Demand for natural and organic products in Asia is increasing exponentially. However, the sector is rife with greenwashing, an unethical practice that stands to undermine its growth potential.
Health and wellness concerns fuel demand for natural and organic products
Growing awareness about health is making Asian consumers more wary about what they eat and put on their skins. According to a Nielsen global survey, seven in 10 consumers in Southeast Asia see health and wellness as a key priority, which influences their purchase decisions.
Nielsen’s research also highlights that 69 percent of Southeast Asian consumers prefer products made with fresh, natural and/or organic ingredients.
“Recently we’ve seen consumers understanding the relationship between inner and outer health and well-being. It is no longer a fad, it’s a way of life,” says Calum Mackay, director of international sales at Neal’s Yard Remedies, a leading British organic and natural cosmetics brand. “More and more consumers are looking for (organic or natural) certified products with ingredients that are good for them and the environment too.”
A thriving natural and organic market
Grand View Research projects that Asia-Pacific will become the fastest-growing market for organic food and beverages globally, expanding at an estimated compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 28.5 percent from 2014 to 2020, with China leading the pack.
Where beauty and personal care are concerned, a study published last year by Organic Monitor found that the Asian market for natural and organic cosmetics is expected to reach US$1 billion by 2020, with countries across the region reporting strong sales.
Clearly, this market is poised for growth, with consumer demand for organic and natural products buoyed by increasing product awareness and rising disposable incomes, amid mounting health concerns.
The greenwashing issue
As a rule of thumb, organic cosmetic ingredients are derived from organic agricultural practices. ‘Natural’ products, in turn, comprise mostly natural ingredients obtained from plants and animals, and those of mineral or microbiological origin.
However market observers believe that the terms ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ have been subject to a torrent of abuse, especially in Asia, with some manufacturers hoping to cash in on the burgeoning demand for natural and organic products. Such false marketing has confused consumers searching for products free from synthetic ingredients, says associate professor May O. Lwin, associate professor of health and strategic communication, Nanyang Technological University.
“Generally, it is easier for companies to make ‘natural’ rather than ‘organic’ claims as the latter is more highly regulated. From our research observations, marketers tend to go all out to try and label products to be perceived as natural. For added appeal, many resort to adding strong imagery to assert their perceived naturalness,” she adds.
Ultimately, the consumer is left to decide whether products are genuinely organic or natural. This, of course, adds to the scepticism and confusion around organic and natural labelling.
Consumers are confused about natural and organic cosmetics
Amarjit Sahota, CEO and Founder of Organic Monitor, a specialist research, consulting and training company that focuses on global sustainable products industries, mentioned in an exclusive report for In Cosmetics Asia 2015 that most Asian consumers are unaware of the differences between pure natural or organic and conventional cosmetics.
This confusion and lack of awareness can be attributed mainly to the fact that unlike in Europe or North America, there is no single Asia-wide organisation that mandates natural and organic cosmetic standards.
Consequently, many cosmetic brands operating in Asia are making false claims, and a handful is even resorting to using their own self-styled logos or labels to position their products as wholly organic or natural. This is why some Asian companies have taken a concerted stand to reassure customers of their green credentials by adopting widely recognised European standards. For example, Ecocert has gained the most international traction, with the Ecocert logo now found on over 12,000 cosmetic products. The Face Shop, a Korean company, launched an Ecocert-certified range of organic cosmetics in 2008. Korean beauty brand, Whamisa, which debuted in 2010, also carries Ecocert-certified products.
Nonetheless, this lack of a global label standard is set to change, according to Dr Alain Khaiat, the president of the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association of Singapore. The Guidelines on Technical Definitions and Criteria for Natural and Organic Cosmetic Ingredients and Products under the auspices of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) are in the final rounds of revision after six years of discussions involving certification bodies and ingredient suppliers from Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Singapore and Thailand. The guidelines include clear definitions of what constitutes natural or organic ingredients and the quantity of ingredients required for a product to be labelled natural or organic.
“Once implemented, it would bring greater uniformity to the supply of raw ingredients and to the production of natural and organic beauty products in the region, which would help drive up demand and standards,” says Khaiat.
The guidelines are scheduled to be unveiled in 2017.
Nonetheless, despite the positive sentiment expressed by industry members, Sahota remains pessimistic. “The ISO standard is likely to be introduced in a few years but then it is up to national governments to restrict false marketing claims. We do not see this happening soon in Asia,” he says.
Standards in the food and drink sector do not dispel consumer confusion
In contrast, the labelling for food and drinks has been more stringent.
The governments of countries such as China, Japan, Thailand, India and the Philippines have introduced regulations and standards for organic agriculture as well as organic food and beverages, and certification is granted by local agencies according to the national standards.
However, the widespread use of certification standards within the food and beverage industry has actually done little to dispel cynicism with regards to labelling. According to a 2015 paper written by Lwin for the Journal of Food Products Marketing, consumers are becoming sceptical about food labels, perceiving them as aggressive marketing tools. This reinforces the notion that despite the surge in demand for natural and organic products, consumers are finding it hard to find brands they can trust due to greenwashing.
Education is key
Experts concur that in order to combat greenwashing and an erosion of consumer trust, education is key.
“Consumer literacy is so essential for individuals desiring purely natural and organic products. They have to learn to read beyond what it says on the package and to analyse the ingredients list carefully to distinguish between natural and synthetic ingredients,” says Lwin.
Khaiat suggests extending this to industry players as well. “As part of our efforts to create awareness and to tackle greenwashing, we’ve reached out to regulators, manufacturers and ingredient suppliers through conferences and workshops that discuss the proposed standards and how to formulate effective organic and natural (cosmetic) products,” he explains.