I’m sure if you look in your bathroom or shower you will find products that have some sort of natural marketing claim. “Natural” is equated with words like “wholesome”, “safe”, “sustainable”, even “moral” in some consumers’ minds. A product doesn’t even need to contain 100% natural components to benefit from a natural claim. A green label, or the image of a natural substance like honey or coconut on that label is generally enough to drive busy consumers to purchase. The thought is, “if its natural, its good for the planet, and good for me”. Most don’t delve any deeper than that.
The product label shown on the left is from a naturally marketed conditioner. The photos of coconut and lime infer this product has natural origins, and the size of the images suggest high concentration levels of those natural materials.
The ingredient label for this product is shown on the right. Every ingredient that is underlined has petroleum origins, so this product is actually not very natural. You also want to pay attention to the order that ingredients are listed. Ingredient placement on the label correlates to concentration levels in the product. Water is the first material listed, so it has the highest in concentration level in this product. Probably 80%! RED 33 is the last material listed so it’s the lowest in concentration. Based on where the coconut water and lime juice fall on this list, I would guess a concentration level somewhere around 0.5% each. Hmmm, that’s not very much! But the product label looks so natural. That’s the power of marketing!
So, what does all this have to do with the rainforest? It looks like I just need to scrutinize brand claims a little more closely but buying natural products should be better for the planet, right? Not necessarily. The popularity of the natural market has turned this once niche market, which enjoyed higher prices, into mass market. We saw this evolution when Amazon purchased Whole Foods. Whole Foods is the largest certified organic grocer in the US and Amazon is the largest mass market online retailer. How many times have you gone to Amazon to find a lower price on an item? When a niche market gets commoditized, manufacturers look for ways to make products cheaper. It’s no longer enough to have a natural claim. Now products must be the least expensive, natural option if they are to earn your business. Let’s look at another label.
This product looks super natural! The brand name seems natural, and there are pictures of coconuts, and palm fronds on the label and at the very bottom, the label reads, “. . . Acts of Love for our Planet.” Sounds good! I’m sold. Let’s just peek at the ingredients . . .
As you can see on the right, coconut water and flower extract have moved up on the ingredient list, but I would guess the concentration level to still be fairly low (0.5 to 1%). On the other hand, sodium laureth sulfate probably has a concentration level of around 30%. This material is derived from palm oil. Other general materials that tend to get used in natural formulas and are typically derived from palm oil are glycerin, or cetearyl alcohol, or glyceryl stearate, or caprylic/capric triglyceride . . . and on and on.
85% of palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. The standard method used to prepare the land for a palm plantation is to cut down the harvestable timber and burn what remains. During the dry season, these fires grow out of control and in a country that doesn’t have the resources to stop these fires, they just burn until they die out.
Malaysia and Indonesia contain 56% of the world’s tropical peatland. Peatland is the most efficient carbon sink on the planet. Carbon sinks store carbon so we want to protect them if the global concern is greenhouse gas emissions. The peatland found in these regions are some of the oldest and deepest in the world which means they hold the most carbon. We want to protect Indonesian and Malaysian peatlands in particular. Peatland is also highly flammable and when ignited, it can burn undetected (meaning it smolders rather than displaying open flames), FOR MONTHS. Because peatland stores so much carbon it can release equivalent levels of carbon dioxide as to what gets released when burning fossil fuel. Another thing to consider, burning forest removes habitat. And since we are talking about the rain forest, 50% of the world’s species call this area home. This has led to what some scientists deem the world’s 6th mass extinction (remember the dinosaurs?). One last point, the US Department of labor lists palm oil coming from these regions as using child and forced labor.
Does any of this seem like an “act of love for our planet”?