Just how natural are your “natural” beauty products? It is difficult to say. Really difficult, actually. While it is undeniable that natural cosmetics and beauty goods are surging in popularity and profitability – as “consumers, increasingly wary of products that are overly processed or full of manufactured chemicals, are paying premium prices for natural goods,” as the New York Times put it recently – it is far less clean cut as to just how natural “natural” really is.
The lack of clarity is due in large part to the absence of a universal, legally-mandated definition for the term.
One need not look much further than actress Jessica Alba’s Honest Co. to see how the varying definitions of “natural” rear their ugly heads. Honest’s impressive growth to date – the Los Angeles-based company within three years was valued at $1.7 billion – has not been without some significant drawbacks, including a slew of lawsuits.
As noted by CNN, “In September 2015, the company was sued by a customer who said its sunscreen doesn't work and is not really ‘natural.’ And in April 2016, the Organic Consumers Association filed a suit that alleged Honest baby formula contains ingredients that are not really organic.”
The most striking suit, however, came on the heels of a widely-read Wall Street Journal investigation in March 2016, which revealed that Honest detergent was being falsely advertised. According to the WSJ’s investigation and the class action lawsuit that followed, despite the company’s advertising which claimed that its detergent was free of sodium lauryl sulfate, and instead, made use of a gentler compound, that was not actually the case.
The Honest Company, while denying any wrongdoing, agreed to pay $1.55 million to settle the class action lawsuit in June 2017, but not before it was served its fair share of bad press in connection with the matter. A week later, Alba’s brand was sued again for erroneously labelling dozens of home and personal care products as “natural,” plant-based or chemical-free. That case was settled out of court in June, in accordance with confidential terms.
Throughout the bout of litigation, Honest Co. and its founders were adamant that the claims set forth against them were fabricated and assured consumers that they use their “natural” products, including the controversial sunscreen, on their own children.
In facing litigation, Honest is not all that different than the many other brands that have been taken to court – and to task – for their “natural” products, and in some ways, it is difficult to necessarily fault these companies since there is not, of course, a set-in-stone definition for “natural” products. Such a standard has not come to light in these cases, the vast majority of which have been settled – or “dismissed or, more recently, stayed by judges who hope regulators will step in with a definition,” per the Times – before trial and before the court could attempt to issue a bright line standard.
This is particularly true, as in most of the cases, the plaintiffs are primarily seeking monetary damages to reimburse them for the difference in price they paid for what was being advertised as a “natural” product, which are almost always more expensive than non-“natural” alternatives.
While the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) has not defined “natural” for use in cosmetic labeling or pursued any enforcement action against cosmetics manufacturers for the use of “natural” claims, it has provided guidance by way of its standards for food, as aptly noted by Suzie Trigg, a partner working in New York-based Haynes Boone’s Dallas office and specializing in (among other things) FDA regulatory issues. According to Trigg, given the FDA’s stance, that “it is reasonable to assume that the [government entity] would not object to the use of the term ‘natural’ if the product does not contain synthetic substances.”
Moreover, Trigg notes that the Federal Trade Commission also has not set forth any FTC policies on natural cosmetic and beauty products.
As noted by the Times, which cited a handful of lawyers practicing in the realms of corporate advertising and marketing and class-action defense, until regulators come up with a definition for companies to use to clearly and properly distinguish between “natural” and not “natural” products, consumers are the ones that pay the price.
There is potential progess on the horizon, though. Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the commissioner of the FDA, told the Times in a statement, “Consumers have called upon the FDA to help define the term ‘natural’ and we take the responsibility to provide this clarity seriously. We will have more to say on the issue soon.”