Labels matter – let’s keep them honest!

17 April, 2012

How do you know what’s in the products you use?

If you are like most of us you look on the label. Clear labelling helps all of us make informed choice is about the products we buy.  It spells out a product’s ingredients – both what’s in the product sand what’s not – its intended use and any related warnings and how much is in the bottle, jar or tube, and its place of manufacture or distribution.

There is already strict legislation about what can and can’t be said on the ingredient labels of cosmetics. All companies must comply with the law about what is allowed and not allowed in cosmetic products. But recently we have learned that there are moves afoot in Europe to change how cosmetic labels look and what they can say. The proposed changes would ban ‘free from’ and ‘no’ claims on labels but also on all ads and marketing materials for cosmetic products across all 27 EU member states.

It’s not about greenwashing

These changes are being driven by some larger companies. We understand that the European Commission is considering the proposal because it strikes a blow against greenwashing. As a company we would broadly agree that greenwashing is bad for our industry.

Many organic products, for example, are really just ‘oganic pretenders’ – products that claim to have organic ingredients in them, but when you look on the label contain only a minute percentage of organic ingredients in a soup of industrial chemicals.

Another example of greenwashing would be irrelevant claims such as a moisturiser claiming on the label to be “SLS-free”. No moisturiser would have a detergent/foaming agent in it anyway so the claim is just pointless sloganeering.

We make them look bad

However we are concerned that the real motivation behind it is that ‘free from’ and ‘no…’ claims is to protect those manufacturers who will not remove ingredients of concern from their products. In other words products that can legitimately claim to be free from harmful ingredients make the others look bad.

Their argument is that consumers can be misled by labelling that uses regulatory compliance to imply some kind of competitive superiority. In fact, this kind of labelling is rare.

Not many cosmetics companies for example would trumpet “Contains no fuel oil” or “Beryllium free” on their labels. The reality is that the current list of prohibited ingredients  is made up of substances that would not normally be used in cosmetics anyway.

For this reason, we believe it is not enough simply to comply with legislation about prohibited ingredients. Legislation often lags well behind the scientific data. In fact the prohibited list was first drawn up in the late 70’s. Scientific thinking has moved on a great deal since then and for us  its the commonly used ingredients that are not on the prohibited list that warrant caution.

Free from parabens – for a good reason

Parabens is a good example. Our products don’t contain parabens because we believe that the question mark over their safety is legitimate. In parts of Europe parabens have already been banned in cosmetic products.

For instance, in December 2010 Denmark was the first country in the EU to take a stand against this by banning parabens in products for children under the age of 3.

At the same time, the EU’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) issued a report which acknowledged that essential safety studies were not available and there were several unanswered safety issues surrounding two types of parabens: butylparaben and propylparaben.

The Committee noted that while all parabens are estrogenic these two compounds showed the most estrogenic activity, making it harder to set acceptable safety levels for their use in cosmetics.

Today while the EU Commission continues to debate whether or not to ban parabens in personal care products for children, 58 Danish brands no longer use the parabens or any other endocrine disrupting chemicals in their cosmetic and personal care products for children or adults.

In contrast a recent report from the Danish Consumer Council shows that 30 companies, amongst them L’Oreal, Oriflame, Revlon, Lancôme, Yves St Laurent, Vichy, Maybelline, Molton Brown and the Body Shop, will not commit to removing parabens from their products.

Exercising the Precautionary Principle

In an online interview in the Ecologist Dr. Philippa Darbre, an Oncologist at the University of Reading, and the scientist who first proposed a link between parabens to breast cancer noted of the proposed changes:

“If multiple scientific studies have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals and have been made available to the general public because of genuine concerns over specific compounds, then it seems to me that the consumer should be able to know which products do not contain these chemicals.

“Although there may be no definitive evidence for proof of harm, if a body of data exist to suggest adverse properties and progressive companies are able to implement precautionary measures by removing them, then it seems rather sinister to me that labelling as ‘free from’ should be disallowed. What is so wrong with allowing the consumer to know if a cosmetic product is ‘free from parabens’ or ‘free from aluminium’?”

We agree. If the formulations of manufacturers go above and beyond what is required by law then they should be able to let customers know about this achievement. In going beyond basic legal requirements and exercising the Precautionary Principle, leading edge companies set the standard that all other companies should be following.

Some products ARE better than others

It’s simple enough for any manufacturer to remove questionable preservatives in favour of ones that have not been identified as estrogen mimics. Those that choose not to do not exist on a level playing field with those of us that do.

By refusing to allow companies to explain their formulations in easy to understand language – on their labels and in other customer-facing communications – the EU is in fact trying to create the illusion of a level playing field where all cosmetic products are presumed to be equally good by virtue of the fact that they all comply to the same basic set of rules.

This is not the case and we are certainly not in favour allowing those that choose not to reformulate, to denigrate our products by implying their products are as good as ours – which is in effect what the change in regulation would do.

Big manufacturers are reluctant to change their formulations – often because the alternatives are more expensive. It may be they are looking for EU regulation to act as a safety net for them. But consumers have consistently shown that they are ready for a change and we believe that increasingly they are as interested in what is not in their products as what is in them.

Beyond cosmetics

Why does this issue matter. It matters to all of us because it is very likely that cosmetic labelling is the thin end of the wedge in terms of restricting what consumers have the right to know. It is likely this move is a prelude to restricting labelling across foods, cosmetics and OTC medicines.

In the EU manufacturers of herbal products, for example, are already severely restricted on what they can say on the label. This often leaves consumers with no idea of what a product is for or how to use it. More restrictive legislation is on the way.

Should this legislation spread to food we could find ourselves in a similar situation to the US where, for example, foods that contain genetically modified organisms, will not have to state this fact on the label. At the moment in the EU only France, Austria and Germany allow ‘free from GM’ claims no food products. Uncertain of future legislative wrangles, other countries have been slow to follow.

We know people don’t want to be left in the dark about this. In the US the Just Label It campaign has collected more than 1 million signatures from citizens who want to know what goes into the foods they eat.

What needs to be done

The European Commission is currently discussing which claims will and will not be allowed in future. We will all know more in the next couple of months.

In the meantime please consider writing to your MEP and telling him or her why labelling information is important to you and that you oppose the proposed amendment to EU regulation EC no. 1223/2009 that would ban on ‘free from and ‘no’ labelling is a good start.

If you don’t know who your MEP is you can find out at: