Shoppers’ beliefs about organic claims on non-food products

An ongoing concern for the organic sector has been the lack of enforcement of organic claims on non-food items that are non-agricultural.

Organic claims appear on a wide variety of products, some of which may not be agricultural in nature. Although many non-food products do contain agricultural ingredients and are certified to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP), there are also organic claims made on many non-agricultural non-food products without any certification as to the meaning and authenticity of the term. Unfortunately, non-agricultural products making organic claims do not fall under NOP’s scope of authority and go unregulated. This creates a confusing situation for shoppers and raises doubt about the validity of the organic label.

“If it is labeled organic, it must be certified, inspected and proven so that we as consumers can trust it to be true.” — one respondent to OTA’s survey

OTA has a long history of advocating for the integrity of the organic label wherever it appears, and has asked USDA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to work together to devise a solution that would end consumer confusion on the issue while preserving trust in organic. FTC and USDA hosted a roundtable discussion in Washington, D.C., in October at which OTA shared research concerning consumer perceptions about the word organic on non-food products such as shampoo and textiles and services such as lawn care and dry cleaning.

About the research

OTA partnered with May Media Group, which conducts OTA’s annual U.S. Families’ Organic Attitudes and Beliefs Tracking Study, to explore shoppers’ beliefs and expectations about the word organic as it pertains to non-food products. This particular study was conducted among a targeted group self-identified as being interested in raising healthy families and participating in a community of like-minded individuals. Because this population is actively engaged in educating themselves on natural, organic, and “better-for-you” products and services, their opinions, attitudes, levels of understanding, and purchasing behaviors may differ from those of a randomly selected U.S. national sample. However, studying this population allowed OTA to zero in more deeply to understanding the most likely purchasers of these products. More than 1,300 individuals completed the survey.

Perhaps not surprisingly given the study group, respondents reported a high degree of knowledge about organic, with 74 percent indicating that they felt well informed about organic products.

From here, the picture gets more complicated. When asked which organic products they believe are available, 97 percent chose food and beverages, but more than half (51 percent) indicated that organic services including lawn care, dry cleaning, and carpet cleaning are available. What’s more, 27 percent of respondents indicated they purchase these services some or all of the time. Keep in mind, these are heavy users—65 percent—indicating that they had purchased an organic product or service within the past week. Under the current regulatory structure (or rather, lack thereof), it is impossible for consumers to know what they are getting when they purchase say organic dry cleaning.

In another example, 78 percent of respondents indicated that they have purchased organic household cleaners, with 35 percent indicating that they always or mostly choose these products. But while the total U.S. market for household cleaners was $16.5 billion in 2015, the U.S. market for organic household cleaners was only $80 million, or about 0.48 percent of the total (according to OTA’s 2016 Organic Industry Survey), making it highly unrealistic that 35 percent of the sample group actually purchases “most or all” organic household cleaners.

A large percentage of shoppers—44 percent—indicated a belief that the term organic, as it applies to food products (e.g. breakfast cereal), means the same thing as when it is applied to non-food products (e.g. shampoo).

Perhaps reflecting the dearth of regulatory oversight for these items, consumer beliefs regarding the production and labeling of non-food products and services that claim to be organic varied widely. Sixty-seven percent of shoppers believed that only organic food items can carry the USDA Organic seal, yet 59 percent felt that a non-food product or service labeled organic must be certified by USDA or another government entity. But despite their confusion, shoppers indicated a high level of trust in organic production, certification and labeling practices.

On one point, consumers felt strongly: 88 percent of respondents agreed that a certification process to validate the term “organic,” such as is used by USDA’s National Organic Program in relation to agricultural food products, should also apply to non-food products. Their open-ended comments underscored this sentiment. One respondent—broadly representative of the nearly 1,000 comments collected—said, “If it is labeled organic, it must be certified, inspected and proven so that we as consumers can trust it to be true.”

OTA submitted comments to the FTC on the labeling of organic non-food products and services by the Dec. 1 deadline, and will keep members updated on any movement in this area.  //