Sunday, October 05, 2008

Natural -- As Nature or Marketers Intended It?

Anyone who buys from the organic end of the food aisle knows that labels are designed to be confusing, misleading, and downright annoying. In my local supermarket there are now four or five different kinds of eggs in the "natural" refrigerator case. I can get cage free, which means the chickens live well. I can get organic, which means they ate okay and now I will, too. There are also High Omega 3 and Certified Humane options. Or I can get cage free and organic eggs, which means I'm now paying 40 cents more per dozen than I would be if I just bought the ones that say "natural," which, apparently, means nothing except a 40 cent savings and a few worries about just how safe and/or ethically farmed these eggs might really be. My supermarket, like many, also has its own product line that prominently features the word "nature" -- but I'm still sticking to the Newman's Own Oreo-like cookies rather than their brand because I can tell what "organic" actually means.

Unfortunately, "natural" stopped meaning "safely made in nature" a long time before the USDA got in on the act and started certifying all sorts of things as "organic." Indeed, recent lawsuits in California concerning "natural" cosmetics that were found to contain known carcinogenic chemicals have prompted the FDA to take interest. Perhaps it's too late to rescue the word from its confusing mass of associations -- although a small bakery in Colorado, Rudi's Organic, has made some good noise with its clever commercials parodying the supermarket "all natural" breads that contact such healthy-sounding ingredients as "azodicarbonamide."

In his wonderful book, Appetite for Change, Warren Belasco charts the whole foods movement of the 1960s and 70s (and this was before that term -- whole foods -- was co-opted by a giant supermarket chain in fancy green clothing), when the move back to nature was a collective response to the industrial food system. Brands we now take for granted, like Celestial Seasonings Tea, were once small, alternatives to the big corporate food-in-a-box. But then home made granola morphed into chocolate coated breakfast bars and...well, you know the rest of that story. Belasco documents what feels like an inevitable hegemony of big business and money making over creating alternatives. What's unfortunate, of course, is that more and more people want natural and organic products -- and big companies often do have the potential to generate and support these items.

Burt's Bees is a brand that still feels like something out of the whole foods movement of the 60s. There's the great story behind the company -- Roxanne Quimby "finds" her way to Maine, befriends Burt Shavitz, an older man who's a beekeeper, starts a small business that they promise to keep to ethical natural standards -- and then sells out to a big conglomerate for millions while Burt got a small settlement and is rumored to be living back in his original turkey coop. Let's remember that she sold not just any conglomerate either, but Clorox, which sounds like the home planet of bad household chemicals.

That could have been the end of the story, but Clorox is actually working hard to prove that it's products can be as natural as any small-time competitor's. They're also working to ensure the integrity of many of Burt's original products like lip balm, sunscreen, and baby lotion (a recent profile shows the CEO John Replogle eating avocado butter face cream to prove it has nothing "unnatural" in it), but as the line expands into new territory, one wonders how soon it will be like other niche product lines that lose their uniqueness as they widen their appeal.

One way that "green" companies try to prevent this dilution is by developing industry-wide certification standards. Organic florists are a good example with Organic Bouquets, at the forefront creating and enforcing standards, developing certifications and selling and listing a variety of types of flower certifications. Similarly, this spring the nonprofit Natural Products Association launched a certification program which will certify products as natural if they contain at least 95 percent ingredients from renewable resources found in nature, with no petroleum compounds. According to the president of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, "Organic products aren't necessarily inherently safer than non-organics. But if they're certified and not making bogus claims, it does guarantee they can't use a lot of problematic petrochemicals."

While letting companies certify in this way (and thus get to put the spiffy little logo on their packages) is a terrific idea, the real challenge will be for marketers to either pull back and try to make "natural" a meaningful word again (unlikely) or find a new way to attach integrity and certainty to the type of products consumers want. So, until I have a better idea of what "natural" means in industry-speak, I'm probably going to keep shelling out (pun intended) the extra forty cents for the organic eggs.

I'm just not ready for a hen house behind the basketball hoop

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