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Greenwashing risk for natural and organic cosmetics: Consumer perception on naturalness, brands and seals

  • Published on January 11, 2023

Across the EU, there is a need for better regulation of natural and organic claims in order to support and empower consumers as part of the green transition and mitigate the risk of greenwashing. With transparency in mind, NATRUE commissioned a quantitative consumer-centric study in Germany and France to evaluate three pillars: (1) Consumer attitudes; (2) Brand perception; (3) Seal performance.

The focus of this consumer study is to analyse consumer expectations and perception about cosmetic brands, as well as seals and claims used often to characterize natural and organic cosmetics, in order to support the sector, including NATRUE’s members and Label Users. A better understanding of the attributes that consumers look for in natural and organic cosmetics can help brands identify the elements that support an informed decision-making process and product transparency, which would contribute to combatting greenwashing more effectively.

In order to characterize what “naturalness” means in each market, participants were asked about multiple factors contributing to defining this concept. Six main categories were established for this purpose: “natural/organic ingredients”, “free from”, “climate/biodegradable/biodiversity”, “fair trade”, “pack/waste” and “animal protection”.  In the second pillar of this study focuses on evaluating how consumers perceive brands (as conventional, nature-inspired or natural/organic) based on the characteristics of their products, analysed in detail in the previous pillar. In the last pillar of this consumer study, participants were asked to reply to a series of questions related to the level of regulation of natural and organic claims for cosmetics, the risk of greenwashing in the sector and the difficulties to understand labels and seals often used in cosmetic products.

Conclusions of the “Consumer attitudes” pillar

In the absence of an official regulatory definition or EU harmonised criteria indicating how the claims “natural” or “organic” are applied to cosmetic products, some consumers might be struggling to identify which elements contribute precisely to the “naturalness” of a product. “Naturalness” is a multifactorial concept highly influenced by consumer personal preference. This concept has become more complex in the last years due to market fragmentation and the appearance of multiple labels and seals highlighting diverse product’s aspects.

Some consumers might not be able to unambiguously differentiate between nature-inspired and natural products, particularly in the French market in comparison to the German one, where knowledge and awareness about NOCs seems to be higher. French consumers would therefore be more exposed to the risk of buying a product based upon misleading greenwash claims linked to selective elements of “naturalness” rather than those representative of a natural product as a whole.

Consumers look for products guaranteeing animal protection and the absence of animal testing, despite the existence of EU regulation banning animal testing in cosmetic products in the EU since 2004, and ingredients since 2009. The presence/avoidance of certain ingredients remains an important factor for consumers when assessing the level of “naturalness” of a product (for instance, the presence of natural ingredients; the absence of microplastics, GMOs, etc.).

When asked which aspects defining “naturalness” where most important for them, both German and French consumers chose “100% natural and organic ingredients” as the main characteristic defining “naturalness”, followed by other aspects such as “protection of animal welfare” and “with a reduced environmental impact”.

Conclusions of the “Brand perception” pillar

Consumers willing to buy natural/organic cosmetics risk being misled by marketing “tricks” from nature-inspired brands. Tools promoting transparency when it comes to product information can help consumers differentiate verifiable claims from greenwashing. There will be more fragmentation in the market as conventional market leaders increasingly launch sub-brands whose products are either nature-inspired or even certified as natural/organic. Such sub-brands might be perceived as “more natural” despite fulfilling less or the same criteria as some natural brands because of the broader marketing perception of the conventional brand that created it.

Conclusions of the “Seal performance” pillar

Consumers buying conventional cosmetics are likely to be less influenced by natural/organic certified products. Awareness and clarity of seals are lower for those seals that represent multifactorial criteria in comparison to seals qualifying a single characteristic. Consumers are willing to pay more for certified natural/organic products.

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