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Organic Consumers Association

Dr. Bronner’s Shifts Advocacy Focus From Organic To Fair Trade

After crusading for years in support of strong organic standards for personal-care products, Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps is turning its attention to issues surrounding the fair trade of raw materials.

In a Jan 12 interview, President David Bronner said the organic battle is largely over now that Whole Foods has demanded that products sold in its stores as "organic" be certified under the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program.

"Eighty percent of the [organic] problems are going to be solved as a result" of Whole Foods' ultimatum, Bronner told "The Rose Sheet."

When it comes to brands that do business in the natural channel, the organic veteran is confident that "they're not going to have two sets of labels" - one for Whole Foods and another for mass retail outlets - but will conform wholly to USDA standards.

Whole Foods' new policy goes into effect June 1 ("New Whole Foods Policy Requires USDA Certification For Organic Body Care," "The Rose Sheet" June 14, 2010).

Brands aimed solely at the mass channel or the spa channel will likely not make the switch to USDA -certified organic ingredients, but "eventually they will get around to that," he suggested.

Dr. Bronner's sees organic and fair trade as elements of its larger commitment to sustainability, organic addressing the environmental side of sustainability and fair trade the social side, according to the company's president.

Both issues are important, as concentrating solely on organic "doesn't guarantee that the pay to farmers is fair or that farm workers have fair working conditions, especially in the developing world," Bronner observed.

A few years ago, the firm became aware of "fair washing," as brands promoted their use of fair trade while using a "token" amount in their products.

"We started to see [brands] doing the same thing with fair trade that they had been doing with organic," Bronner said.

In 2008, Dr. Bronner's filed suit against Hain Celestial, Kiss My Face and Nature's Gate, among others, for using an excess of nonorganic ingredients in personal-care products labeled as organic ("Dr. Bronner's Files Suit Against Alleged Organic "Cheaters" As Forewarned," "The Rose Sheet" May 5, 2008).

Bronner said he expects to settle with many of the defendants. "Because of the Whole Foods policy, they'll be more or less doing what we want anyway," he said.

The firm is not yet turning to litigation on fair-trade issues, but has joined with the Organic Consumers Association in asking the Federal Trade Commission to investigate what they say are deceptive fairtrade advertising and labeling practices in the personal-care sector ("OCA, Dr. Bronner's Take Aim At Fair-Trade Certifications With FTC Complaint," "The Rose Sheet" Jan. 17, 2011).

Bronner is optimistic that the FTC will proceed with an investigation, though he acknowledged that it could take a while for fair-trade standards to become as prominent as organic standards.

A quick solution, he suggested, would be if Whole Foods opted to treat fair trade like organics, establishing raw material requirements that must be met by marketers that want their products to be sold in its stores on fair-trade claims.

At the Sustainable Cosmetics Summit in March, Bronner urged manufacturers of personal-care goods to source raw materials through fair-trade channels ("Bronner On Organic Fair Trade," "The Rose Sheet" March 29, 2010).

Dr. Bronner's has invested millions of dollars in developing a fair-trade sourcing platform for raw materials, setting up fair-trade operations in Sri Lanka for coconut oil, for example, and in Ghana for palm oil.

Industrial Hemp Next Battle?

While pursuing fair-trade standards, Dr. Bronner's also looks to gain traction on another issue - the commercialization of industrial hemp, a non-psychoactive variety of the cannabis plant which is grown for its fiber and seed - especially with Gov. Jerry Brown now leading California.

Growing industrial hemp on a commercial level is largely prohibited in the U.S.

Dr. Bronner's uses the oil of industrial hemp in its soaps "because it contains such a high proportion of poly-unsaturated fatty acids which makes our soap milder and less drying," according to its website.

Assemblymember Mark Leno "has been our champion in the California legislature and indicated he's ready to put another bill through," Bronner said, noting that two industrial hemp bills were vetoed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"So we're optimistic that we're going to finally get a nice strong hemp bill ... putting more and more pressure on the government for changes in hemp policy," Bronner said.


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