Search for and purchase a natural facial moisturizer, for example. What percentage of the product should consist of natural ingredients… 100%?… 90%?… 50%?… 10%? Would it surprise you that there is little to prevent a product with only 1% natural ingredients from claiming a ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ position. The same applies if you are searching for a natural treatment for acne, natural facial cleanser or natural skin whitening.
This may come as a surprise, but there are several reasons this occurs. Firstly, although in the mind of most consumers a term such as “natural” has a clear meaning – in fact there is no universal, global definition of such a common term and as a result there is no benchmark to judge a claim against, meaning in effect these terms can be used based on the interpretation of the user – of course opening the way for these terms to be used with a wide latitude for different interpretations.
The issue is further compounded by the differing regulations on health and beauty products from one market to the next, and also the different regulatory authorities involved. For example, in the USA, while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) carries responsibility for product safety and consumer protection, the FDA does not have jurisdiction over product claims related to “organic”, or “natural” – which are governed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
In many countries, voluntary industry organizations exist to maintain some form of standards benchmarking, often by licensing approved products to use a statement or logo from the organization as a form of “seal of approval”. However these bodies are not obligatory and have no power to curtail the activities of any group that chooses not to accept their position or guidelines.
The dramatic rise of cross-border online sales has compounded the situation even further. Very broad as the regulations may be, those regulations are only relevant when the manufacture and sale occurs within the jurisdiction of the regulator, but if a consumer in one country purchases and imports a product from another country, it is normally a case of “caveat emptor”. For example, if a UK consumer was to purchase a health product online from a UK retailer and the claims breached UK regulations, then there is a strong likelihood that the relevant authorities in the UK would take action once the matter was raised with them.
However if a consumer in another country like Lukesh (not a real country, so put down your atlas) was to purchase the same product and raise the same complaint, she is much less likely to get this resolved. Unless it was a matter of great importance, the Lukesh authorities would most likely decline to be involved in any way as this was not in their jurisdiction. A complaint to the UK authorities is also likely to have a low chance of success as the authorities there are likely to take the view that their charter and responsibility is for their own citizens, and not to look after the interests of Ms Bizarri in Lukesh, no matter how sympathetic they may be to her predicament.
So, is this situation likely to improve in the foreseeable future? Unfortunately there is no real indication this is likely – and in fact as online shopping continues to rise in popularity, the issue is likely to become more of a concern.
What can be done by those that want to change this situation?
For the manufacturers of health and beauty products, the issue is to what extent should product explanations and claims be fully transparent, and would greater accuracy and openness place the company at a competitive disadvantage when others decided not to follow suit?
One health and beauty products manufacturer recently decided to publish a detailed “Charter of Confidence” covering their stance on this and related issues as a way of attempting to create a tangible point of difference in their market position.
“Our product range covers genuine 100% natural products that are hand-made in the traditional way, as well as a wider range of products that introduce various levels of artificial ingredients because they often make the products more user-friendly as well as powerful and effective,” says a company spokesperson. “We decided to take a stand on this issue and believe that terms like ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ are absolute terms, like ‘dead’, or ‘pregnant’, and our promise is that we will be transparent in terms of our product ingredients and product claims, so the consumer knows exactly what they are getting – even when we are under no obligation to do so.
“We don’t have any doubt this will cost us business as consumers choose to purchase a competitive product because the competitor product appears more appealing because they have not chosen to publish the same level of detail. But in the long term we believe there will be a much greater positive impact on our business as consumers appreciate our stance and trust us more and more.”
It remains to be seen whether this approach proves to be successful or not, and whether it resonates with consumers to the extent that it attracts business to any appreciable extent.
And for consumers – the people who actually purchase these products? As there seems to be no likelihood of things changing, the onus is on consumers to decide on their own action, and there are four key things consumers need to do if they desire change in this situation:
1. Be aware! Because contrary to the old saying, what you don’t know CAN harm you.
2. Be suspicious! As a consumer you are the ‘Border Patrol’ governing what health and beauty products are allowed into your cupboard, and in the same way that an airline passenger must make a declaration and then be subject to scrutiny before being allowed entry to a new country, you should subject the products you use to the same level of study. Do the claims of this product seem reasonable? What are they NOT telling me? If I was to undertake a bag search, would I be likely to find contraband?
3. Stand up for your rights! Consumers should not accept what they believe to be unacceptable. If they have questions of a company about their products, they should ask the company – after all, the manufacturer wants the consumer’s money! If the consumer finds statements they see as deliberately misleading, they should put it to the manufacturer for a response. If not satisfied, today’s online world gives many opportunities for consumers to at least make others aware.
4. Vote with your feet – or your wallet. If a consumer believes a company is not acting correctly in the way they are presenting their product claims, then they should not purchase their products – and tell their friends and family why (maybe they will agree), and at every chance tell the company why the decision not purchase their products has been made. Conversely, consumers should support those products they believe meet the necessary criteria.
If there is ever to be a major shift in the regulations governing product claims or in manufacturers voluntarily disclosing more transparent information, it will only be as a result of a groundswell of consumer sentiment. The good news is this can happen and we have seen over time positive changes in accepted practice in many areas from vehicle safety to eliminating lead in paint. But remember these changes happen only when individual consumers cease being passive, and take a positive stand.
David Christensen is a veteran of Asia Pacific business, currently residing in Bangkok, Thailand and heading Royal Siam Natural Health & Beauty – who can be located at [http://www.royalsiam.asia]. Royal Siam is a unique business, operating in the premium skincare, anti aging, and related fields including natural supplements to promote hair growth. At its core, one mission is to commercialize and bring to a global market the immense wealth of knowledge about the healing and beneficial properties of Thai and South East Asian plants – a knowledge base carefully built up over the last thousand years. At the same time, the mission is to bring to market the very latest in scientific advances in the area of anti aging… resulting in the unique position of having a Thai heritage and offering the best of nature, tradition, and science.