COMMENT:

It's no surprise that sales of "Natural" and "eco-friendly" Home Cleaning products in supermarkets are growing many times faster than non- natural and non-eco friendly product categories.

I saw this unprecedented growth in demand, in a previous role with a team of 500 people specialising in retail sales and merchandising. I had never thought any retail category could sustain this consistent growth for so long. And it doesn't look like it's slowing down.

But are all the natural and eco products actually what they claim to be?

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Which claims are misleading and which are not?

Our scientific team spent years trying to answer these questions so we could produce the Most Natural Home Cleaning range in NZ.

The answers are not simple, but in an attempt to simplify the complex, here's a set of eight guiding rules which might help you make better 'green' shopping choices.

Rule One: Higher Price usually means a better 'green' product

The reality is that manufacturers often have to invest more in ingredients when making natural products rather than sourcing 'non natural' ingredients. Check labels closely anyway, but this higher cost/higher green quality match, you will generally find, is reflected in the on shelf price.

Rule Two: Get to know the most reliable certification symbols

The past five years of market assessment has given our company confidence in the symbols featured here. If you see one of these on a product you can be sure the product has been subjected to "green" scrutiny.

The standards and requirements between them differ but attention to natural or eco ingredients has been sufficient to earn a certification symbol.

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If there is a gold standard certification among them, I believe the "USNPA" (US Natural Products Association) label is it. This organisation is not Government funded and appears to be out of reach of commercial lobbyists. Based on our experience, the assessments are incredibly rigorous and stringent, far more demanding than anything we have been exposed to before. This level of rigor gives you the shopper great confidence in the products you are buying from the Retailer.

The certification symbols I believe are worth noting, include:

The US Natural Products Assn is the reputable United States based independent certifier of natural products, founded in 1936.

BioGro is known for its certification of products claiming a minimum of 70 per cent organic content.

A New Zealand-based certifier of environmental sustainable processes and products however these are not necessarily natural. This certifier has been operational since 1992.

Each of these certifiers has its own website

Rule Three: understand "Natural"

These are products that are made from natural plant and mineral ingredients. They usually require independent certification and world regulators police this word more rigorously. So if you see it on a supermarket product it has probably passed through a number of industry check points. Also make sure it also has one of the certifiers labels on the pack as I mentioned above in Rule 2, particularly the USNPA label would be my recommendation.

Rule Four: understand the term "organic"

It's such a common term and often mis-used.

First look for the BioGro™ label under Rule Two. That will give you assurance that the product has a minimum of 70 per cent organic ingredients. This is the level that BioGro™ permits a manufacturer to use "organic" on the label.

If a BioGro label does not exist, I would suggest caution; there is no assurance that the contents have a minimum 70 per cent organic content. Some products, without this symbol, can be as little as one per cent which I believe is a big trap for shoppers.

Rule Five: understand "Plant-based"

This means that the contents are derived from plant extracts which have come from a number of different plant types. While this is sounds good I would say that they may have been processed via synthetic means or mixed with synthetic chemicals. But again these are better than synthetic ingredients.

Rule Six: understand "biodegradable"

This word implies that a product will naturally break down over time and return, as we say, "dust to dust."

When you see this term, the manufacturer should be giving assurance that the ingredients in the product will break down once they enter a landfill, community treatment plant or natural waterways.

I recommend looking for the term "compostable." This word is more clear about the ability of the product to break down within weeks or months. While the technology isn't there for all packaging to be compostable I am confident it will come.

But in marketing there can be some "flexible" uses of this word.

Rule Seven: understand "fragrances"

Fragrances are often unnatural chemical cocktail additives unless they are specifically described as natural fragrances. Pleasant aromas can be achieved with natural products such as essential oils however this often translates to a higher price on the supermarket shelf, (see Rule One).

A number of products are now advertising that they are actually free of any fragrance because manufacturers have become aware that consumers are becoming better informed about fragrances and their potential impact on your skin and body; an encouraging sign.

Rule Eight: you can learn through the labels

I would encourage every shopper to spend a few minutes on each shopping trip, studying a few labels. I have picked up a lot this way, but the rules I've offered here are mainly from our biological chemist and the product development team.

It can be confusing when it comes down to making a choice within the time allocation of the weekly shop. But a little learning each week creates useful knowledge. As manufacturers we have a role to play in helping consumers to build their own knowledge of a very complex area The end result is safer homes and families.

- Grant Leach is CEO of Living Green Group, an Auckland-based manufacturer and exporter.