Why ‘natural’ products aren’t always better

From her organic wildflower meadow just south of Edinburgh, Sally Gouldstone harvests native botanical ingredients such as nettle, yarrow and wild carrot to make her “seed-to-skin” Seilich brand of personal care products. Gouldstone, who has a PhD in nature conservation, knows to leave most of her crop in the field so that bees and other pollinators can use them too. What she does take is transferred to a traditional copper still to produce essential oils using cold processing techniques.

Gouldstone wasn’t satisfied with just telling her customers everything she did was “natural” and “sustainable”. Those words seem to be used everywhere – and without evidence to back them up, she felt they could be misused.

Seilich is the UK’s first company certified by the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network, which means that the brand adheres to species-specific conservation targets. Every certified company’s targets will be slightly different depending on the key species in the local area. In Seilich’s case, their certification requires them to support native species of wildflower for bumblebees, solitary bees, honeybees, hoverflies, butterlies, moths and beetles.

The Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network helps to conserve more than 13 million hectares (130,000 sq km) of habitat worldwide, according to Christine Lippai, the executive director of this not-for-profit. They say their certification is the best way to cut through any greenwashing in the natural skincare industry while avoiding foraged ingredients that could leave wild places depleted.

“Nature is often used to sell products in the skincare and wellness industry but sometimes, businesses are simply exploiting nature for commercial benefit,” says Gouldstone. “In the case of natural ingredients which are grown as crops, these systems may provide positive ecosystem services for example in supporting biodiversity, sequestering carbon, filtering water and so on, but when it comes to harvest time these benefits are lost in their entirety. For example, stored carbon is released as the soil is disturbed and wildlife habitat is destroyed before the creatures that depend on it have a chance to complete their lifecycle. But with a few tweaks, these systems could provide long-term benefits.”

In supermarkets and mainstream online retailers, far beyond the blossoming Seilich field margins, there are an alarming number of mixed messages and conflicting claims that contribute to consumer confusion.

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