Simply Label Appeal? Part 3. Organic?

Simply Label Appeal? Part 3. Organic?

Brandished across many food and cosmetics labels is the oh-so familiar word ‘Organic’ - but what does it actually mean?  

The term ‘organic’ stems from a branch of chemistry which studies carbon-based compounds. It seems to originate from the term ‘organism,’ referring to carbon-based ‘living or natural things’.  Yet developments within chemistry have enabled scientists to synthesise ‘plant’ and ‘animal’ compounds from unnatural sources thus creating synthetic compounds containing carbon atoms.  Consequently, the current term ‘organic’, from a chemist’s definition, is applicable both to natural and synthetic carbon-based compounds and so would encompass: wood and plastics; plant oils and petroleum and natural manure compost along with some synthetic fertilisers, since all contain carbon atoms…   

For chemists, two exactly comprised molecular structures containing carbon, whether formed in nature or synthesised within a laboratory, will behave in the same way and therefore both can be categorised as ‘organic.’ (click here for source)

From the perspective of Organic Farming, however, the definition of ‘Organic’ has a very different meaning, referring to farming practices that are rooted in holistic philosophy:

“…organic farmers take a holistic, principled approach that respects and harnesses the power of natural processes to build positive health across the ecology of the farm”. 

“Organic farming takes its name from the organic matter that farmers use as an alternative to synthetic fertilisers, which are banned in organic systems. Organic matter is a term that refers to any natural material that is added to the soil and allowed to decompose. It adds nutrients to the soil and also fibrous material that helps promote soil structure and provides ‘food’ for the insects and microbial organisms that are present in healthy soils” (Soil Association).

For the Soil Association, “organic farming recognises the direct connection between our health and how the food we eat is produced. Artificial fertilisers are banned and farmers develop fertile soil by rotating crops and using compost, manure and clover.” Pesticides are severely restricted and genetically modified crops or ingredients are also banned.

(Click here for 2016 research on health advantages of organic produce).

Protection of wildlife, the environment and animal welfare are perceived to be at the heart of Organic Farming, from the perspective of the Soil Association, therefore guaranteeing “a truly free-range life for farm animals.” Routine use of drugs, antibiotics and wormers are banned and flock / herd sizes are restricted. 

The Soil Association have outlined four ethical principles of Organic agriculture, listed below, which directly impact upon the farming practises behind our own certified organic ingredients. We hope that by highlighting these, customers can appreciate that organic farming is fundamentally a very different approach from conventional / factory farming; practice is underpinned and shaped by its core values. The Soil Association has put together an extensive and rigorous set of certification standards, which build upon these principles. (Website has regularly renewed content - click for archived info by the Soil Association - here).

The principle of Health

“Organic Agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plant, animal, human and planet as one and indivisible”. 

The principle of Ecology: 

“Organic Agriculture should be based on living ecological systems and cycles, work with them, emulate them and help sustain them”.

The principle of Fairness: 

“Fairness is characterised by equity, respect, justice and stewardship of the shared world, both among people and in their relations to other living beings. This principle insists that animals should be provided with the conditions and opportunities of life that accord with their physiology, natural behaviour and well-being”.

The principle of Care

“Organic Agriculture should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well-being of current and future generations and the environment”.


You might like to watch this short cartoon from the Soil Association which describes the benefits of Organic Farming:


Organic Labelling

Currently, in the EU, labelling food as ‘organic’ is the achievement of a legal rigorous process with a professional certification body; food is legally grown / prepared under strict organic conditions and subsequently labelled as ‘organic. Food is therefore clearly and legally defined as 'Organic' or otherwise. Labelling requirements are very strict and producers undergo annual inspections concerning every aspect of their work. Within the EU, legitimate certified organic food products must legally display the EU green organic leaf and stars logo on its label along with the certifier's ORG number. 

Skincare / beauty products, by contrast  do not legally require any organic certification in order for manufacturers to label their products as  ‘Organic’. Manufacturers that choose not to become certified, escape annual inspections of production site, procedures and paperwork, scrutiny and approval of all ingredients, labelling, and all packaging used. Avoiding all this, some companies even create their own organic logos which look like an official seal from an organic certifying body. Others have designed a logo seal which states 'Certifed Organic Ingredients' - yet this has not been corroborated and misleads the consumer.

Anyone can sidestep all this and currently describe a product as ‘Organic’ without an external certifying body approving both the suppliers and the ingredients; even products with a tiny percentage of an organic ingredient amidst questionable synthetic ingredients can be legally described as such. (Click here to link to the Soil Association).

By contrast, skincare manufacturers that undergo organic certification with the Soil Association, are not permitted to label their products as ‘organic’ if less than 95% of the ingredients are certified as organic.  

There are undoubtedly some legitimate skincare companies who do strive to include organic ingredients into their products, where available, and therefore feel justified in describing their products as 'Organic' even though not officially certified. We know from experience, however, that simply purchasing ingredients described as 'organic' or even 'certified organic' is inadequate, no matter how genuine the supplier might appear to be, since corroboration is needed further down the chain. Unless the finished ingredients have been certified as organic by a third party - who has inspected and approved the farming / processing site - website descriptions of raw ingredients, without certificates, cannot be relied upon. 

Many on-line companies sell both certified organic and non-organic ingredients and or products but not all make the distinction between them obvious. A certifying logo present upon the website, may not necessarily cover all products sold.

This process can be further muddied, when suppliers sell a range of both 'Certified Organic' raw materials, alongside others only described as ‘organic' (usually meaning uncertified or wildcrafted). This has caught us out on occasion when initially looking for our own suppliers.

Our own organic certification requires that, if we want to buy certified organic ingredients that have been verified by a different certifying body, other than the Soil Association, we have to request the suppliers' COAs / material specification data sheets, non GM and organic certificates etc as evidence to pass onto the Soil association. We are required to check off all raw materials against their current organic schedules and cannot purchase these unless verified by the Soil Association. This is the only way to know for sure whether an ingredient has been genuinely certified as Organic. 


Purchasing certified organic ingredients, however, is only part of a much bigger picture!

Becoming certified with a body, such as the Soil Association is an ethical business stance; one which yields total transparency of all minutiae of the business. Checks and approval needs to be sought for every ingredient, wording and design of every label, all forms of packaging, all paperwork and invoices; and standards must be kept which include manufacturing, storing and cleaning practises; keeping paper trails and specific records, book-keeping and requirements for all aspects of any organic purchases, Nooma product sales and shipment, and overall business conduct. 

Organic certification for us demands a scrupulous way of being in business that holds, at its core, deep respect: for the planet and the way our ingredients are farmed, processed and impact upon the wider environment, the resources used, and the lives of the people who grow, prepare and sell them. Our commitment, therefore, is to cause no intentional harm (to animals, people and the wider environment) throughout all aspects of our business enterprise; a huge demand with many grey areas, and one which invariably means confronting ethical dilemmas along the way.   

Furthermore, conscientious attention is given to every single ingredient - any non-organic (non-agricultural) ingredients must first comply with an approved list, often requiring a non-GM declaration and evidence of purity. Agricultural ingredients are checked to ensure they must not be from an endangered plant species: 

"You must not use any ingredient derived from a species identified on the IUCN red list as Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable ( " Soil Association Health and Beauty standards 2015.

When Nooma Organics first became certified, we realised that a couple of our ingredients, although legitimately certified as Organic with another certifying body, were in fact listed on the Redlist (The IUCN Red List of Threatened species) - click here - and were therefore not permitted for us to use! Sadly, our favoured Rosewood Oil (Aniba rosodora aka rosaeodora, Lauraceae) could not be included into our recipes since we discovered that it is actually 'endangered' (likely to become extinct) as are some species of Sandalwood and Frankincense.

"Populations throughout the species range have seriously declined because of rosewood oil extraction. Where there has been exploitation, the population is devoid of mature trees and significant signs of regeneration are absent. Trees of all sizes are harvested indiscriminately, the whole tree and its roots being destroyed. The sole producer at present is Brazil, although the species was wiped out through exploitation over large areas in French Guiana between 1910 and 1930. " (Varty, N. 1998.  Aniba rosodora. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 1998: e.T33958A689660600).

“One healer said, 'There are hundreds of plants I can no longer find because everyone uses them.' For example, Rosewood (Aniba rosodora) is harvested for the production of the essential oil obtained from the wood. According to the IUCN (2016), when Rosewood is harvested, the whole tree, along with its root system, is destroyed. Additionally, both mature and immature trees are being harvested, and signs of regeneration are absent. Therefore, little is being preserved for future generations and unless something drastically changes, Aniba rosodora will disappear. Climate change is another serious issue" 

(From a research study by Kelly Ablard: "Aromatherapy & Traditional Aromatic Plant Medicine in Peru - posted here on the Tisserand Institute website).

And Robert Tisserand offered the following summary, on Endangered species, in a subscription email to highlight the above article on the`Tisserand Institute' site:

"Unfortunately there is less hopeful news about Rosewood and Palo Santo. Both of these trees are used for essential oils, and while you may know that Rosewood is endangered, the fact that Palo Santo is now among critically endangered species may be a surprise.

To harvest essential oil from Rosewood, the whole tree is usually felled. Even if new ones are planted, they can take 50 years to reach maturity. A few producers claim their essential oil is produced sustainably, but such claims need to be taken with a grain of salt, especially if there is increasing demand for the essential oil.

The production of sandalwood (both essential oil and wood) in India has already fallen victim to damaging and unsustainable efforts to satisfy demand for this precious material. We should make sure the same fate does not befall Rosewood and Palo Santo".

And so whilst it was initially disappointing to discover that Rosewood was endangered and not permitted for us to use, we now feel comforted by having the safeguard of the Redlist; avoiding ingredients from threatened or endangered plant species. 

We can therefore reassure customers that Nooma Organics' skincare products proudly meet the rigorous organic standards of the Soil Association: they do not contain harmful ingredients but rather are both skin nourishing and ecologically responsible; from genuinely sustainable plant sources.   


So how can customers recognise a genuine Organic skincare product? 

Look for a third party certifying logo on the product. Additionally, any company that is genuinely certified as organic by a legitimate organisation will have a license number which can be validated by looking up the company upon the certifying body’s website. Following an inspection, if approved, they will receive an annually renewed Certificate and accompanying Organic Trading Schedule listing all certified organic products that they are allowed to sell using the certifying company’s logo. This should be accessible by the public and submitted on request. It can also be given out by the Organic Certifying Body.


Based on our own experiences of being misled, we have made the decision to be congruent throughout our own business - every skincare product that we craft and sell has undergone organic certification with the Soil Association - no catches! 

To view our current Organic Trading License please click here

Nooma Organics Natural Skincare 

Soil Association License number: DJ23187


References, articles, websites:

Article 3 of 3 parts, written by © Na Smyth 2016 for Nooma Blog @ Nooma Organics Natural Skincare 

Photograph taken by Rod Smyth for © Nooma Organics Natural Skincare 

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