There Are Two Sides to Every Product Label

As we have reported in our previous blog posts (“Beware the “Influencer”” and “The Price of Natural Cosmetics”), courts continue to wrestle with challenges to manufacturers’ claims that their products are “all natural.” Recently, California’s Central District Court added to the growing volume of decisions in this space. In Robinson v. Unilever United States, Inc., 2019 WL 2067941 (C.D. Cal. Mar. 25, 2019), the Court was tasked with resolving “100% natural” claims and “made with 100% natural” ingredients claims. The Robinson decision provides some insight into what types of “natural” claims may be permitted by trial courts and how they are reigning in consumer class actions.

Background

The plaintiff in Robinson sued following her purchase of four different St. Ives Body Lotions and Body Washes between 2014 and 2017. She alleged that she saw and read the front of the packaging before purchasing each product, and the labels made one of the following misrepresentations until the end of 2015: “100% Natural Moisturizers,” “100% Natural Exfoliant,” or “100% Natural Extracts.” She also alleged that after 2015, Unilever changed the front labeling claim to “Made with 100% Natural Moisturizers,” “Made with 100% Natural Exfoliant,” and “Made with 100% Natural Extracts.” Plaintiff interpreted the claims on the packaging on all of these products to mean that the products did not contain any synthetic chemicals. She asserted claims under California’s trio of consumer protection statutes, the Unfair Competition Law (UCL), Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17200 et seq.; Consumers Legal Remedies Act (CLRA), Cal. Civ. Code § 1750 et seq.; and False Advertising Law (FAL), Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17500 et seq.

Analysis and Findings

The Robinson court analyzed the labels separately based on Unilever’s 2015 label change and found that the plaintiff failed to establish that any reasonable consumer would be misled by Unilever’s newer label (i.e., “made with”) claims, because “the words ‘made with’ have the effect of ‘restrict[ing] the scope of the remainder of the labels’ assertions regarding the 100% natural moisturizers, extracts, and exfoliants therein’—i.e., such natural ingredients are merely contained inside.” The Court highlighted that the reasonable consumer test is an objective standard based on the actual wording of the label. In rejecting the plaintiff’s argument that the words “made with” were “intended to be a stronger claim,” the Court found Unilever’s “subjective intent [had] no bearing on the manner in which a reasonable consumer would interpret the words ‘made with.’” Likewise, the Court rejected the plaintiff’s contention that the images of mountains and leaves and references to natural ingredients such as oatmeal and orchids render them misleading, concluding “the imagery on the labels does not somehow delete the words ‘made with’ from them.”

As to the pre-2015 label statements (i.e., the straight “100% natural” claims), however, the Court found that such statements were ambiguous and could mislead a reasonable consumer into believing that all of the ingredients were all natural. The Court rejected Unilever’s argument that it is clear the “100% natural” claim is only about the ingredients referenced (moisturizers, extracts, exfoliants) “when a reasonable consumer considers the front label of the product in conjunction with the label on the back of the product,” which contains a full ingredient list and notification that the product is “Made with Natural Moisturizers.”

The Court relied on the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Williams v. Gerber Products Co., 552 F.3d 934 (9th Cir. 2008), holding that reasonable consumers expect that the ingredient list contains more detailed information that confirms other representations on the packaging and not that it would correct misinterpretations. In so doing, the Court declined to follow the lead of other district courts that have chipped away at Williams and held that the inclusion of a full ingredient list on a product clarifies any ambiguity and can defeat an allegation that a “100% natural” claim about an ingredient is ambiguous and likely to mislead a reasonable consumer. See Robinson, 2019 WL 2067941 at 3 (citing Workman v. Plum Inc., 141 F. Supp. 3d 1032, 1035 (N.D. Cal. 2015) (“[A]ny potential ambiguity could be resolved by the back panel of the products . . .”); and Hairston v. S. Beach Bev. Co., Inc., No. CV 12-1429-JFW (DTBx), 2012 WL 1893818 at *5 (C.D. Cal. May 18, 2012) (“[T]o the extent there is any ambiguity, it is clarified by the detailed information contained in the ingredient list, which explains the exact contents of [the product].”)).

Robinson adds to the existing body of federal case law evaluating “all natural” claims under California consumer fraud statutes, but given the multiplicity of decisions with varying results and views, more definitive guidance from the California appellate courts and/or the Ninth Circuit is needed.