- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Even grungy hippies once swore by Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, with its heady peppermint fragrance and angelically pure organic formula.

Now Dr. Bronner’s is getting down and dirty.

The San Francisco-based company, which has been manufacturing vegetable-oil-based soaps and washes since 1948, is suing chichi upstarts that are infringing on its territory.

“We have been deeply disappointed and frustrated by companies in the ‘natural’ personal care space who have been [cheating] organic consumers, engaging in misleading organic branding and label call-outs on products that were not natural in the first place, let alone organic,” said David Bronner, president of the company.

Estee Lauder and Kiss My Face, plus designer Stella McCartney are among 13 manufacturers named in a 50-page lawsuit filed in California Superior Court yesterday. Dr. Bronner’s used an independent chemical analysis to back claims that rivals sullied often pricey products with all sorts of industrial stuff.

With names like “Peaceful Patchouli Obsessively Organic Ultra Moisturizer,” the brands are evocative. The analyses found that formulas included the carcinogenic petrochemical ethylene oxide, plus compounds such as cocamidopropyl betaine, ethylhexylglycerin and phenoxyethanol.

“The misleading organic noise created by culprit companies’ branding and labeling practices interferes with organic consumers’ ability to distinguish personal care products whose main ingredients are in fact made with certified organic, not conventional or petrochemical material,” Mr. Bronner said.

While the organic quotient of agricultural food products is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, personal care items rely on industry policing, such as the newly established Organic and Sustainable Industry Standards developed by a consortium of 30 manufacturers, including L’Oreal and Estee Lauder.

Julie Berman, a spokeswoman for Estee Lauder, said the company had no comment on the lawsuit yesterday.

The marketplace already is chockablock with organic Oreo cookies, dog food and bamboo-fiber underwear. The imaginative allure of all things organic is big business.

According to the Organic Trade Association, Americans spent $18 billion on organic foods last year and an additional $938 million on organic “non-food products,” such as vitamins, clothing and cleaners. Sales of organic products have grown by 15 percent to 21 percent each year since 1997, and 57 percent of Americans buy organic at least part of the time.

There’s organic abuse out there, according to the Organic Consumers Association, which launched a “Coming Clean” advocacy campaign in March to urge manufacturers to back up their organic claims to protect consumers — and the nation.

Using petroleum compounds in a self-proclaimed natural product is “outrageous,” said Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the Minnesota-based nonprofit group.

“At a time when our nation is dangerously dependent on foreign oil and attempting to wean itself off unnecessary dependence on petroleum-based ingredients in major consumer products for national security reasons, it’s self-defeating that we are literally bathing ourselves and our children in toxic petroleum compounds,” Mr. Cummins said.

Mr. Bronner, meanwhile, is demanding that the offending “organic cheater” manufacturers either drop their claims of making genuine organic products or revamp their formulas by Sept. 1.

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