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Natural or Organic…To Be or Not to Be?

By Ally Dai | January 29, 2013

I recently went shopping with a friend who wanted to buy some high quality personal care products as gifts for her pregnant sister. At the counter of one retailer that specialized in hand-made soaps, she asked me if all of the brightly colored, strongly scented soaps were safe for pregnant women. Before I could respond, “Of course!” the sales clerk proudly declared, “our products are 100% natural and free of chemical additives.” But while reading labels, I noticed some synthetic surfactants in the formulas and couldn’t help wondering how knowledgeable this salesperson was about the products she sold.

This is just one example of how natural claims have been exploited and how poorly informed consumers are about these products. Despite confusion surrounding natural products, China’s natural/organic personal care market, just as in other parts of the world, is growing rapidly and outpacing the overall beauty industry growth rate, thanks to consumer concern about safety and environment. What’s more, with a long history of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the core of which is harnessing nature’s power, Chinese consumers are very receptive to nature-based messages and therefore are drawn to natural products.

Everyone Wants In

China’s organic/natural product market also looks diverse and multidimensional, primarily due to the lack of widely accepted certifications or labels for such products. Basically, “nature inspired” personal care products here can be divided into two major groups—a natural positioned group and an organic certified one.

Green ingredients are in demand in the Chinese personal care marketplace.
Compared to organic certified ones, the brands in the “natural positioned” group appear to be more diversified and appealing to ordinary consumers at a lower price point. Some of them emphasize plant elements such as freshness and purity, and sometimes present certain ingredients or products as organic, but their credentials are not strong enough to be in the organic category. Other brands, primarily from local players, are focused on the medical properties of the herbs known in China for their curative effects. By playing on typical TCM concepts such as balance and harmony, the latter often blends modern science with TCM traditions.

The “organic certified” group represents the brands with organic certifications either from local or overseas. Originating from the western ideals, these brands are typically perceived as having strong links to the west in Chinese consumers’ minds and defined as lifestyle brands. As consumers here tend to follow western trends, these brands are often regarded as status symbols rather than having any natural positioning, which is probably the primary reason why the organic concepts have barely taken root in China beyond a high income, but limited consumer group.

Organic Dilemma

The future of organic certified products in China may be hanging in the balance due to the new versions of Organic Product Certification Implementation Rules, National Standard of Organic Product and Organic Product Certification Catalogue issued by the China Certification and Accreditation Administration (CNCA) on March 1, 2012.

Under these rules, where there is no specification on organic cosmetic certification, all organic certification for cosmetics in China is deleted and the cosmetic product can no longer be labeled as organic. In other words, as of now, there is no officially recognized certification for organic cosmetics in China, but imported cosmetics with international organic certifications such as the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Australia (NASAA) and Ecocert can still be found on the market.

All these regulatory changes have dealt a big blow to the organic certified brands in China, especially those with local certifications. With their organic certifications no longer recognized, the brands, mostly local ones, must find a way forward for their future development. For example, Hanhoo, an emerging brand claiming to be the No.1 organic skin care brand for China’s mass market, is reworking its label claim from organic to organic ingredients inside for its new lines. As one of the few organic baby care brands which has gained both EU and Chinese certifications, Elsker is also putting its emphasis on eco/green over organic.

Opinions over this regulation amendment are divided. On the one hand, some industry experts think this will regulate China’s organic market where false or unverified organic claims have been made. On the other hand, observers suggest that instead of such an indiscriminate ban on organic certification for all cosmetics, some more specific regulations and stricter implementation should be in place to guide this huge market and ensure its long-term development.

Ally Dai
Happi China

Ally Dai is Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Ringier Trade Media Ltd, responsible for trade publications including Happi China. She has more than 10 years of experience in the cosmetic and food industries. Happi China is a leading media for the China household & personal care industry. Published by Ringier Trade Media in strategic editorial partnership with Happi, it helps local manufacturers update their knowledge on formulating, testing and packaging, as well as providing market insight.
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