Once the domain of hippies-turned-entrepreneurs whose mantra was “do good by doing good,” the organics industry saw an influx of lawsuits in the ´90s. Capital investors with dot-com bucks recognized a bargain investment—long-overlooked organics had grown 25 percent annually over five years. While the bottom-liners helped to mainstream organics into the multibillion-dollar-a-year industry it is today, they also changed the business that valued a deformed organic apple over a perfect “processed” one.

Since no government or national industry standards govern what organic means in the personal-care industry—standards went into effect a year ago for food—“organic” has come to mean whatever a manufacturer wants. Some products, like Terressentials, are made from all “certified-organic” ingredients; others blend “organic” content with the same synthetics and preservatives found in conventional products.

That industry split confuses customers. It irks Kaye and Hahn, and a growing segment of self-described purists, who are calling for tough standards that mirror Department of Agriculture standards for organic food.

The rest of the industry, favoring less rigid, less expensive standards, counters with: But shampoo´s not food. “We believe in the organic process and we believe in having a standard,” says Jeffrey Light, chairman of Jason Natural Cosmetics, but “there´s a difference between cosmetics and food.”

“Either there´s going to be some good standards or there´s going to be crappy standards, and we´re going to let everyone know about it either way,” says one leader of the strict-standards movement, David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner´s Magic Soaps, a California-based company founded by his German-immigrant grandfather 50 years ago.

His long ponytail tied back, wearing black hemp pants, Bronner is the young “Mr. Natural” of the industry. To make his point, this month he is converting half of the Dr. Bronner products to meet USDA certified-organic food standards.

Those standards require organic foods to be grown and processed without conventional pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or sewage sludge, or synthetic preservatives; and that animals be raised without the use of antibiotics, bioengineering or growth hormones. Foods that are at least 95 percent organic by weight—excluding salt and water—can display the official “USDA Organic” seal. Foods that are 70 to 94 percent organic in weight or fluid volume can display “made with organic ingredients.” At his Expo East booth promoting certified-organic soaps and shower gels, Larry Plesant says he fears that the word “organic” will see the same fate “natural” did a decade ago, when big corporations slapped it on everything until it meant nothing.

“What´s it going to mean?” says Plesant, founder of Vermont Soap Works, in Middlebury, Vt. “ ‘Organic’ is where we draw the line because where do you go from here? We´re running out of words.”

Consumer trust in organics is rising. A nationwide survey last October commissioned by Whole Foods Market found that 55 percent of Americans have tried organic products and 87 percent who regularly choose them said they considered them of higher quality. Two-thirds of those shoppers said they get their information about the products from the labels and the makers.

But Kaye says those labels can´t be trusted: “When the consumer goes into the store trusting the word ‘organic,’ they think all the products comply with the regs for food. They don´t, but they could.”

Some manufacturers argue that applying rigorous food standards to nonfood products would prove prohibitively costly. While most have stopped using health-risky petrochemicals, still common are synthetic additives and preservatives. Some products labeled “organic” contain a single-digit percentage of organic content.

The kind of standards some industry players say they could live with is the California Organic Products Act of 2003, which requires personal-care products sold as organic to have at least 70 percent certified ingredients by weight or fluid volume but doesn´t outlaw some controversial synthetic agents and preservatives.

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Jim Hahn and Diana Kaye, makers of the Terressentials personal care line.

“Organic” has come to mean whatever a manufacturer wants.