The Meaning of “Plant-Based” and “Naturally-Derived” Home and Body Care Products
I recently came across this article in the New York Times about the use of the term “natural” in connection with the marketing of consumer packaged goods, including food, beverages, and cleaning and personal care products. Demand for natural products is certainly increasing and consumers have shown a willingness to pay more for products with natural labels and claims. Of course, corporations are eager to meet this demand and some have stretched the truth to give their products a natural aura. Meanwhile, plaintiffs’ attorneys have filed hundreds of lawsuits in response to natural label claims and some of these seem as outlandish as the claims they are targeting. My favorite example is a lawsuit against Cap’n Crunch cereal (one of my childhood favorites), which argued that consumers were misled to believe that “crunch berries” in the cereal contained real fruit. Unfortunately, however, there is no legal or regulatory definition of what “natural” actually means and it is up to brand owners and consumers alike to find their own way. While corporations can hire experts and lawyers to review and articulate their claims, consumers are left to fend for themselves in unfamiliar territory, and confusion and misinformation are rampant.
At Cleanyst, part of our mission is to help consumers better understand label claims commonly found on home and body care products, including on our own products, which proudly tout our “plant-based” and “naturally-derived” ingredients and formulations. So what does “plant-based” and “naturally-derived” even mean? For one, it does not mean that we are literally picking our ingredients off trees or out of the ground, and simply adding them to our products like you would do with ingredients for a garden salad or farm-to-table meal. Rather, many of our ingredients are derived from plants or natural products that might grow on trees, such as coconuts. Like virtually all chemical ingredients for making home and body care products throughout the world today, ours are processed in a factory on an industrial scale to ensure high quality and consistency. The important distinction, however, is that plants and other natural products provide the chemical building blocks, or feedstocks, of most of our chemical ingredients and this is what we mean by plant-based and naturally-derived. This is in contrast to fossil fuel-derived or petrochemical ingredients, which are non-renewable, and synthetic ingredients that are not found in nature. If we have the choice between using plants and petrochemicals to serve as the building blocks of our ingredients, we’ll choose plants every time, provided of course that they help us produce world class products. Fortunately, the natural world has given us some amazing options to work with and most plant-based ingredients perform on par or even better than their petrochemical or synthetic equivalents. Naturally-derived ingredients might cost a little more than petrochemical or synthetic ingredients, but you always get what you pay for, in this case peace of mind, rapid biodegradability and a smaller environmental footprint.
Sometimes, however, we do not have good naturally-derived options for a specific function, such as product preservation. Since preservatives are meant to protect you and the integrity of our products, mainly to prevent nasty stuff like bacteria from growing in the products over time, and since natural preservatives are either unavailable or inadequate to get the job done, we do incorporate certain preservatives that are not naturally-derived. The good news is that these preservatives make up only a tiny percentage of our finished products (typically a fraction of 1%) and they have been widely used for years with a positive track record. We promise that we will ALWAYS be transparent with you about whether petrochemical or synthetic ingredients are in our products, as well as about applicable concentration levels, not to mention our rationale for utilizing them in our formulations. Furthermore, we note that if 90% or more of the ingredients in a product are plant-based or naturally-derived, we feel it is reasonable to refer to the product or formulation itself as plant-based or naturally-derived. By this definition, all of our concentrates and the finished products they produce with our system are plant-based and naturally-derived. We also promise you that we will tirelessly seek out and test natural alternatives for any petrochemical or synthetic ingredients we might use and this helps to ensure that ingredients manufacturers will continue to develop new and innovative alternatives. This is not to suggest that all synthetic ingredients are bad for you and the planet. Some synthetics are virtually unavoidable in modern life and many of these have no known harmful effects on human health or the environment at normal concentration levels. Simply put, we do our best to avoid using petrochemicals and synthetics whenever possible, and will NEVER use ingredients, including naturally-derived ones, that are known to cause cancer or other serious harms to humans or the environment.
Finally, we want to point out that not all naturally-derived ingredients are perfect, or free from having harmful effects on the environment. Some ingredients like palm oil, which may be found in many everyday foods and personal care products, can have tremendous environmental harms. For example, industrial palm oil production has resulted in widespread deforestation and the destruction of our tropical rainforests, which are some of the most species-rich habitats on the planet. Some of our ingredients are derived from palm oil, but our suppliers of these ingredients mitigate the environmental harms of this feedstock by sourcing sustainable palm oil that has been certified under a standard developed by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, or RSPO. For our vegan friends, rest assured that none of our ingredients are derived from animals or animal byproducts. Similarly, our products are NEVER tested on animals. We do, however, test them on humans, namely on ourselves and our own children, and this should tell you something about the confidence we have in our products and ingredients. One more thing about our ingredients philosophy that also applies to our philosophy on sustainability generally—no solution can be perfect and completely free of environmental consequences, but it must bring us closer to perfection and harmony with nature.
CEO & Co-Founder