Natural Products: Hyped or Helpful?
By Lori Stryker, B.Sc., B.H.Ec., B.Ed., OCT
Today, many people are keenly aware that our planet is in an environmental crisis. Although opinions are polarized as to who or what is causing adverse phenomena like degradation of the ozone, climate shift, desertification and other environmental calamities, it is clear that human beings act either to the benefit or detriment of our natural and only planetary home. Over the past decade, flurries of products have reached the marketplace, claiming to be ‘natural’, non-toxic or ‘eco-friendly’, aiming to ease the pressure on the planet that is caused by our consumption of goods and services. But, what does it really mean for a product to be natural, eco-friendly or non-toxic? Furthermore, what criteria can consumers use to navigate through the ‘hype’ and make sound product choices to exercise environmental responsibility? This article will attempt to provide both a manufacturer’s perspective and a consumer’s rationale in the search for clarity on earth-friendly products.
Natural products, as they are sometimes labelled, can be found in almost any store, cyber or real, in almost any form. From cotton shirts to processed foods, the term ‘natural’ has been used to describe products that have a degree of purity and closeness to nature. Recently, however, consumers have become skeptical about the use of the term ‘natural’ on products that are made of ingredients and components that don’t look or sound ‘natural’, suggesting that the term may have been misused as a marketing ploy. For a more detailed discussion of what constitutes a natural ingredient or substance, please read the article Natural vs. Synthetic.
To begin, let’s establish the definition of the term ‘toxic’. According to the Mirriam-Webster dictionary, this word is derived from the Latin toxicum which means poison. And a poison, according to the same source, is “a substance that, through its chemical action, kills, injures or impairs an organism.” From this definition, it becomes clear that substances can be non-toxic but not natural, such as petroleum jelly, and natural but toxic, like snake venom. From a manufacturing perspective, we are interested in the conditions for toxicity, given usually through the MSDS information sheets, since everyone involved in manufacturing needs to stay safe as they work on the factory floor. Some substances are not at all toxic when they are in a final manufactured product, but are going to be toxic if inhaled in large quantities without a mask or if they are splashed onto unprotected skin. As consumers, however, non-toxic should describe the safety of the final product. In artists’ materials, for instance, ACMI describes what non-toxic means in their certification process:
“The new AP (Approved Product) Seal, with or without Performance Certification, identifies art materials that are safe and that are certified in a toxicological evaluation by a medical expert to contain no materials in sufficient quantities to be toxic or injurious to humans, including children, or to cause acute or chronic health problems. This seal is currently replacing the previous non-toxic seals: CP (Certified Product), AP (Approved Product), and HL Health Label (Non-Toxic) over a 10-year phase-in period. Such products are certified by ACMI to be labeled in accordance with the chronic hazard labeling standard, ASTM D 4236, and the U. S. Labeling of Hazardous Art Materials Act (LHAMA). Additionally, products bearing the AP Seal with Performance Certification or the CP Seal are certified to meet specific requirements of material, workmanship, working qualities, and color developed by ACMI and others through recognized standards organizations, such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM)."
Consumers need to be aware, however, that not all products claiming to be non-toxic may have been certified as such by a third party institution. Additionally, a product can be deemed or labelled as non-toxic and have been derived from petroleum, chemicals or transformed through many stages of chemistry and intensive energy use.
Eco-Friendly or Earth-Friendly:
It’s interesting to note that, the definition of a friend is “one attached to another by affection or esteem” (Mirriam-Webster dictionary). Thus, attaching the term ‘earth’ or ‘eco’ to friend gives us insight into what these terms should mean when they are used together. Going one step further with the metaphor of friendship, we don’t usually or intentionally attempt to hurt or harm anything or anyone we have affection or esteem for. Products that serve our needs, and enhance our lives in some way, should adhere to the axiom that we don’t harm or hinder unnecessarily the source of that product, which is the earth we live on. As manufacturers, we should strive to maintain two key elements as we conduct our production: sustainability and making people’s lives better through raising standards and reducing harm. Any product should be made according to these criteria if it’s to be authentically considered earth-friendly:
- Raw materials were obtained using methods that are not toxic or perpetually damaging to the environment
- Raw materials come from plant life or existing earth materials, with the exception of fossil fuels.
- Raw materials come from recycled or re-purposed consumer products.
- When chemistry is necessary, methods used are minimal or operate on the principle of reducing harm to the environment.
- Manufacturing processes do not pollute the environment, either by contributing excessively to landfills or exhausting toxins into water or ground systems or the air.
- Packaging can be re-used, recycled or re-purposed.
- Animals and their by-products are not used at any point in the process of manufacturing or of testing the product.
As our resources continue to diminish over time, people’s awareness of their impact to the earth will become more acute, prompting consumers to re-evaluate their product choices and the way they live their lives as consumers. Manufacturers like Colors of Nature (www.colorsofnature.com) and The Organic Makeup Co. Inc. (www.organicmakeup.ca) are two examples of companies that are leading the way in providing alternatives to conventional products in art supplies and cosmetics. Many other companies are also genuinely manufacturing products that are honest in their natural and earth-friendly claims. It is incumbent on all of the earth’s inhabitants to reflect on the impact their choices make, and drive demand for earth-friendly and natural products by supporting companies, however large or small, in their efforts to create sustainability and dignity through the products they offer to make all of our lives healthier and responsible.