I’ll be the first to admit, certifications can make shopping a headache. I’m talking about all those official looking little seals on labels of products from food to cosmetics to clothing to housewares. They all look so authoritative and full of meaning, but which are truly important?
Certifications are a type of language to communicate to consumers what sorts of practices, quality, and transparency have gone into the products on store shelves. Many certifications are strong and substantive – Dr. Bronner’s holds quite a few. Others are little more than pretty artwork. Strong certifications require independent, third-party inspectors analyzing a product or manufacturer for specified standards. The two keys are the independent inspectors and a set of strong standards.
Certifications in personal care have undergone a long journey that Dr. Bronner’s has been part of from the get-go. Along the way, we’ve celebrated various milestones, while knowing there was still much further to go.
I remember Dr. Bronner’s battle for organic certification, a fantastic “David and Goliath” story in itself. That was back when there were no enforced organic standards for personal care products, so Dr. Bronner’s, under the direction of my aptly named brother David (Dr. Bronner’s CEO – Cosmic Engagement Officer), went and certified under the food standards. This was unheard of: putting food grade oils in soaps!
We received a great big, “But, but, but you can’t DO that!” from the USDA, who had been pressured by huge cosmetic lobbying groups not to let us do what we were doing.
Whyever not? Why couldn’t we take food grade oils and put them in our soaps? Yes, it’s expensive, but how else can we assure our consumers that the ingredients we use have been grown with solid organic standards? On top of this, alongside the Organic Consumers’ Association, Dr. Bronner’s sued competitors who used the word “organic” on their labels while having little or no organic content, a practice referred to as “greenwashing.” The lawsuit was for $1, so it wasn’t about the money. What was at stake was the very meaning of the word “organic,” which was on the verge of plummeting into the ravine of meaninglessness that had already captured the word “natural” (a word which you should always ignore on a label).
Eventually the USDA adopted the National Organic Program (NOP) to cover personal care, and at the insistence of certain influential retailers who wouldn’t sell products marked “organic” without solid certification, the lawsuit prevailed as well. This was a huge achievement, to be sure, but even then, we knew it wasn’t enough.
Organic standards didn’t address everything. Although organic forbids petrochemical and synthetic input, as well as the use of GMOs, it does not curb monocultures (growing a single crop repeatedly on the same land) and is absolutely silent on people or animal welfare. A product could be grown organically, but by people who are paid pittance and treated unfairly and in a way that is destructive to animal habitats and well-being.
So then came various fair trade and animal treatment certifications.
That all sounds great, but how do you choose between them? One product is certified Organic and another Animal Welfare. Here’s Animal Welfare but not Fair Trade – Fair for Life.
Enter Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) – One certification to rule them all.
And so in recent years was written a new standard: Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC). One strong, complex certification that incorporates the best and necessary of many others, and paves a way for simpler labeling, fewer consumer decisions, and ultimately healthier people, thriving animals, and a healed earth.
I love the word “regenerative.” Breaking it down etymologically, it means “again – birth.” To bring new life back to where it has been but is no longer. To bring the dead back to life. This is exactly what it aims to do. An undisputedly lofty goal. The new certification has been a massive cooperative effort across disciplines from business leaders to researchers to activists to farmers. It is not just a seal to stick on a bottle. Achieving this certification requires a whole new way of farming and producing.
I love the word “regenerative.” Breaking it down etymologically, it means “again – birth.” To bring new life back to where it has been but is no longer. To bring the dead back to life.
Regenerative organic methodologies take aim at conventional agricultural practices which have over the past half century plus, depleted much of our land. Current common practices – such as plant and animal monocultures, overuse of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, intensive tillage, and overuse of land – have short-sightedly aimed to increase production and decrease human effort for the sake of near-term gains, with little thought to how the land is going to continue to feed its people for years to come. It has reduced nutrient dense top soils, destroyed bee colonies essential for crop pollination, created deadzones in our river deltas from fertilizer run-off, and required ever intensive amounts of fertilizer and pesticide input. It has created unsustainable, dead-end systems for land, people, and animals.
What is Regenerative Organic Agriculture?
Regenerative organic agriculture is a holistic approach to farming that treats healthy soil as the foundation of good farming, while taking good care of the farmers, farm workers, and farm animals who work and live on the land and are all essential components to agriculture’s longevity. Regenerative organic agriculture acknowledges the interconnectedness of all things. Rather than trying to sever these connections, the principles take advantage of them. What harms one aspect, harms all. What benefits one aspect, benefits all. That is why Regenerative Organic Certification stands on three equal pillars: Soil Health & Land Management, Animal Welfare, and Farmer and Worker Fairness.
Here are the standards:
Soil Health and Land Management
- Use of cover crops (in particular, nitrogen-fixing legumes), biodiversity and crop rotations to build organic soil matter prevent soil erosion as well as help control weeds and pests.
- Conservation tillage—minimally disturbing soil to maintain soil microbial communities and structure, while preventing carbon loss into the atmosphere.
- Rotational grazing—rotating grass-fed and finished cattle through pasture in paddocks so that pasture is allowed plenty of rest between grazing and ruminants can fertilize fields with their manure.
- Self-sufficiency in achieving soil fertility through use of compost, manure, mulch and organic waste, leaving out any synthetic fertilizers.
- No use of chemical pesticides and no deforestation.
- No Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), defined by the USDA as “a farm in which animals are raised in confinement that has over 1,000 animal units confined for over 45 days a year.”
- Animals are free from hunger and thirst, given ready access to fresh water and a diet that maintains their health and vigor.
- Animals are free from discomfort, meaning that they are provided an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
- Animals are free from pain, injury or disease—meaning adequate disease prevention measures are implemented and proper diagnosis and treatment is provided.
- Animals are free to express normal behaviors by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
- Animals are free from fear and distress by ensuring that conditions, treatment and slaughtering systems avoid mental suffering, and transport distances to slaughter facilities are minimized.
Farmer and Worker Fairness
- No child labor
- No forced labor
- No abuse or sexual harassment
- No discrimination
- Freedom of association and right to collective bargaining
- Living wages
- Fair pricing for goods
- Safe working conditions
- Long-term commitments from buyers
- Staff training and capacity building
This is not just about “do no harm.” This is about fixing the harm that has been done. It replenishes soil that has been depleted; it returns nutrients from the air into the soil where they belong and do good; it protects waterways that have been filled with toxic run-off.
This is not just about “do no harm.” This is about fixing the harm that has been done.
Because these standards are so intense and high-bar, and the road to full certification is long and hard, there are three benchmarks to indicate progress: Bronze, Silver, and Gold.
Less than 50% of producing land is required to undergo and pass the ROC certification and ROC scope
Less than 50% of production revenue is required to undergo and pass the ROC certification and ROC scope
More than 50% of producing land is required to undergo and pass the ROC certification and ROC scope
More than 50% of production revenue is required to undergo and pass the ROC certification and ROC scope
100% of producing land is required to undergo and pass the ROC certification and ROC scope
100% of production revenue is required to undergo and pass the ROC certification and ROC scope
To launch, the Regenerative Organic Alliance – of which Dr. Bronner’s was a founding member – tested these standards in 2019 on 21 pilot programs. These programs underwent auditing by an independent certifier, NSF International, who is developing the audit process, training third-part auditors, and accrediting the certifiers. As I mentioned at the outset, independent, third-party auditors are essential to meaningful, strong certifications. Dr. Bronner’s piloted ROC standards with three of their ingredients: coconut (Serendipol, Sri Lanka), palm (Serendipalm, Ghana), and mint (Pavitramenthe, India) oils in 2019. Each earned ROC-Silver designation.
Back to Your Grocery Shopping
I realize I left you standing in the grocery aisle trying to decide between people, soil, and animals. What are you supposed to do with all this info?
This program is so new, you will not yet see many products having earned any level of Regenerative Organic Certification. Not only is this certification new, but it is also hard to get, which is part of what makes it worthwhile. And it takes time – years once an organization decides to begin the certification process. However, the more consumers demand it, the more suppliers will rise to the demand. Let your favorite brands know you want this. Ask them for it. When you do see this certification on-label, you can know that it is significant.
My aforementioned brother David gave a great introduction to our newly relabeled Regenerative Organic Coconut Oil.
This is a beginning.
It’s easy to recite and lament the world’s problems, which are vast and overwhelming. I am deeply glad that there is still ingenuity, courage, and perseverance in this world to tackle them and bring solutions that we can all be part of. I highly recommend you read the links I provided throughout to see many of these regenerative organic projects in action. It’s exciting stuff!
A huge thanks to Rafi Loiederman, Dr. Bronner’s Content Editor, and Nancy Metcalf, Dr. Bronner’s Marketing Campaign Manager, for their help accurately capturing the many facets of Regenerative Organic Certification.