There's a strict set of standards for organic foods. But the rules are looser for household cleaners, textiles, cosmetics and the organic dry cleaners down the street.
Wander through the grocery store and check out the shelves where some detergents, hand lotions and clothing proclaim organic bona fides.
Absent an Agriculture Department seal or certification, there are few ways to tell if those organic claims are bogus.
A shopper's only recourse is to do his or her own research.
"The consumer should not need a law degree to read a label," says Laura Batcha, president of the OrganicTrade Association, the industry's main trade group. Concerned about the image of organics, the association is pressuring the government to better investigate organic claims on nonfood items.
From soap to t-shirts
According to the Organic Trade Association, sales of those nonfood organic products were about $2.8 billion last year, a small share of the overall organic market but growing rapidly. Among the most popular items: household cleaners, cosmetics, gardening products, clothing, sheets and mattresses.
USDA doesn't regulate any of those items, though, unless they're made entirely from food or agriculture products overseen by its National Organic Program. That's when they can carry the familiar "USDA organic" seal or other official USDA certification.
The rules are murkier when the items have ingredients that aren't regulated by USDA, like chemicals in soaps or makeup. The department doesn't police the use of the word organic for nonfood items, as it does with food.
- Personal care products. Companies can brand any personal care product as organic with little USDA oversight as long as they don't use the USDA organic seal or certification. Some retailers like Whole Foods Market have stepped in with their own standards requiring organic body care items sold at their stores to be certified. There's also a private certification called NSF/ANSI 305, but most consumers don't know to look for that label.
- Clothing, sheets and mattresses made from organic cotton or other organic fibers. Some items are certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard, a third-party verification organization that reviews how the products are manufactured. Like body care, most consumers don't know about it.
- Gardening products. Some gardening products may be approved by USDA for use in organic agriculture, but not be certified organic themselves.
There are clear standards for items within the scope of USDA's regulation, says Miles McEvoy, the head of department's National Organic Program. "The areas that are outside of our scope could cause some confusion."
Through the government cracks
The Federal Trade Commission normally investigates deceptive claims. But the agency demurred in its "Green Guides" published in 2012, saying enforcement of organic claims on nonfood products could duplicate USDA duties.
The FTC says a claim is only deceptive if it misleads consumers, so it needs to study consumer perceptions of the word organic. The agency has proposed a study, but officials weren't able to say when it might begin.
The Organic Trade Association's Batcha says the lack of enforcement could erode confidence in the organicindustry as a whole. The industry has similarly been fighting overuse of the word "natural," which has no legal meaning at all.
Ken Cook, head of the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group that publishes online consumer databases on cosmetics and cleaning, is blunt: "Companies are chasing the consumers and the government is in the rear-view mirror."
Organic dry cleaners
Some dry cleaners promote "organic" on their windows and in their stores, but there is no legal definition for that practice.
Mary Scalco, CEO of the industry group Drycleaning and Laundry Institute, said some of those businesses may actually be using petroleum-based solutions, which are not generally perceived as organic by the general public.
"The difficult part is the scientific meaning of organic and the consumer perception of the word," she says.
Scalco says she is telling member companies to make sure their customers know what organic means.
"Because there is no real regulation on this right now, you want to make sure you don't mislead the public," she says.
So what's a consumer to do, especially when organic products are often more expensive and the market is continuing to grow?
Right now, retailers are the first line of defense.
Four years ago, Whole Foods Market announced strict standards for labeling in the store's well-stocked cosmetics, home cleaning and clothing aisles. The retailer also requires all products to list ingredients.
"In areas where there isn't a government regulation, we have stepped up to create our own," says Joe Dickson, global quality standards coordinator for the Austin, Texas-based chain.
David Bronner, the president of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, has fought for years to get the USDA to expand its powers on organics to include personal care products. He says Whole Foods' standards have helped clean up the market, but there are still less scrupulous companies that stretch the meaning of the word organic to include petroleum-based oils and nonorganic palm and coconut oils that make up the base of many personal care products. Some grocery stores, spas and online retailers have no standards at all.
Bronner advises shoppers to read labels carefully and scan lists of ingredients. If you find several unpronounceable ingredients that sound like chemicals, "it's probably not organic," he says.