During the last VIVANESS edition, which took place digitally between 17 and 19 February, Dr. Mark Smith (NATRUE’s Director General) and Dr. Bernhard Irrgang (NATRUE’s President and Weleda’s Head of R&D Natural and Organic Cosmetics) presented the results of NATRUE’s latest consumer study analysing perception about naturalness, brands and seals in Germany and France.

NATRUE publishes the insights of its latest consumer study

NATURE’s Study specifications

Basing its research on the existing EU framework applicable to Natural and Organic Cosmetics (NOCs), and taking into account evolving regulatory developments anticipated to impact NOCs at EU level (for instance, the EU Green Deal, the EU Sustainable Development Strategy, etc.), NATRUE commissioned a consumer-centric study that compiles the results of a quantitative online survey carried out in Germany and France between January and February 2021. This study evaluates three pillars: consumer attitudes, brand perception and seal performance. A representative mix (70% female, 30% male; aged between 18 and 65 years old) of over 1000 consumers from Germany and France, respectively, took part. Around 30 brands (conventional, nature-inspired, and natural or organic) were reviewed by the participants.

The focus of this consumer study is to analyse consumer expectations and perception about cosmetic brands, as well as seals and claims used often to characterize natural and organic cosmetics, in order to support the sector, including NATRUE’s members and Label Users. A better understanding of the attributes that consumers look for in natural and organic cosmetics can help brands identify the elements that support an informed decision-making process and product transparency, which would contribute to combatting greenwashing more effectively.

Consumer attitudes: “naturalness” is the key factor

In Germany, “naturalness” accounts for 20% of the decision-making process, and is an integral choice for the consumer when it comes to purchasing a natural and organic cosmetic product. Although this percentage is slightly higher in France (24%), the use of nature-inspired brands in the French market is more than twice that of natural brands. By comparison, in Germany, which is home to many well-established and longstanding NOCs brands, the use of nature-inspired brands is approximately the same as natural brands, which suggests that there is less confusion and greater distinction between these brands for German consumers.

The focus of this consumer study is to analyse consumer expectations and perception about cosmetic brands

In order to characterize what “naturalness” means in each market, participants were asked about multiple factors contributing to defining this concept. Six main categories were established for this purpose: “natural/organic ingredients”, “free from”, “climate/biodegradable/biodiversity”, “fair trade”, “pack/waste” and “animal protection”. When asked which aspects defining “naturalness” where most important for them, both German and French consumers chose “100% natural and organic ingredients” as the main characteristic defining “naturalness”, followed by other aspects such as “protection of animal welfare” and “with a reduced environmental impact”.

Take-home factors characterizing “naturalness” for German and French consumers

Conclusions of the “Consumer attitudes” pillar

  • In the absence of an official regulatory definition or EU harmonised criteria indicating how the claims “natural” or “organic” are applied to cosmetic products, some consumers might be struggling to identify which elements contribute precisely to the “naturalness” of a product.
  • “Naturalness” is a multifactorial concept highly influenced by consumer personal preference. This concept has become more complex in the last years due to market fragmentation and the appearance of multiple labels and seals highlighting diverse product’s aspects.
  • Some consumers might not be able to unambiguously differentiate between nature-inspired and natural products, particularly in the French market in comparison to the German one, where knowledge and awareness about NOCs seems to be higher. French consumers would therefore be more exposed to the risk of buying a product based upon misleading greenwash claims linked to selective elements of “naturalness” rather than those representative of a natural product as a whole.
  • Consumers look for products guaranteeing animal protection and the absence of animal testing, despite the existence of EU regulation banning animal testing in cosmetic products in the EU since 2004, and ingredients since 2009.
  • The presence/avoidance of certain ingredients remains an important factor for consumers when assessing the level of “naturalness” of a product (for instance, the presence of natural ingredients; the absence of microplastics, GMOs, etc.).

Brand perception: the risk of greenwashing

The second pillar of this study focuses on evaluating how consumers perceive brands (as conventional, nature-inspired or natural/organic) based on the characteristics of their products, analysed in detail in the previous pillar. For German consumers, it seems clear that natural brands are strongly associated to all factors defining “naturalness”, particularly at formulation level (natural and organic ingredients). However, so-called “nature-inspired” brands are perceived by the average German consumer similarly to conventional brands, which indicates that these consumers seem to be well aware of the risk of greenwashing and clearly differentiate between natural/organic cosmetics and nature-inspired ones. Higher awareness about NOCs in the German market could be attributed to factors such as a greater exposure, awareness and availability of natural and organic cosmetics, including certified products, in various retail outlets, from drugstores to specialized shops, pharmacies, and supermarkets, in comparison to other European markets.

The second pillar of this study focuses on evaluating how consumers perceive brands

The results for France show a different trend: although natural and organic brands are also associated with aspects linked to “naturalness”, nature-inspired brands are perceived more positively and similarly to natural and organic brands. In fact, when presenting consumers with a popular nature-inspired brand in the French market, the perception about qualities related to fair trade and animal protection scored considerable higher compared to those of natural/organic brands. At ingredient level, consumers perceived that this nature-inspired brand offered the same guarantees of natural/organic ingredients as other natural/organic brands.

The confusion between nature-inspired and natural/organic products in the French market could be a result of marketing, which rather than focusing on the natural/organic cosmetic product as a whole, only highlights certain elements of a product (for instance, “hero” ingredients), or uses “green visuals”, etc. In conclusion, the threat of “greenwashing” seems to be greater in France than in Germany, as this market appears to be more fragmented, and the lines between nature-inspired and natural/organic cosmetics are more blurred for consumers. Nevertheless, the risk of greenwashing in Germany is not totally excluded since some nature-inspired brands might be perceived similarly to natural/organic brands regarding the elements that characterize their “naturalness”.

Conclusions of the “Brand perception” pillar

  • Consumers willing to buy natural/organic cosmetics risk being misled by marketing “tricks” from nature-inspired brands. Tools promoting transparency when it comes to product information can help consumers differentiate verifiable claims from greenwashing.
  • There will be more fragmentation in the market as conventional market leaders increasingly launch sub-brands whose products are either nature-inspired or even certified as natural/organic. Such sub-brands might be perceived as “more natural” despite fulfilling less or the same criteria as some natural brands because of the broader marketing perception of the conventional brand that created it.

Seal performance: the need for more clarity

In the last pillar of this consumer study, participants were asked to reply to a series of questions related to the level of regulation of natural and organic claims for cosmetics, the risk of greenwashing in the sector and the difficulties to understand labels and seals often used in cosmetic products.

The take-home message of this pillar is that consumers recognize that greenwashing is happening, and that there is not enough regulation in place to prevent it. In Germany, 12% of consumers responded that politics are too passive regarding the regulation of NOCs in Europe; this opinion was shared by 9% of consumers in France. Furthermore, consumers are also confused about the number and variety of claims, seals and labels in the cosmetic market. 61% of consumers in Germany and 71% in France see labels as insufficient to indicate alone if a product is really natural.

Consumers recognize that greenwashing is happening, and that there is not enough regulation in place to prevent it

In fact, most labels and seals are perceived as unclear or not well-positioned in these two EU markets, which are the largest ones for NOCs. Multifactorial labels (for instance, those found on products certified as “natural” or “organic”), which establish criteria to certify several verifiable aspects of a product (e.g., formulation, ingredients, processing, ethical and sustainable criteria, etc.), seem to be more difficult to understand for consumers than seals verifying a single characteristic (for instance, labels certifying cosmetics as “vegan”, “fair trade”, “cruelty-free”, etc.). More information and clearer communication about the seals and labels on products, including their purpose, the criteria they follow and their guarantees, can guide consumers and help them identify more easily those verifiable qualities they are looking for in their cosmetics.

Regarding competitiveness, at price level, it seems that most consumers are willing to pay more for certified natural and organic cosmetics, whether for rinse-off or leave-on products. Approximately 90% of consumers from both markets would agree to paying more for a certified natural/organic cosmetic. Even if there’s not an absolute clarity about most multifactorial labels, these seem to reassure consumers and reinforce their purchases.

Conclusions of the “Seal performance” pillar

  • Consumers buying conventional cosmetics are likely to be less influenced by natural/organic certified products.
  • Awareness and clarity of seals are lower for those seals that represent multifactorial criteria in comparison to seals qualifying a single characteristic.
  • Consumers are willing to pay more for certified natural/organic products.

Download the key findings of NATRUE’s consumer study

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