Organic Paints – Greenwashing of the Worst Kind or How to mislead your clients

Organic Paint
When calling something organic or natural the general public expects to receive materials which are derived from a non-toxic, sustainable and eco-friendly managed source. This source must be managed by organic or at least bio-dynamic principles which do refrain from the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilisers or additives and which are not genetically modified. The definition “organic” is hence predominantly used when talking about foodstuffs.

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by Bernhard Lembeck, ProNature

ProNature feels very much obliged to respond to the sudden occurrence of so called “organic” and “natural” paints in the market place.


or·gan·ic  adj.
1. Of, relating to, or derived from living organisms: organic matter.
2. Of, relating to, or affecting a bodily organ: an organic disease.
3. a. Of, marked by, or involving the use of fertilizers or pesticides that are strictly of animal or vegetable origin: organic vegetables; an organic farm.
b. Raised or conducted without the use of drugs, hormones, or synthetic chemicals: organic chicken; organic cattle farming.
c. Serving organic food: an organic restaurant.
d. Simple, healthful, and close to nature: an organic lifestyle.
4. a. Having properties associated with living organisms.
b. Resembling a living organism in organization or development; interconnected: society as an organic whole. 5. Constituting an integral part of a whole; fundamental.
6. Law Denoting or relating to the fundamental or constitutional laws and precepts of a government or an organization.
7. Chemistry Of or designating carbon compounds. n.
1. A substance, especially a fertilizer or a pesticide, of animal or vegetable origin.
2. Chemistry An organic compound.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

So ProNature finds it very peculiar that a prominent South African paint company managed to evolve a paint system which is advertised amongst other things (lead free, solvent free, zero VOC) to be of organic and natural origin. When enquiring with the technical directorate of this paint company we were very surprised to be introduced to a new definition of organic and natural.

To our enquiry the company responded as follows:

  1. We define the organic content of our paint based on the natural content of raw materials (i.e. classification of % natural (= non petrochemical) of each raw materials). Examples are water, as well as carbonates, etc, etc that are extracted from natural stone/earth.
  1. For example: if a paint is made out 50%wt of water, 20%wt polymer (at 50% natural content) and 10% calcium carbonate; then the organic content is 70% of natural content.
  1. The other proposition, i.e. 30%, is not harmful (e.g. it is APEO free, Lead-free, zero VOC, solvent-free, waterbased dispersions), but we do not classify it as organic.

Let’s try to understand what is actually said here:

….despite the fact that non-environmentally concerned chemists would argue that in principle nothing is wrong with the above definition.

1. Chemistry, and this includes paint chemistry, can broadly be divided into two groups: Organics (see definition No.7) and Inorganics. Instead of reinventing a definition for these terms we took the liberty of using some online excerpts defining organic and inorganic chemistry:

Organic chemistry is a chemistry subdiscipline involving the scientific study of the structure, properties, and reactions of organic compounds and organic materials, i.e., matter in its various forms that contain carbon atoms.

The objects of study in organic chemistry include hydrocarbons, compounds containing only carbon and hydrogen, as well as compositions based on carbon but containing other elements.

Organic chemistry overlaps with many areas including medicinal chemistry, biochemistry, organometallic chemistry, and polymer chemistry, as well as many aspects of materials science.

Organic compounds form the basis of all earthly life. They are structurally diverse. The range of application of organic compounds is enormous. They either form the basis of, or are important constituents of, many products including plastics, drugs, petrochemicals, food, explosive material, and paints.

Inorganic chemistry is the study of the synthesis and behavior of inorganic and organometallic compounds. This field covers all chemical compounds except the myriad organic compounds (carbon based compounds, usually containing C-H bonds), which are the subjects of organic chemistry. The distinction between the two disciplines is far from absolute, and there is much overlap, most importantly in the sub-discipline of organo-metallic chemistry. It has applications in every aspect of the chemical industry–including catalysis, materials science, pigments, surfactants, coatings, medicine, fuel, and agriculture

2. If one were to classify paints on above definitions virtually all paints could be called organic even those that are solvent based and full of organic toxins.

3. Since a great number of paint raw materials are derived from naturally occurring resources (which could be carbonates, iron oxide pigments, water and crude oil) it would be very easy to achieve a 70% natural content. What this definition does not reveal is how wasteful, energy intensive and unsustainable it is to derive some of these raw materials in a useable form.

4. When looking further at the examples given by the paint manufacturer we do come to realize that a portion of this paint recipe is based on fossil fuels or rather petro chemicals, a raw materials source which is clearly not sustainable.

5. As CEPE (The voice of paint, printing ink and artist’s colour in Europe) states in their “Guidance on Self-Declared Environmental Product Claims”: 

“An environmental claim like “does not contain substance X” for a particular DIY decorative paint does not reflect any benefit to the environment when this substance X is forbidden and the ‘non-containing’ is just a matter of compliance with the law. In that case the claim would not be meaningful and could even be misleading to consumers, making them believe that other paints do contain substance X.”

We are aware that such guidance for the South African paint industry is not in existence but nevertheless feel very much the same about the subject. A lack of such guidance should, however, not allow manufacturers in South Africa to take the mickey out of their clients.

 In conclusion ProNature believes that calling a paint 70% organic and natural just because it contains 50% water and some carbonates is really taking the concerned client for a fool feeding them with inappropriate and misleading information.

Such companies should at least make an effort declaring their ingredients so that clients can judge for themselves if a product is Organic and Natural.

From The Desk Of The Green Chemist

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