Label-Reading 101

Confused about reading “green” product labels? Here are 10 easy ways to become better informed.

The ever-escalating green movement has made consumers and spa owners alike far more conscious of their own environmental impact—but it has also unwittingly led to occasional confusion. Take eco-labeling, which started as a well-intentioned attempt to inform environmentally aware consumers as to the status of products in a standardized way, and has since devolved into a morass of dubious marketing claims, confusing terminology, and a plethora of cryptic symbols and certifications. How can a spa owner decipher the truth behind the products? DAYSPA sought advice from several environmental organizations, as well as a discerning green spa owner, to find out what spa pros should consider to make wise purchasing decisions and evaluate the truth behind the labels.

1. Don’t believe the hype. When it comes to most products sold or used in a spa, the FDA does not regulate claims. This applies to products labeled as “organic,” “natural” and “hypoallergenic,” says Stacy Malkan, cofounder of The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in San Francisco. The Brattleboro, Vermont-based Organic Trade Association (OTA) reports that “the National Organic Program (NOP) currently lacks the legal authority to regulate ‘organic’ label claims of personal care products, except when personal care operations voluntarily choose to meet organic food standards, gain NOP certification and use the USDA Organic seal.” Hence, spa owners should understand that labeling doesn’t necessarily reflect actual standards.

Further complicating matters is the use of terms such as “100% organic” (which means made from 99% and above organic ingredients), “organic” (95% to 99% organic ingredients) and “made from organic ingredients” (70% to 94% organic). Brad Drummer, managing owner of Nusta Spa in Washington, D.C., notes that, “Many companies that actually have 100% organic ingredients had to find other ways to broadcast that, because of the high cost of official certification. So now you see on labels, ‘all-natural,’ ‘100% natural’ or ‘bio-genic.’ “ And keep in mind, he adds, that a product made with 95% water “can claim an organic label even though no other ingredient is organic.” In other words: Buyer beware!

2. Read the label carefully. Maybe you can’t believe the hype, but you can read what it says on the products you stock. “Look at the ingredient list and assess for yourself,” advises Malkan. “Look for few or no synthetic chemicals in products.”

Indeed, in the Natural Cosmetics Brand Assessment study conducted by the London-based Organic Monitor, the organization analyzed more than 50 brands that make natural and/or organic claims. The report states, “Many companies claiming to have ‘chemically clean’ cosmetics are actually falling afoul by having contentious synthetic ingredients.” It also notes that some product companies entice consumers with a Fair Trade certification (indicating social responsibility and fair wages for workers) but in fact, their products contain high levels of synthetic substances. To make the most informed decisions, a careful review of ingredients is a must.

3. Be wary of “fragrance.” Malkan points to the terms “parfum” and “fragrance” as major red flags. “Companies should tell you what exactly is in the fragrance, or list the botanicals they use to create it,” she explains. “Many people are sensitive to fragrance, leading to potential breathing difficulties or skin rashes.”

4. Do your product and ingredient research. Understanding products’ environmental and human impact requires a fair amount of knowledge, but a simple online search can turn up a wealth of information on various ingredients, and it’s worth taking the time to find out more about them (same goes for the symbols, logos and certifications found on their labels). “A spa doesn’t want to overstate green claims or over-market products based on their ecological or social credentials; such incidences involve customers losing trust in the products, and thus in the spa,” notes Amajit Sahota, president of Organic Monitor. “The best thing is to just learn more about ingredient contents, and then use that knowledge when selecting and using products.” (See “For More Information” on page 108 for a list of online resources to help navigate labels.)

5. Get acquainted with the brands you sell. Part of a spa owner’s research should involve investigating the companies whose products you carry. Working with a manufacturer you trust can make the learning—and buying—process much easier. “It’s always helpful to ask, ‘Which companies are living their values?’“ advises Malkan. “Get to know the people behind the products.”

To that end, Malkan suggests personally reaching out to manufacturers to learn their policies, and obtaining full disclosure of ingredients and explanations of any certifications such as Fair Trade. “It’s important for companies to hear from consumers and buyers, and spa owners have an important voice,” she adds. By letting companies know that you’re concerned with their practices, you’ll encourage them to move forward with—and constantly improve—their efforts.

If you detect any warning signs or indications of false claims, either dig deeper or select another product line. “If they’re not practicing what they preach,” says Drummer, “there’s a good chance that their reasons for creating or labeling the product in such a way is just a marketing gimmick.”

6. Think locally. It isn’t always possible, but if you can obtain great products from a nearby company—whether or not they’re organic—you will automatically be making a great stride toward sustainability because, as Malkan notes, carbon emissions are greatly reduced. You might even be able to personally visit the operation to witness their practices firsthand. Plus, you’ll be supporting the local economy—a positive social achievement that could also work to expand your client base.

7. Seek third-party approval. Labels that proclaim “organic” or “natural” may mean little in the personal-care arena, but you can still check them against stringent certification requirements. USDA Organic, for example, is a high standard most commonly used in the food industry that can also apply to personal care items. Others noted by Organic Monitor include NPA and Ecocert logos, and certifications from The Soil Association, BDIH and NaTrue. The OTA emphasizes, “Standards provide a clear list of approved ingredients and processes to formulators. Furthermore, certified products build consumer trust, since symbols and logos... clearly distinguish legitimate natural/organic products from falsely labeled ones.”

Spa owners can also seek a stamp of approval from industry organizations and/or the media, which “tend to be more objective in their views,” says Sahota. Once again, rely on your research skills—read up on what those outside the company are saying about products for a clearer analysis.

8. Take advantage of technology. With today’s widespread availability of technological assistance, spa owners no longer have to go it alone when selecting the most eco-friendly and safe products for clients. GoodGuide, for example, offers an app for mobile phones that gives ratings for nearly 100,000 consumer products and companies, according to Organic Monitor. “Consumers can get details on the product’s environmental, social and even economic footprint while shopping,” reports the organization. “By rating products on various criteria, it highlights the shortcomings of many sustainable products” so that consumers can avoid being “lost in the maze of eco-labels.”

Barbara Haumann, senior writer/editor for the OTA, suggests using Consumer Reports’ new Eco-Label app, a mobile version of Consumer Reports’ greenerchoices.org. “This resource is designed to help consumers find out whether the claims on their favorite products are truthful,” she explains. You can encourage your clients to download these apps to make better-informed decisions, and use them yourself while making purchasing decisions for the spa.

9. Weigh your priorities. Is it better to be Fair Trade or organic? All-natural or sustainable? Zero carbon footprint or Rainforest Alliance? As a spa owner, you need to assess what is most important to you and your clientele before buying. “I like to think locally first of all, but after that it’s a matter of what you perceive to have the best environmental impact,” says Nusta’s Drummer. “Another important factor to consider is how something is harvested and whether that factor follows the important practice of using all of the plant or animal that was sacrificed for human benefit.” He points to hemp as an example of an ideal ingredient, as every part of its plant is usable in some way.

Malkan advocates for products that have the fewest synthetic ingredients. Sahota posits that most consumers who buy natural and organic personal-care products do so because they don’t contain potentially harmful ingredients—not because of environmental concerns. “The most important label is organic,” opines Haumann. “’Organic’ encompasses farming production and processing practices that are good for the soil of our planet, our farmers and their families, our water supplies and the overall health of our earth.”

The bottom line: As a spa owner, it’s up to you to decide what ecological, social or ingredient-oriented merits carry the most weight.

10. Educate clients. No matter what sustainable obligations your spa’s products fulfill, they won’t register with clients unless you educate them properly as to why you’ve chosen them. “I advise other owners to make clients want to learn more by using your retail products in your treatments and by constructing interest-piqueing displays,” says Drummer. “Also, get them talking about becoming more environmentally friendly before trying to convert them to 100% organic. I try to be subtle and appeal to a client’s heart as well as her mind.” Finally, Drummer advises owners to carry nonorganic products alongside eco-friendly options; noting, “Just be savvy enough about what you carry to explain the difference.”

Tracy Morin is a freelance writer and editor based in Oxford, Mississippi.

For More Information

Looking to find out more about ingredients and eco-labels? Consult the following websites:
cosmeticdatabase.com
goodguide.com
greenerchoices.org
organic.org
organicitsworthit.org
organicmonitor.com
ota.com
safecosmetics.org


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