More show than substance? The organic prefix put to the test

A small word with a big impact: The organic prefix makes it seemingly easy to identify sustainable products and materials at first glance. But on closer inspection it becomes clear: not everything that says “organic” is actually “organic”

Bio-Prefix
Source & Copyright by Alena Koval | pexels.com 

Author: House of Eden

organic materials are considered to be the best choice in terms of sustainability and a great hope for the future. After all, their use seems to be the easiest way to a more sustainable world in which products, packaging or even buildings are made from naturally grown raw materials instead of materials derived from fossil sources. Therefore, more and more consumers are willing to dig deeper into their pockets for such supposedly sustainable products and, according to a recent study by Bain & Company even pay a surcharge of 12 percent or more.

The danger of greenwashing through the organic prefix

It is no wonder that, given the great response from consumers, the prefix "organic" is often used in marketing. After all, it suggests naturalness, compostability and generally better compatibility for people and the environment. But these claims often prove to be questionable when you take a closer look at the truth behind the advertising slogans. A study by RepRisk a 70 percent increase in incidents of Greenwashing between 2022 and 2023.

The companies are taking advantage of a loophole in current legislation. What many people do not know is that the use of the organic prefix is ​​only regulated by law in relation to food. Food industry Products that are labeled "organic" must meet certain guidelines for organic farming. These include, for example, the avoidance of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms. In addition, organic foods are checked and certified by an inspection body. Only then can they bear the "organic" seal. This gives consumers the assurance that the organic food that ends up in their shopping cart was actually produced according to organic guidelines.

The situation is completely different outside the food industry. Here, the use of the organic prefix is ​​currently hardly regulated – and this is shamelessly exploited by many companies. The term “organic” is often used as a marketing tool to present products as environmentally friendly and ecologically without there being any clear guidelines or Certifications It is therefore important to look very closely and check the manufacturing processes and ingredients in order to be able to judge whether the product advertised as “organic” is actually sustainable.

Source & Copyright by Artem Podrez/Lara Jameson | pexels.com

Certifications as an alternative to the organic prefix

Given the frequent misleading nature of the organic prefix, certifications and seals can provide more clarity. They offer greater transparency and certainty that products are actually environmentally friendly and sustainable. The following certifications can be relied upon due to their strict criteria:

  1. The FSC seal: The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an international organization that certifies sustainable forestry. The FSC seal on wood products or paper means that the material comes from responsibly managed forests.
  2. The Cradle-to-Cradle seal: This seal certifies products that comply with the principles of the circular economy and can be fully recycled or composted at the end of their life cycle.
  3. The GOTS seal: The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is a certification for organic textiles that covers the entire production process from the extraction of raw materials to processing and packaging.

In contrast to the organic prefix, these certifications offer reliable orientation in the sustainability jungle.

Organic? Not at any price!

Despite all the ambiguities surrounding the labelling of sustainable materials and products, one thing is clear: we need more organic! In order to CO2 emissions the substitution of fossil raw materials with biomaterials is unavoidable. A recently published study by the Radboud University in the Netherlands concluded that bio-materials could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 45 percent compared to fossil raw materials.

However, the use of organic raw materials does not offer a miracle solution to the climate crisis. In particular, it is important to avoid so-called "regrettable substitutions", i.e. when one material is replaced by another that only brings with it a new set of problems. Food packaging based on paper or sugar cane fibers, which are often used as Alternatives to plastic packaging are a good example. In order to be suitable for food packaging, these materials – unlike plastic packaging – need a grease-repellent coating. Per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) are often used for this. These so-called "eternal chemicals" accumulate in the environment and, not least, in our bodies due to their long-term persistence. This makes it clear that a replacement product for fossil raw materials is not always automatically the better choice.

The problem of bioplastics

The bioplastics industry is currently experiencing strong growth. The reason for this is not only sustainability criteria but also the high oil prices, which make fossil plastics less competitive. Most types of bioplastics are made from ethanol, which is usually obtained from corn, wheat or sugar cane. Sugar cane, for example, is grown in monocultures in tropical and subtropical countries such as Brazil. The sugar is extracted, fermented and distilled to produce precursors for bioplastics.

In order to assess the true environmental impact of bioplastics, one would have to examine the cultivation methods in detail, for example with regard to the use of pesticides, fertilizers or deforestation practices. It is therefore not easy to recognize the sustainability content of a supposedly organic raw material at first glance, and the entire production chain must always be considered.

Holistic view of organic promises

When evaluating organic products with a focus on sustainability, it is important to think about the end at the beginning. After all, materials are only truly sustainable if they can be easily composted or Recycling be returned to the raw material cycle.

At first glance, biodegradable plastic seems to be a solution to the alarming Accumulation of microplastics anywhere in the world. However, "biodegradable" does not necessarily mean that a material will actually decompose in the environment within a short period of time. A study by UCL from 2022 on supposedly "compostable" bio-plastics shows that 60 percent were not completely degraded within the tested periods.

In this context, a recent court case against the US biotech company Danimer Scientific Inc. is also interesting. The manufacturer of biodegradable products had advertised that its innovative plastic material could be biologically decomposed not only in industrial composting plants, but also in landfills and in the ocean. In court, it emerged that the company had carried out degradation tests with the plastic in powder form - the results therefore had no significance for the degradation of real products such as bottles, which are often end up as garbage in the sea.

Source & Copyright by Readymade | pexels.com

New laws for more transparency

There are good prospects: in the future, manufacturers will have to be more transparent about the actual environmental impact of their products. In the EU, new legislation to combat greenwashing in product labeling will come into force in 2026. The new regulation is a direct response to the increase in misleading advertising claims made by companies. A study commissioned by the EU found that 53 percent of green product claims were vague, misleading or unsubstantiated and 40 percent lacked any evidence. In the UK, the competition authority CMA has Green Claims Code – a six-point guide to help companies communicate clearly and avoid misleading customers.

Conclusion: Organic does not mean harmless

Many companies use the organic prefix to give their products a green veneer. In doing so, they currently use incomplete legal regulations for the use of the organic designation outside the food industry and thus mislead consumers. It is therefore important to carefully question the origin of products and materials and to pay attention to meaningful certifications.

In terms of sustainability, we should also look at the whole picture and consider not only the origin but also the entire life cycle of the product - from production to use and disposal. Because products that are truly "organic" follow the natural cycle of life and leave no harmful traces on the earth.

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