Setting the record straight: 10 questions with the Soil Association
I am extremely passionate about organic food and beauty, so I reached out to the Soil Association – the UK’s largest organic certification body – for a chat about what it means to have their stamp on products.
I was excited when Lauren Bartley, Business Development Manager for Health and Beauty at Soil Association Certification, agreed to an interview.
1. ML: What qualifies a food product to be certified by the Soil Association?
LB: Any product sold as ‘organic’ in the EU must comply with a set of standards. Products that meet these standards can use the Euro Leaf (EU organic logo) or the Soil Association organic symbol (if certified to Soil Association standards) on their packaging. It’s an assurance to customers that what they’re buying is genuine and fully traceable back to the farm.
Soil Association standards not only comply with the EU, but comprise additional standards, so any product certified by the Soil Association will be of the highest organic quality.
Organic standards are based on all aspects of organic food manufacture, production, storage and sales. Certifying bodies consider everything from packaging to animal welfare and wildlife conservation, and ban unnecessary and harmful food additives in organic processed foods.
The Soil Association stamp guarantees that a product has gone through stringent inspection to ensure it complies with all organic standards.
2. ML: Is it the same for beauty products?
LB: Many of the principles are the same, however due to the lack of regulation surrounding organic and natural cosmetic certification, we follow our own standards set by COSMOS. COSMOS is a collection of certification bodies from around the world who have come together to create one harmonised standard for the industry.
Before certifying products, we look at the end-to-end manufacturing process. Each ingredient making up the formulation also needs to be verified.
Our principles include:
· No genetically modified (GM) ingredients
· No non-biodegradable chemicals
· No synthetic preservatives
· No animal testing
· No parabens
· Biodegradable packaging
· Environmentally friendly
· Sustainably sourced ingredients
3. ML: I look for your logo where I can. But what’s the difference between you and other UK-approved organic bodies?
LB: Our focus is predominately on organics, whereas some of our competitors tend to focus on natural cosmetics. Soil Association and COSMOS are both third-party, unbiased accreditors with no commercial interest and therefore our standards are transparent and our primary mission is to safeguard organic and natural cosmetics for the consumer. Soil Association/COSMOS standards also tend to be stricter than those of other certifying bodies.
4. ML: What are the other UK-approved organic certification bodies we can look out for?
LB: For cosmetics, it’s Natrue. For food, it’s Organic Farmers and Growers or the Organic Food Federation.
5. ML: Do companies approach the Soil Association for the stamp of honour and is it free to do so?
LB: Yes, companies approach us. The certification process isn’t free, but in return companies receive a guarantee of their products’ credentials. We also offer support with anything from product formulation to finding retail stockists and general business support. We also run campaigns such as Organic Beauty Week and Organic YOUR September to raise awareness of certification and profile the brands certified with us.
6. ML: Does the Soil Association only stamp food and beauty products?
LB: No, the breadth of our work is vast! We’re predominately an organic farming business, so we work with a lot of organic farmers. We also certify fashion and textiles as a founding member of GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard), as well as catering in schools and hospitals. More recently, we started the Organic Served Here scheme, so that when eating out, you know which restaurants and eateries are serving organic food. We also certify forestry. Organic spans many sectors and it’s important for us to have a strong presence in all.
7. ML: When products say ‘organic' on them but don’t have the Soil Association logo, what does that mean?
LB: Food products need to be genuinely organic to make those claims. They need to have been legally certified by an autonomous body such as the Soil Association. So, if they don’t have the Soil Association symbol, you should check for another symbol such as the Euro Leaf.
Some products may not have a symbol on them, but if they claim to be organic you should be able to find out which certification body they are registered with by looking online or contacting the company directly.
Unfortunately, for cosmetics, fashion and textiles, this standard doesn’t exist and brands can make ANY organic or natural claims on product packaging, without the need to contain organic or natural ingredients within their product formulations.
It’s known in the industry as ‘greenwashing’ and it is very much a live issue that is becoming more widespread as the interest in organic and natural alternatives grows.
We’re running our Campaign for Clarity from April of this year to highlight brands that are greenwashing in the cosmetics industry, thereby putting brands that are certified organic or natural at risk. We’re hoping that the UK government will regulate organic and natural cosmetics in the near future.
ML: What are the rules for labelling beauty products at the moment?
LB: As above, there are no rules for uncertified brands, so anything goes.
For certified cosmetics, our labelling guidelines are clear and transparent. Displaying the organic percentage on the product is a must. We encourage brands certified with us to be as transparent as possible.
ML: Are there certain ingredients we should be staying clear of in beauty products?
LB: Yes. Our campaign in April will highlight a ‘dirty dozen’ – ingredients found in products that make organic and natural claims that should be avoided! We also have a list on our website of ingredients that some non-organic beauty products may contain.
ML: I am incredibly passionate about bringing the truth to people so that we as consumers can cast our vote by buying what we want. But it only works if we know what’s in our food and beauty products. Do you think we’re seeing a positive change in terms of labelling?
LB: I totally agree, and brand transparency is one of the top 6 trends we’ve highlighted for this year in our Organic Beauty & Wellbeing Market Report. Unfortunately, the cosmetics industry in particular is becoming rife with faddy claims such as ‘clean beauty’, ‘gluten free’ and ‘non-toxic’. Again, it’s another form of greenwashing and confusion for consumers that isn’t defined or regulated. We truly believe that looking for the Soil Association logo on products is currently the only guarantee consumers have.