I have repeatedly come across the idea that natural means good among eco-friendly folks like myself. It has emerged in online forums, conversations with friends, and discussions at health food stores. It has also popped up regularly in the comments section of this column, where astute readers can often be found cautioning against making this assumption.
I happen to agree with them: the assumption that natural equals good is wrong. But it’s understandable that people would feel that way, isn’t it? Natural just sounds good; easy. Natural sounds like puppies and sunshine and fresh air. Natural! The way nature intended! Before meddlesome mankind stuck our big noses in and ruined everything, that is.
The problem is twofold. First: “natural” doesn’t mean good – not entirely and not always. Second: “natural” sometimes doesn’t mean anything at all, at least not in the way it’s most commonly used – to imbue a product with a vaguely positive attribute in the hopes that consumers will buy it.
All of these things fit the dictionary definition of the word natural (“existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind”) yet none of them are really all that appealing as they relate to humankind. Beets stain everything and taste like dirt; sunburns ruin vacations; the seeds of the castor oil plant have the distinction of being the Guinness Book of World Records holder for world’s most poisonous plant, yet its charming purple flowers litter gardens around the world.
It is therefore not enough to see “natural” and read “good for me” in its place. It’s no secret that I’m a fan of natural treatments and beauty remedies and homemade cleaning products, but in order for them to be useful, they have to do more than simply have “natural” as their main attribute. There’s no sense in having a natural cleaner that doesn’t clean, or a natural remedy that only makes you sicker. In these cases, natural isn’t doing you any favours.
Our task, after first limiting our consumption, is to become more educated about what we do consume. This means asking why a product is good for us if it claims to be; not being fooled by fluffy terms used by corporations to suggest health benefits and learning about the ingredients that go into the products we use on our skin and in our homes.
Don’t assume that natural equals good. Actually, don’t assume, period. Ask questions, research, learn, and if you’re not happy with what you find out, work to change your products, your consumer behaviour, or both.