Organic? Natural? Sustainable? What’s the Difference?

by HJ Tagupa September 10, 2023

Organic? Natural? Sustainable? What’s the Difference?

Organic creams. Organic shampoos. Even organic bath bombs. We’re so used to seeing the word “organic” these days that it almost makes us feel guilty when we don’t choose brands with this label. But have you ever wondered what actually makes a product “organic”? How is this different from “natural” or “sustainable”? It’s essential to know what each buzzword means before it guilt-trips you into unnecessary – and often costly – buying decisions.

Here at Glowing Orchid, we predominantly use organic ingredients, but we’ve opted not to use so-called “organic” coconut oil as an ingredient in our products. We found that this is the most sensible decision, both for us as an eco-conscious company and for our customers who are committed to a sustainable, cruelty-free lifestyle. Let’s take a closer look at organic product claims, and what they mean for you.


What Exactly Does “Organic” Mean?

The short answer? Depends on whom you ask.

In terms of food and agriculture, “organic” refers to the way the products are farmed. Encyclopedia Britannica provides this basic definition of “organic”: “grown without the use of synthetic chemicals, such as human-made pesticides and fertilisers, and does not contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs).”

To help consumers ensure that the products they’re buying are indeed organic, countries have adopted their own organic certification standards. Farms and manufacturers have to comply with these standards before they can put “certified organic” on their product labels.

The trouble is that national standards for “organic” often exclusively cover the food industry, leaving “organic” labelling unregulated in the personal care and cosmetics industry.

For instance, in the United States and Canada, there are no rules or regulations that govern the term “organic” as it applies to cosmetics or personal care products. Each of these countries have their national agricultural agency that regulates organic farm products, but these agricultural agencies don’t regulate cosmetics.

  • In the US, cosmetics are the realm of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but this agency currently has no definition of “organic” skincare or “organic” personal care products.

  • Similarly, in Canada, Health Canada does not have guidelines on what personal care products can be labelled “organic.”

There are independent organisations around the world that offer their own “organic cosmetics” certification based on non-governmental standards. If you’ve encountered the labels COSMOS, Natrue, and ISO 16128, those are examples of these standards. But, as you can see, these standards are varied, scattered, and unregulated. A beauty product that’s certified “organic” by one organisation may not pass the organic standards of another organisation.

In short, there’s no clear basis for the “organic” label in personal care. Any so-called “organic” cream you pick up from the store may not actually be organic in the sincerest sense of the word.

What’s The Difference Between “Organic,” “Natural,” and “Sustainable”?

Loosely, in the area of food and agriculture, “organic” means grown without synthetic fertilisers and pesticides; “natural” means free from artificial additives (like flavours and colours); and “sustainable” means protecting environmental health for future generations. “Regenerative” is one step above that and aims to improve environmental health through stewardship and cultivation.

Let’s take apples, for example:

  • If an apple orchard avoids lab-made pesticides and fertilisers, their fruits could be considered organic.

  • If the orchard also practises regenerative agriculture, it may be described as sustainable. (Regenerative agriculture prioritises soil health, conserves water, and nurtures biodiversity.)

  • If these same apples are sold completely unprocessed, then these fruits are organic, sustainable, and natural.

  • But if the apples are pumped with de-aging chemicals to keep them looking ‘fresh’ in the supermarket, these fruits cannot claim to be natural, though they are still organically and sustainably grown.

Note that we can only differentiate these three terms in a loose informal sense, because uniform official definitions don’t exist. For instance, in the US, the Department of Agriculture regulates product claims of being organic but not claims of being natural. Also, it only governs the food and agriculture industry. Meanwhile, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also oversees food labels, but it doesn’t have official rules on what products can be labelled organic or natural.

So, once again, the labels “organic,” “natural,” and “sustainable” have no official distinctions in the food industry, much less in the personal care industry.


Are “Organic” Products Better Than

In a nutshell, no – the “organic” label doesn’t automatically mean a product is better than those not labelled organic.

Doctors conducted a systematic review on organic foods and published their research on the Annals of Internal Medicine. They found that there was no sufficient evidence that “organic” foods are more nutritious than “conventional” foods.

There’s even less evidence when it comes to “organic” cosmetics and body care. As we know now, there isn’t even a clear definition of what an “organic” cosmetic is. In addition, even products that were farmed in the most natural way could still have an unpleasant effect on you. Dr. Rebecca Kazin of Johns Hopkins Medicine points out that the term “organic” isn’t the same as “hypoallergenic,” and that sensitive complexions may still react negatively to organic products.


Our Coconut Oils Aren’t “Organic” –
And That’s Perfectly Okay

At Glowing Orchid, we have two major reasons for not using coconut oils labelled “organic.”

One, the “organic” label isn’t properly regulated for cosmetics, and two, we do our own vetting of ingredients that doesn’t require misleading labels.

Let me elaborate.

First, I’ve shared with you above how the word “organic” isn’t actually regulated in the personal care industry. We want to be perfectly honest and clear with you in our ingredients list, so we try to avoid such terms that are so fuzzy in their definition. The truth is that we could simply pick any coconut oil supplier that carries the “certified organic” label, but we wouldn’t be comfortable with this, knowing that that label has no clear basis.

This brings us to our second reason. We at Glowing Orchid do our own in-depth examination of our ingredients and how they are produced. To source our coconut oil, we get to know each coconut plantation we work with (located in the Philippines), ensuring first-hand that they’re cruelty-free and apply sustainable farming practices. Let’s talk more about this in the next couple of sections (click on section titles).

Choosing Cruelty-free Farms

Did you know that some coconut farms use monkeys to harvest their coconuts? This may sound silly to some, but it’s something we avoid at Glowing Orchid, being a vegan and cruelty-free company.

Monkey trainers in Thailand have defended the practice of having monkeys pick coconuts, asserting it’s not abuse. But in 2019, an undercover investigation by PETA discovered that at certain coconut farms, the ‘off-duty’ monkeys were chained, locked in tiny cages, and left screaming. Some even had their canine teeth removed to avoid injuring their handlers! This report was so upsetting to us that we made it a point to avoid working with farms like those.

Choosing Sustainable Farms

Another thing we check for is the environmental sustainability of the coconut plantation. One great thing about coconut plants is that they are robust enough that they don’t need to rely on synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. We deliberately choose farms that minimise their use of those.

In hopes of increasing yields, modern agriculture has come to depend on manufactured chemical fertilisers. Unfortunately, this comes with a horrible side effect: lab-made fertilisers harm the natural organic matter in the soil, thus actually making the soil less healthy. In response, farmers have to keep dumping more and more chemicals on their land just to keep up crop production. Leading soil chemist Rick Haney likens this to feeding a person only vitamin supplements instead of a balanced diet – it’s just not going to work in the long term.

Sustainable coconut plantations maximise the nutritional content of their soil not through synthetic fertiliser dumps but through organic methods such as intercropping, the practice of growing two or more types of crops in the same field.

One major benefit from intercropping is the efficient use of nutrients from the soil. This is primarily thanks to nitrogen-fixing plants, which naturally convert their own nutrients with the help of beneficial bacteria. A 2020 study even found that if intercropping was adopted worldwide, it would reduce the need for nitrogen chemical fertiliser by about 26 percent. I find that amazing even as a non-farmer.

The coconut plantations we work with also use biological pest controls instead of synthetic pesticides. For example, certain types of fungi can suppress invasive insects without harming coconut trees (these fungi are all-natural). Some farms also combat insects using natural parasites that target those insects. Coconut fruits themselves come with their own protection from pests, in the form of a hardy shell plus a thick husk.

Biological pest control is a priority for us because we don’t want our coconut oil to come from pesticide-sprayed coconuts. Imagine chemical pesticides making their way into your lotion or lip balm! At Glowing Orchid, whether or not we see the organic label, we personally ensure our products are pesticide-free.


What Makes a “Clean” or “Ethical” Beauty Product? Here’s a Checklist

Now we know that “organic” doesn’t really mean much in personal care products. How do you know if your cosmetic and skincare items are clean for the earth and ethical for communities? These are five qualities you should look for:

  • Sustainably sourced. Ingredients and raw materials should come from sustainable farms that conserve natural resources for generations to come. They practise soil conservation, regrow as much as they can, and waste as little resource as possible.

  • Little to zero synthetic ingredients. It’s worth checking the ingredients you’re unfamiliar with, because chances are that they’re lab-made chemicals that could cause health issues when accumulated in the body (looking at you, microplastics & sulfates!). The gentlest beauty products are often plant-based – no petroleum, no artificial colourants or fragrances, no added preservatives.

  • Fair to workers. From farming to processing to packaging, all workers must be paid fairly and provided suitable work conditions. This also means respecting the culture of their community by working alongside them instead of exploiting them.

  • Cruelty-free to animals. Make sure your beauty brand doesn’t test on animals, because that’s definitely a form of cruelty. Also opt for businesses that don’t force animals into inhumane labour, such as by locking them in unsuitable cages and defanging them.

  • Sustainably packaged. Examples of sustainable packaging are biodegradables (paper and cardboard), reusables (glass and metal), and recycled materials.

If you want to be more sustainable and ethical in your lifestyle, you can start just by Googling the product you’re thinking of buying, including its specific ingredients and manufacturer’s name.

You don’t need to do a deep dive (though being well-informed doesn’t hurt!). You can find science-backed articles through a simple search. For example, if you see the ingredients paraben or talc in makeup, a quick search will tell you that they may be toxic! This will help you decide on whether the product is right for you.


Ready to Make the Switch to Clean, Ethical Personal Care Products?

Right on! If you want to get a guilt-free glow, then we suggest you try out the goodies from Glowing Orchid. All our products are plant-based, sourced from sustainable, cruelty-free farms, and lovingly made in small batches. We ship them in 100 percent biodegradable recycled mailers, plus each purchase automatically donates to worthy causes around the world!

Here are a few of our coconut-infused products that our customers can’t get enough of:

I’m honestly so happy that you’re interested in alternative beauty brands that provide clean, ethical products. It doesn’t always have to be Glowing Orchid – though we’d be honoured if you chose us! 😉 What’s really cool to me is that more and more skincare-conscious consumers are taking extra steps to be better in their buying decisions. More people are reading beyond product labels, more people are seeking out brands that align with their values.

Thank you for being part of this shift. Stay well-informed, mindful, and glowing!




Additional reading:

HJ Tagupa
HJ Tagupa


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