“Natural,” “green” and other meaningless marketing terms

I was slathering up my baby a few nights ago after his bath when I happened to glance down at the bottle of baby moisturizer and notice that it contained, “natural colloidal oatmeal.”

Hmm…

I’ve never come across “unnatural” oatmeal…er oats.  Oatmeal is probably “unnatural” since it is processed.

Hmm…

I’m pretty sure oatmeal doesn’t exist in colloidal form in the “natural” world…and lo and behold, a quick trip to the company’s website revealed a whole lot of “unnatural” processing going on.

Hmm….

Nevertheless, I feel pretty good that I’m not slathering my baby in lots of “chemicals.”

Just for kicks, here are the ingredients of the “natural” moisturizer: Water, glycerin, distearyldimonium chloride, petrolatum, isopropyl palmitate, cetyl alcohol, dimethicone, colloidal oatmeal, allantoin, benzyl alcohol, sodium chloride.

And here are the ingredients for the non-natural moisturizer from the same parent company: water, mineral oil, glycerine, carbomer, phenoxyethanol, ceteareth-6, butyrospermum parkii (shea butter), therobroma cacao (cocoa) seed butter, sodium citrate, methylparaben, propylparaben, ethylparaben, stearyl alcohol, sodium hydroxide, citric acid, parfum.

They aren’t that different but my emotional response to buying or using the two products is different.

Natural products conjure up images of my great great great great great great great great great great great great grandparents living some sort of pastoral existence in temperate woods and meadows.  After a hard day hunting and gathering with my GGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG-grandfather, my GGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG-grandmother slathers some citrus fruit juice (potent vitamin C complex) on her face to prevent premature wrinkling and rubs some oil she pressed from seeds onto my baby GGGGGGGGGGGGGG-grandfather (her son, if you are getting dizzy counting all the Gs).

Um…yeah.  I’m sure it was exactly like that.

The fact of the matter is that the word, “natural” implies all kinds of ill-defined characteristics to a product or a practice.  “Natural” might imply “not harmful,” or “better for the environment,” or “the way God intended it.”

“Natural” also implies that comparable or competing products or services are “unnatural.”  Things that are “unnatural” must be bad…sort of like upsetting the Shakespearean idea of the Order of Things.  Remember, whenever a character did something “unnatural” there would be lions on fire walking the streets and the sun would set in the East because the whole world would go sort of crazy?  There is a nice discussion of Natural Law in Elizabethan times here for those of us (including myself) who haven’t touched Shakespeare since high school.

“Natural” is a loaded word.  It is loaded with all kinds of judgement including, but not limited to, environmental activism and religion.  Putting the “natural” label on products helps consumers feel good about their choices.  But the term itself is kind of meaningless since some “natural” things are good for you (green leafy vegetables, orange root vegetables, water, a bit of sunshine) and some are bad for you (grizzly bears, too much willow-bark tea, arsenic, digitalis, hemlock, too much sunshine).

Then there is this argument that many of the afflictions we experience today are due to our modern unnatural lifestyles…like cancer.  Oh, if we only just all ate “properly” (whether you think that means some kind of special diet, or all organic or what) like our ancestors and limited our contact with “chemicals” we wouldn’t have a rising rate of cancer.  Now, I’m not saying that environmental exposures and behaviours can’t change our risk of getting cancer…but one of the biggest determinants in rising cancer rates is….drumroll….rising life expectancy.

My GGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG-grandfather and -grandmother probably had an average life expectancy of 30-40 years…if that.  They would have been knocked off my pneumonia or flu or a broken leg or childbirth (grandma, not granpa!) long before their DNA had time to make the transcription errors that lead to cancer or their arteries had time to harden and cause a heart attack or stroke.  Our current long average life expectancy is unprecedented…and the health problems that come along with it are unprecedented too.

Attaching feel-good labels to products is just one way that advertisers get us to buy them and there are no regulations that limit the use of these terms.  Greenwashing is pretty common and consumers (including myself) are becoming more savvy about personally evaluating products for environmental impact.  We’ve also had “pinkwashing” where every product imaginable is issued in a pink colour with some very limited amount of the proceeds going to breast cancer research or awareness but where the ultimate goal is just to sell you stuff.

It’s time to acknowledge “natural” washing.

I got a lot of flak for my post last week on the “mandatory” epidural for various reasons…but amongst them was the objection that I chose to cross out “natural” and replace it with “low-intervention” when describing childbirth.  I did so because to call something “natural” implies a judgement.  “Natural” is good…”unnatural” is bad.  I think those terms are meaningless.

“Natural” when applied to childbirth means many things to different people.  You don’t have to look too hard to find a discussion board thread on what “natural” means with women defining and redefining the rules as to who gets to call their birth “natural” or, for that matter, who gets to call their birth a “birth” at all.  “Natural” childbirth is a game with an ever shifting and increasingly restrictive rule-book.  And if you don’t fit the criteria, the implication is that you are unnatural.  An unnatural woman.  An unnatural mother.  “Natural” and “unnatural” are judgemental and hurtful terms.

“Low-intervention” is a statement of fact.  And let’s be clear, hiring a birth attendant is an intervention.  Pre-natal classes are an intervention.  Pre-natal care is an intervention.  A doula is an intervention.  Spousal support is an intervention.  An epidural is an intervention.  A Cesarean section is an intervention.  Interventions can be non-invasive or highly invasive.  They can come with negligible risk, or some risk.

Imagine, for a moment, a linear scale for interventions in childbirth from, on the left-hand side, no intervention (didn’t know I was pregnant, felt some indigestion, squatted in my house and a baby fell out) to maximal intervention on the right (high risk pregnancy with multiple specialists involved, antenatal hospitalization, drugs to stop preterm labour, preterm delivery by cesarean section, NICU etc etc).

Where a particular woman needs to fall on that line in order to obtain the best outcome possible for her and for her neonate depends heavily on her health, the pregnancy and fetal characteristics.  Many women are going to fall pretty close to the left side…a few are going to be far to the right.  The vast majority are going to be somewhere in the middle.  Everyone is going to need an intervention of some kind.  I think it’s time we stopped using judgmental language to describe childbirth.  There is nothing natural or unnatural about these interventions…they are just different and to assert otherwise is just marketing.

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6 comments

  1. …I often feel like I’ve been sold a bill of goods when it comes to all things packaged as ‘green’ or ‘natural’.

  2. The word “natural” is not regulated by the food nor the cosmetics industry, and thus has no real meaning. Any manufacturer can package their crap in earth-coloured packaging with pretty pictures of plants and call it “natural.”

    I read dozens of product labels and could not find a single baby soap/shampoo that I was happy with (even all of the so-called “natural” baby soaps at Whole Foods contain chemicals). Finally, my mom found this stuff, and I love it! http://www.natural.ca/products/baby-castile-soap

  3. Snorkel · · Reply

    From a company, I take ‘natural’ to mean ‘smells nice’.
    From a crafty person or etsy seller, I take it to mean ‘entirely unregulated and possibly dangerous, but may still smell nice’.

    1. Snorkel, you made me snicker.

      Thanks.

  4. Love this! I am so aggravated by the phrase “chemical free” that gets bandied about. Chemicals are matter, and matter is what makes up the physical universe. If you can see it, smell it, touch it…it isn’t chemical free!

  5. drsquid · · Reply

    well see if you have a homeopath or natural food store process ingredients into pill form then it is natural… if evil big pharma do the same thing then it is UNnatural and probably a conspiracy to prevent you from being cured

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