The NOW guide to trusting organic products

Organic Products

More of us than ever are choosing to pack products that are labeled ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ in our travel wash bags, trusting that they will be good for us and the environment. But should we?

Over the last decade there’s been a massive boom in personal care brands that are supposedly free of nasty chemicals, yet in reality, and unlike organic foods, there is no set international standard for the organic personal care industry, and it remains largely unregulated.

Just like the many different sustainability certification schemes that allow hotels to greenwash, there are certifying organisations across the globe which guarantee a certain percentage of organic ingredients in a product, but these can be confusing and misleading.

It’s often the case, for example, that a product can refer to itself as ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ if only a few of its ingredients fall into either of these categories, with the rest being man-made. This means that a tiny sprig of herb can be dipped in 3000 gallons of production batch water to transform it into a ‘natural’ formula even if the rest of the ingredients are synthetic.

When companies use the ‘organic’ label falsely to cash in on its marketing caché, consumers feel cynical and deceived, and business owners who make genuine organic products are cheated out of eco-conscious customers who want organic products but actually buy cheap ones that are labeled falsely.

The general consensus is that the most reliable standard is the US Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Standards Board ‘USDA’ Organic seal, which demands that no synthetic preservatives or petrochemicals are used. Many USDA certified products are sold outside the US, and many non-US products are USDA certified for sale in the US. When it comes to making the whole industry less of a lucky dip for consumers everywhere, the system is leading the way.

Why should we avoid the synthetic preservatives, detergents, colours, fragrances, microbeads and petroleum-derived ingredients that are used in mainstream toiletries anyway? The skin is a living, breathing organ that absorbs up to 60% of the stuff we put onto it. While one product may contain very small amounts of some of these ingredients, it is the cumulative effect of applying various products regularly that causes concern for our health and wellbeing.

Studies have shown that products that use them can be allergenic, dehydrating and irritating to the skin, that they clog the pores, preventing the skin from breathing properly, and more seriously, that they can have an adverse effect on cell renewal and genetic make-up, making them carcinogenic, damaging to fertility and detrimental to the immune system.

Such chemicals also damage our environment and upset the delicate balance of our eco systems. The microplastics used as scrubbing and emulsifying agents or just cheap fillers in toothpaste and cleansers, for example, have a damaging effect on marine life, since marine animals often mistake them for food. They are passed along the marine food chain and, as humans are at the top of this chain, it is likely that we also eat them. Plastic particles are not biodegradable and once they enter the marine environment, they are impossible to remove, so they contribute to the plastic islands swirling around the world’s oceans too.

Beat The Microbead (www.beatthemicrobead.org) is also brilliant, continually updated resource that lists products produced by different countries that use micro plastics and those that do not.

So while the personal care industry gets its act together, how do we as travellers ensure we’re packing bona fide organic and natural products in our bags?

The Organic Consumers Association (www.organicconsumers.org), which has been campaigning for consumers to boycott ‘organic cheater’ brands as part of its Coming Clean campaign since 2004, advises that you first look for the USDA organic seal on personal care products that claim to be organic. If it doesn’t have the seal, read the ingredients label.

Look out especially for the word ‘parfum’, which can hide up to 100 allergenic chemicals. Phthalates is a chemical used to make vinyl flexible which also gives lotions the right consistency, while Parabens are synthetic chemical preservatives. All Lauryl Sulfates and Laureth Sulfates are potentially harmful, especially Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), a detergent used to create foam in shampoos and shower gels that is also used to de-grease car engines. DEA, MEA or TEA, Formaldehyde, Lanolin, Methylisothiazolinone (MIT) and Mineral oils are also on the list of ingredients to avoid – and it goes on.

To see for yourself the huge gap between some companies’ ‘organic’ claims and the reality, take a peek at Skin Deep (www.cosmeticsdatabase.com), the Environmental Working Group cosmetic safety database in the US.

Genuine ‘organic’ companies will list organically certified ingredients and their percentages on the label. They will also usually have a ‘use by’ date, sometimes a production date, and be packaged in UV-resistant glass bottles so that sunlight doesn’t affect them. Bear in mind that not everything can always be 100% organic. Himalayan salt, for example, which is used in some spa products, is over 250 million years old, but because it is not derived from a plant it cannot be certified organic – nor can mineral clay. This is where the word ‘natural’ can be used – with care, of course.

Some companies whose products are natural and organic still fly them half way round the world to expensive spas and package them in unsustainable packaging – even if it’s not plastic, it can be expensive card loaded with heavy inks. As expectations from ‘conscious’ consumers increase, all organic and natural producers will need to get their act together so they are accountable and transparent, certified from a rigorous company, and addressing the waste of packaging and the carbon footprint of production and delivery.

Think piece: Can we have palm oil without deforestation?

Palm oil and deforestation
Palm oil might be here to stay, but deforestation doesn’t have to be, says Sarah Woodhead, co-founder of the Leuser Ecosystem Action Fund (LEAF). Here she shares her experiences of the Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra.

With the deafening sound of the jungle heralding the dawn of a new day and a night of no sleep, I emerged from our make shift camp deep in the jungle, watched closely by a Thomas Leaf Monkey. Alongside gibbons and a couple of sizable monitor lizards, I jostled for my place to wash in the stream. I was finally in the glorious Leuser Ecosystem, 2.6 million hectares of tropical rainforest under severe threat from encroaching oil palm plantations. If you’re an Avatar fan, Leuser is Mother Nature’s version – a unique and iconic rainforest in Sumatra housing the last remaining orangutans, tigers, elephants and rhinos and a place I had dreamt of visiting.

Our guide, Darma, a forest ranger for over 20 years, knew the forest intimately. It was a privilege to experience the beauty of Leuser through his eyes. In Leuser, as in many landscapes, ecotourism provides not just an income but a motivation for the local community to protect the forest, whereas conversely, roads built by plantations have become tributaries for illegal poaching. There are an estimated 40-80 Sumatran rhino left – catastrophic for these species and our planet’s legacy.

Seeing my first orangutan in the wild was a humbling experience. They are big, incongruous and majestic. And under threat from humans. Darma knew many of the ones released from captivity that had been illegal pets but were now back into the rainforest’s utopia – a sophisticated and ancient ecosystem supporting these species and millions of others.

On the doorstep of this Eden, the threat of unlawful slash and burn to make way for the world’s cheapest oil is driving orangutans and all the forest’s inhabitants towards extinction. The true value of nature has not been recognised, and pristine, essential sites have been degraded to single use agriculture where animal species can’t survive.

The drive from Medan to Leuser had been sobering, through mile after mile of unappealing uniform rows of trees where lush, diverse forest once stood. Now nothing but barren land and make shift villages for the plantation workers lined the roads – senseless destruction for short term profit. Corruption, bribery and corporate bullying are rife in these naturally rich but economically poor countries, and have devastated the world’s last natural sanctuaries of biodiversity and abundance.

By handing forests over to big industry interests, the by-product is also flooding, landslides, fires and choking haze. This destruction affects the whole planet – 50% of the air we breathe comes from rainforests, and the CO2 thrown up from the burning peat fires causes more emissions than the US economy produces in a year.

We cannot allow this to continue for the sake of an oil used in fast food. Some communities are actively engaged in grass roots projects to protect the forest, such as tree planting, illegal logging patrols and conservation-friendly agriculture, but much more needs to be done to support them and pressure the government to protect what is left.

To do my bit and make sure this amazing place is protected forever, I set up the Leuser Ecosystem Action Fund (LEAF) alongside Ben Goldsmith, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and Sumatran Orangutan Society. LEAF is supporting proven and effective conservation approaches, whilst investing in innovative solutions to address entrenched conservation challenges. We’re thinking long-term, big-picture, striving to bring about fundamental changes to the way that the Leuser Ecosystem is valued, managed and protected. You can find out more by contacting me at LeuserFund.org


Palm Oil – a complex and divisive issue

Palm oil, the world’s cheapest oil, is derived from the fruit of the oil palm tree traditional to West Africa. High in saturated fat and with no trans fat, it can be harvested all year round and is used prolifically in fast foods, detergents, cosmetics and many of our day to day products.

Palm oil’s return for big industry is very high because the rainforests in which oil palm trees grow have not been protected properly, making them cheap to acquire for oil palm plantations.

The palm oil issue is both complex and divisive. The oil is so ubiquitous in processed food and cosmetics, and the industry employs so many millions of people worldwide, that banning it is both unlikely and not necessarily helpful. But if palm oil is here to stay, deforestation doesn’t have to be.

Plantations should increase their output rather than their physical footprint in order to meet the ever-growing global demand, and we should all insist that the companies using palm oil in their products guarantee that it hasn’t come from plantations that have been involved in deforestation or community land rights violations such as those found in the Leuser Ecosystem.

If you want to visit Leuser yourself, it’s best to go through a reputable travel agency that cares about the health and longevity of the rainforest. RAW Wildlife Encounters comes recommended at Rawildlife.com.au.

A cup of clean water with James Longcroft

James Longcroft
James Longcroft is the founder of Choose Water, which has developed a new water bottle that’s plastic free, fully biodegradable and sustainably sourced. Find out more.
One word that describes you?

Lucky.

In your own words, what do you do?

I run an ethical water company, Choose Water, that wants to help those without clean water and not damage the environment at the same time.

Which is your favourite part of your job?

Talking with the passionate people that believe in what we are trying to create, and seeing the support that everyone is giving us.

Which is the part that you enjoy the least?

It can get a bit lonely in our factory, I make the bottles by hand at the moment and I am really excited to be able to build a great team.

Who is your greatest influence?

Hands down, David Attenborough, I have always loved his programmes and I think we would get on. Half way through developing our bottle, Blue Planet 2 came out and that really helped with motivation.

Best advice you’ve been given?

“Smell the cake, blow out the candles.” It is a breathing technique that helps with stress and it has got me through some bad days, when the bottle wasn’t working, and before live interviews.

What was your Plan B?

As my brother would say, get a real person job.

Your personal indulgence?

A glass of red wine and sweeties, not together though.

How do you like to travel?

Sustainably! Alas with a young family and this bottle i haven’t been able to get away much in the last few years.

Favourite sustainable hotel or other place to stay?

I don’t have one yet but once really want to take the family to Norway, maybe rent a small cabin and just turn the phones off.

What steps do you take to make your life more sustainable?

It is the little things I think that can make all the difference. I say no to straws, take a bag with me shopping, try and walk rather than drive, and generally try to be conscience of what I am doing.

What must happen now to help make our planet more sustainable?

It must be now that we all take responsibility for our actions rather than hiding from them, it is time for all of us to go that little bit further.

Hotels or other places to stay who walk the talk on sustainability in your experience?

I don’t get away enough but when I find one I will let you guys know.

This month we’re loving Røros, Norway

Røros, Norway

The characterful and charming mountain town of Røros in Norway is an early mining town founded way back in 1644 when the first copper ore was found in the area. Today it’s a living museum which retains most of its original character, with a street layout dating back to the 1600s and authentic wooden buildings from the 1700s and 1800s. Visitors come to explore its narrow streets and old courtyards and buildings, and visit independent shops and interesting workshops selling locally made ceramics, handicrafts, clothing and good food.

A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1980, Røros has worked hard to preserve and protect its heritage and environment, both for present and future generations and in the name of sustainable tourism. Conservation of the buildings, honouring and employing local communities, protecting the cultural heritage and natural surroundings are at the core of their efforts with sustainability, and in 2013 it was certified a sustainable destination by Innovation Norway. Visitor numbers are not yet limited, but there is focus on spreading the visits to other areas within the region that allow for memorable adventures without putting too much pressure on the most vulnerable areas, and the authorities have recently invested in new power stations for electric vehicles.

Røros is not just a fascinating place to visit for a dose of culture and history – it’s also one of Norway’s leading regions for locally produced food. Its sparse landscape and cool mountain temperatures means that food grows slowly and has time to develop a truly distinctive taste. Join a local food safari in the summer to find out more, or enjoy good local food year-round at one of the town’s many good restaurants. The Røros Dairy is 100% organic and is reknowned for its locally sourced organic dairy products.

In 2010, the Røros World Heritage site was expanded to include the splendid surrounding area, called the Circumference – 6,000 square kilometres of wilderness peppered with pine forest, low-growing heather and big Frozen boulders as far as the eye can see which the directors of the Disney hit visited for inspiration and advice before making the hit film.

The hiking is superb, and in Femundsmarka National Park you can also ski, canoe, hunt and fish depending on the season. Lake Femunden, Norway’s third largest lake, is central to all experiences, and in the winter the area becomes the location for the world’s largest dog race, the Femund Race, which features four days of fun-filled winter sports.

To find out more click here.

Giving back: Bethany’s sea turtle adventure

Bethany in more than one day back with sea turtles

My name is Bethany and I am 14. I’d like to tell you about an 8 day trip to Greece I took with Flooglebinder to work with the Sea Turtle Protection Society.

Greece was the best experience I ever took part in. I bonded and worked with everyone who took part in the trip. I enjoyed beach clean ups and it made me feel like a better person, however when I started to pick up the litter, I was determined to not stop. As I’m a really competitive and sporty person I really enjoyed the evening sports games of rounder’s and rugby. It really developed our teamwork and leadership skills and also kept us active. Even though the walk to the waterfall was very long and exhausting, it was really worth it as the water was pure blue and refreshing. As well as the time spent on the beach, we did get a taste of city life for a few days and nights. Including a museum tour, an amazing view of the acropolis as well as the remains of ancient Olympia. When we visited Olympia it was really fun as we got to take part in a race to win the wreath.

I loved spending time in the sea with my friends watching the sun go down. Waking up at six in the morning to do beach patrols looking for turtles and nests. We actually saw a turtle slide back into the sea after laying eggs and it even swam back to shore and said hello to a student. When searching for eggs the sand was warm and the excitement of finding them was unreal. I really loved the Greek meals we were given, they were not only healthy, they were delicious and refreshing. The travel wasn’t bad at all either, I loved travelling on the coach and aeroplanes.

I am so glad I got to go on this amazing trip, I have learnt so much from it especially about ocean plastics and what they can do to marine life. This has not only improved my life. This is the start of a new beginning, as this is the start of my travels. My dream has always been to travel the world. I also thank Brad and Ian of Flooglebinder for helping me have an eye opener to what career I want to do when I’m older. I just want to go back to Greece!

Awareness about what plastics cause to marine life
Credit: Flooglebinder

A Note from Flooglebinder

Bethany is a bright and bubbly bundle of joy. Featured in Part 2 of 3 series, Bethany is one of twenty four students who travelled to Greece for 8 days to work with the Sea Turtle Protection Society. She studies at Eastbury Community School in Barking and Dagenham is a borough with the highest unemployment rates and one of the lowest household incomes of any London borough and it took two years for the students to save up for the experience to join the conservation project.

The Sea Turtle Rescue Centre was set up in 1994 with the Municipality of Glyfada and the financial support of the Environmental Ministry. The tasks of the STRC are to rehabilitate injured and sick sea turtles and to raise public awareness. The most common injuries for which turtles are being treated are: amputations due to fishing gear entanglement, ingestion of hooks and other materials such as plastic bags, deliberate head injuries by fishermen, collision with speedboats etc. The function and maintenance of the Rescue Centre is based on volunteers. Every year almost 50 volunteers work on sea turtle treatment, maintenance and public awareness.

After studying Marine Biology at Uni, we founded Flooglebinder. Through travel, we connect people with nature and help them explore new cultures and communities in the hope to create the next generation of global citizens. Adventures are the best way to learn. Taking part in conservation projects, engaging with other like-minded youths and gaining life skills is valuable to their own personal development outside the classroom, create new friendships and will empower them to make a positive impact. We provide educational programmes and travel experiences for students, families and groups of all ages with the aim to conserve threatened habitats, protect endangered species and ultimately create better global citizens. And have a great time!

Global citizens