Countdown To Boycott: OCA Confronts Organic Firms, Retailers At Expo East

Roughly a month before its planned launch of a boycott against organic "cheater" brands, the Organic Consumers Association made final appeals to marketers and looked to influence retailers at the natural product industry's leading tradeshow.

September 28, 2009 | Source: The Rose Sheet | by Eileen Francis

Roughly a month before its planned launch of a boycott against organic “cheater” brands, the Organic Consumers Association made final appeals to marketers and looked to influence retailers at the natural product industry’s leading tradeshow.

The Natural Products Expo East show in Boston Sept. 23-26 afforded hundreds of vendors the opportunity to showcase their natural products to a floor of international retail buyers.

It also served as the ideal platform for OCA to push its message a final time before kicking off the next phase in its “Coming Clean” campaign to stamp out organic “fraud” in the personal-care sector.

In a Sept. 21 release, OCA announced that organic poseurs – brands marketed but not certifiable as organic under selected standards – have until Oct. 26 to contractually commit to certification of their organic claims.

Offenders have until Nov. 1, 2010 to drop misleading claims altogether or comply with either USDA’s National Organic Program or NSF International’s standards.

During the expo, the association attempted to meet with marketers it perceives as the worst violators. The association’s priority targets are products containing the term “organic” in their name “or that figure prominently on their labels but have zero certification to any existing standard,” spokeswoman Alexis Baden-Mayer told “The Rose Sheet” Sept. 24.

Targeted companies include derma e, Mill Creek Organics, Nature’s Gate and Giovanni Cosmetics.

Companies that do not commit to certification of their organic claims will be included in a blacklist of marketers posted on OCA’s Web site. The site already lists brands that do comply with NOP and NSF certification.

OCA also took opportunities during the show to strike a chord with retail buyers roaming the expo floor.

According to the group’s release, “the organic retail store buyer’s job is to think like a fastidious organic consumer who pays a premium for organic products whose main ingredients benefit the earth and their health by being grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and being free of petrochemical compounds.

“The OCA wants these buyers to know misleadingly labeled brands are on their way out starting this holiday season unless they formulate away from ingredients made entirely or partly of petrochemicals,” the association says.

Do Boycotts Work?

Whether OCA’s planned boycott will disrupt the business of targeted brands is anyone’s guess. The personal-care industry does not have prominent examples from the past to which it can refer.

Gay Timmons, founder of ingredient supplier Oh Oh Organic and a founding member of the Organic and Sustainable Industry Standards coalition, recently told “The Rose Sheet” that she is unfazed by the prospect of a boycott and at most expects affected brands to see “a little blip on their numbers radar” (1 ‘The Rose Sheet’ Aug. 10, 2009).

But if the success of OCA boycotts in the food industry are any indication of how such action would play out in personal care, marketers may have reason to worry.

In 2006 OCA and other groups launched a boycott of Dean Foods’ Horizon milk products because they believed the brand – which leads the organic milk category – was actually sourced from cattle raised on “factory farms.”

According to a 2007 article by the Cornucopia Institute, an advocacy group for sustainable and organic agriculture, the boycott likely did cut into the firm’s topline in 2006. While the brand’s closest two competitors recorded growth in the mid-30-percentile range in 2006, Dean reported that sales of Horizon products in supermarkets were growing in the low teens.

Cornucopia believes the most profound impact of the boycott, however, was in the natural foods channel, where the institute says the campaign helped drive Horizon product sales down 9.5 percent in 2006.

That decline had a larger significance insofar as the natural channel is a “harbinger for what will happen in the supermarket trade” down the road, according to Cornucopia.

OCA does not intend to boycott the retailers that carry offending cosmetic brands, but it believes public pressure will ultimately influence their purchasing decisions, both for private-label lines as well as third-party brands.

“We want to get a bunch of consumers in their stores who are educated – people who are demanding of their retailers that they stock certified organic products,” Baden-Mayer said.

In the Horizon milk boycott, public pressure pushed Whole Foods Market to extend to its regional managers the option to drop Horizon from their lineup or reduce its shelf space – and “most of them did,” according to OCA.

In 2008 OCA also applied pressure to the retail chain regarding the fact that a number of its own private-label personal-care products, and 48 out of 100 products sold as “organic” or “natural,” actually contained 1,4 dioxane, a suspected carcinogen.

In response, Whole Foods agreed to reformulate all its brand-name personal-care products.

Still A Long Road Ahead

The latest phase of OCA’s campaign comes in advance of a November meeting in which USDA will decide whether to adopt a committee recommendation to make the NOP as applicable to cosmetics as it is to food; public comments on that recommendation are due Oct. 19.

Baden-Mayer noted that while OCA is optimistic about the USDA meeting, it is armed for a long battle, as it believes a decision to tighten oversight of organic personal care will take years to be implemented.

Furthermore, OCA still sees reluctance in the agency, including from USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, who has expressed hesitation about the issue despite the fact she is a proponent of the organic food movement.

In response to an OCA letter-writing campaign in the spring that urged USDA to go after personal-care products falsely advertised as organic, Merrigan told the association that USDA regulates organic personal-care products “only if they are made up of agricultural ingredients” and that the agency has “no plans to develop standards at this time” for personal care.

 – Eileen Francis ( 2 )

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