bees instead of the Neutrogena.  Again, not organic, but without question, better for you.

When the word "organic" is used interchangeably with the word "natural" it's a disservice to legitimately organic brands and products as it perpetuates consumer confusion and muddies perceptions of what it truly means to be "organic", a higher standard than "natural" in most cases. Calling Burt's Bees or any other brand that exclusively or mostly uses non-organic plant ingredients "organic" is the equivalent of calling conventionally grown apples "organic apples" and that is simply and without question, inaccurate and absurd.   

Sure, they're "natural" but they sure aren't "organic"!  A natural product can also be organic but it doesn't automatically mean that it is.  Natural can have many meanings whether it be to claim that it was derived from a natural substance (aka plant-based), or it may claim to be devoid of unhealthy ingredients.  While the term "natural" is typically quite ambiguous whether in food or beauty, "organic" has one meaning and it means that the plant was grown without the use of conventional pesticides and insecticides.  A big gray area exists in the matter of production, or what happens to that ingredient after it is plucked from the earth, but that is another topic for another day.  In the world of food, the word "natural" is unregulated whereas organic is semi-regulated by the USDA.  In the world of beauty, neither "natural" or "organic" products are regulated.  The ones that apply for USDA organic certification, or other legitimate certs are held to a set of standards by the certification agency that the company has enlisted (i.e. QAI), but there's no official organic police out there slapping companies with organic fraud citations even though companies like Dr. Bronner's, and organic advocacy groups like the Organic Consumer Association wish there were and are currently working on it. Click here to read about USDA Organic Certification Standards explained in plain English.  

#3: Clorox owns Burt's Bees but did you know your favorite natural and/or organic food brand is probably also owned by a mega-corporation?

It's not exactly breaking news that Clorox bought Burt's Bees in '07 to the tune of $925 mill or that many felt like the company sold out, even though that kind of money would be hard for anyone to resist.  I agree that it can feel like a contradiction to support a green brand when they are owned by a mega-corporation that may or may not care at all about green issues, but without the financial backing of these huge companies, many of these formerly small brands wouldn't ever get on the map on a large scale or be helping change the landscape of agriculture.  If we are going to judge Burt's Bees in this way as I have seen many a conscious consumer do, it's also important to be aware of the many other brands that most of us support whether it be at our Whole Foods or local health food stores.  Unbeknownst to most green consumers a large majority of green brands are also owned by mega-corps as you can see in this flow chart:

Click here to view larger size

Note: Yes, this chart is from 2009. That's because there isn't a 2010 version yet.  I emailed the creator of it, Philip Howard, Assistant Professor at University of Michigan and he indicated he hasn't updated it "in part because there hasn't been as much financing available for acquisitions and the pace has slowed recently". He hopes to update it this summer.  If you can't see the full size version of the chart by clicking above, you can find it here:

So should we get up in arms that a mega-corporation with big money bought our favorite little brand out or should we be grateful that the once mom & pop brand was able to get some financial backing in order to expand their brand like they couldn't possibly have done otherwise?  We know that some brand's values and standards change when a buy-out occurs but there are many brands that are allowed to keep their founders, mission and standards in place to maintain the same quality and results that consumers are accustomed to.  

So where do you stand on these issues?  Do you think it's important to distinguish the difference between calling something "organic" and "natural" whether it be food or beauty products?  Do you still support green brands that have been bought out by mega-corps?  Speak your mind in the comments!!  We want to hear from YOU.  

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