Organic is booming, and not just when it comes to food. The European market for super-pure, all-natural cosmetics is seeing double-digit growth -- with some German firms leading the trend.
Ingredients are natural -- but are they organic?
As health food supermarkets sprout up around Europe like organically-fertilized mushrooms, a new consumer trend is following in their wake. Increasingly, people who are extra careful about what they put in their bodies are paying strict attention to what they put on their bodies, as well.
While regular cosmetic sales have been flat, sales of natural and organic cosmetics have seen double-digit growth increases in recent years, according to the UK-based consumer research group Organics Monitor. Revenues are expected to surpass the 1 billion euro ($1.3 billion) mark for the first time this year, the group said.
Germany and France have the fastest rates of growth in Europe, but Germany -- keeping up with its reputation as a forerunner in all things "green" -- has the highest market share for natural cosmetics, at 4 percent compared to 2 percent market share in the rest of Europe.
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Antal Adam is the spokesman for Germany's leading organic cosmetics seller, Dr. Hauschka. (Switzerland's Weleda is the overall European market leader.) He says its parent company, Wala Heilmittel GmbH, has been experiencing "pleasant two-digit sales growth" for years -- a fact he attributes to a general boom in organics and to the stringent purity of his company's own products.
Setting the purity bar
One problem the budding industry faces is disagreement over what, exactly, constitutes "natural" cosmetics. What percentage of the plant ingredients must be organic? Are certain synthetics allowed? The problem is magnified by the fact that, unlike health foods, cosmetics do not have a regulating body.
This means each company decides where to set the purity bar -- and leaves a good deal of responsibility on the back of the consumer.
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According to Adam, Dr. Hauschka products are successful because they meet such strict standards. Not only are the ingredients as close to 100 percent organic as possible – they are often grown in accordance with biodynamic principles, in the company's own organic gardens -- but no synthetics are allowed.
In addition, the company is structured as a non-profit. Its business model is "based on the notion that all economic activities should go to people who are involved in the process -- the workers and customers," Adam said.
Enter the 'lohas'
The natural skin care market started with small, "niche" companies that catered either to people with dermatological problems or die-hard 'eco' types who "wore wool socks and sandals," Adam said. Back then, products by Dr. Hauschka or its competitors, like Weleda and Lavera, "were sitting on the shelf in the health-food store, right next to the potatotes," he said.
Regular beauty products are stagnant while natural products grow
But those days are long gone. Now, the market is aimed at the "lohas," according to Adam: young, moneyed, often urban people who are known to follow "lifestyles of health and sustainability."
In recent years, Dr. Hauschka products have benefited from the kind of spontaneous Hollywood endorsements (Julia Roberts, Jennifer Aniston, Kylie Minogue,) word-of-mouth and customer loyalty that most companies can only dream of.
Emma Moore, beauty editor at the lifestyle magazine Wallpaper, agreed that while there is "loads of confusion about natural and organic," the new products are generally meant to appeal to people who are "attracted to using high quality, natural products; who like that bit of pureness. It's the same people who buy organic vegetables, and who can afford to buy into that organic lifestyle."
Given the market's potential, more and more players are jumping on the "natural" and "organic" bandwagon. Some of these, like French company Doux Me, are winning younger clients by stressing nature, but still giving their products a hip design -- unlike some of the older product lines, Moore said.
Still, German companies may have the advantage of reputation. "You could imagine that in Germany, once they pursue the natural product, they are going to be very stringent about it," Moore said. "I associate that with Germany -- taking it philosophically one step further."
Ingredients in demand
A worker makes rose oil extract for Dr. Hauschka products
While the market share for natural products is on the rise, nature itself has put a cap on growth for some companies. Dr. Hauschka's Adam notes that with four tons of rose petals needed to make just a kilo of rose oil -- a key ingredient in its top-selling Rose Moisturizing Lotion -- the "amount of organic rose petals we can buy on the world market is limited."
And Just Pure, a southern German company that produces natural cosmetics primarily for sale in exclusive spas, does all its production according to anthroposophic theories based on the phases of the moon.
This means that certain products can only be mixed, or certain plants harvested, when the moon is new or waxing.
Says company founder Gabriela Just, "Sometimes we only have a couple of days for production."