When Anita Roddick founded the Body Shop in 1976 she not only revolutionised beauty retailing, but also beauty products. She turned the spotlight on the benefits of natural ingredients and made natural skin care exciting. Body Shop products weren’t completely natural and I’ve heard it said that the additives in some Body Shop formulations these days would have Dame Anita turning in her grave. But the effect of this mass recognition of more natural skin care was a steady increase of cosmetics brands using natural ingredients in the late 1980s and 1990s.
My market research as a student in Paris had unearthed that there were a fairly large number of skincare brands claiming to be natural, but very few could back that up with any guarantee. I realised that an independent guarantee or certificate that our skin care was free from mineral oil, parabens, artificial fragrance and other additives that were linked with skin or health problems, would help us stand out from the crowd. As luck would have it, in 2002, the Soil Association, the UK’s largest certification organisation for organic food and farming, introduced standards for health and beauty products.
My parents have always been keen gardeners and organic ones at that, long before it became fashionable - or environmentally urgent as it is today - to reject artificial pesticides and herbicides in favour of natural agricultural methods. But the step from producing natural skin care to certified organic skin care was a huge one.
It wasn’t so much the ‘cleanliness’ of mum’s formulations that posed a challenge – our very history of catering to allergy-prone skin meant that the products were very ‘free from’ and passed the Soil Association’s toxicity criteria easily. Back in 2003 there just weren’t the same number of plants grown to organic standards as there are today. This meant that reaching the 70% minimum organic threshold required to certify the products was extremely hard. Especially so when ingredients we’d been sold as organic turned out not to be. – Suppliers had simply called their oils or plants extracts ‘organic’ without any certification to back it up. We had to re-source a number of ingredients including coconut and avocado oil. It was a steep learning curve.
All the more so when we had the first of our yearly inspections from the Soil Association. The record-keeping and paperwork trail required was immense. Yet it proved to be a very useful exercise for a fledgling manufacturer, instilling a doctrine of not just the legally required GMP or ‘Good Manufacturing Practice’ but also very exacting traceability systems, label accuracy and quality control required by organic standards. We can literally trace all the ingredients of our skin care back to the field they were grown in.
We made it through this tough initiation process and became one of the first five cosmetics companies to receive a Soil Association certificate. All the more exciting was when our Gentle Herb Shampoo became the world’s first ever organically certified shampoo in early 2004. It was particularly poignant as Mum had created the shampoo for a good friend with psoriasis in her scalp. It’s gone on to be one of our best-sellers and this year won the FreeFrom Skincare Gold Award for best hair care.
Thus started a firm cooperation with the Soil Association that has lasted to the present day. All our products are certified to Soil Association standards and we have been outspoken critics of brands who purport to be ‘organic’, but don’t have any certification to back up organic claims. Unfortunately certification is still not legally required for skin care that calls itself ‘organic’ and as a result ‘green-washing’ is rife and consumers get misled. This yawning gap in regulation has created a very uneven commercial playing field and is something we’ve struggled with throughout our ten year history.