Something I've been thinking about for a while, even since before I did the greenwashing article series, is: what makes a thing "natural" or "unnatural"?
Many people would say that "natural" things are things which come from nature with minimal processing. It sounds like a reasonable definition at first glance, but when I try to get specific, I start running into trouble with the definitions of the words used to define "natural". They seem to be a bit fuzzy themselves, which makes the term "natural" hard to pin down.
So my first question is, what is meant, exactly, by "from nature"?
If you get right down to it, every atom we deal with comes either from our planet or (in a few cases) from space, for example in the form of meteorites. By that definition, everything is "from nature". Rocks containing every metal we use, after all, are part of nature. As are fossil fuels: dead dinosoars turning into oil is an entirely natural process performed by the earth over millions of years. But as I hear the term generally used, metals and petrochemicals are "unnatural".
So is it only things which are an active part of the current global ecosystem that count as "nature"?
I didn't specify that something has to be alive to be natural, because I think most people would agree that water and air are both natural, and they're not alive.
Interestingly, rocks are part of the current ecosystem too, and not just as structural support. They continuously weather and introduce vital minerals as micronutrients, for one example.
So, even saying something has to be part of the current ecosystem to be considered "from nature" is too restrictive, and saying that something has/had to be alive is definitely too restrictive. I'm not sure what an appropriate and accurate definition would be, because as it's used simply being part of our planet, as petroleum is, isn't covered when people think "natural".
The second question is, what is meant, exactly, by "minimal processing"?
Things that are unprocessed are obvious. You can pick an apple off a tree and eat it—no processing at all. You can pick a gold nugget up from a stream and it's fairly pure gold. The nugget isn't really what one would call part of the current ecosystem, however; gold is notoriously unreactive, so as far as anything other than humans are concerned, they're just blobs of metal sitting there taking up space. Despite this, I think most people would call a gold nugget found in a stream "natural".
Things that are washed or mechanically processed are pretty clear as well. Cotton thread is made by spinning the filaments of cotton picked from the plant, to make a much longer strand. Wool yarn is made by spinning the hairs from a sheep, after they are cut off the animal and washed clean of oils. Wood is cut from a tree, dried, and cut to shape.
How about heat processing something? Fire is natural, cooking food is natural and beneficial. Rendered fats are natural; lard is made by melting the fat and separating it from the structure it's found in, separating, and letting it re-solidify. Pasteurization at its most basic involves heating something hot enough and long enough to kill bacteria, then cooling it again. Some pasteurization processes also include capturing the flavour compounds that evaporate with heat and returning them when the system cools. Is that natural or unnatural? It's heating, cooling, measuring, and mixing. Glass is sand and limestone heated until it melts and flows together. Is that natural?
Directed biological processing? Yeasts for beer or raising bread are single-celled fungi which eat sugars and starches to produce alcohol and CO2. Sourdough bread is both yeast and bacteria, the former for rising and the second for souring the dough. The fermentation step of chocolate making uses some micro-organism, possibly a yeast again. These are all natural. What about the bacterial cultures that process our sewage? The conditions to grow the right bacteria are controlled to have certain types of bacteria and other microorganisms dominating in certain tanks, but all of those bacteria are in nature already, they've just been harnessed on an industrial scale and grown in much higher concentrations.
What about leaching and dissolving? Tea is the obvious example, as the flavour compounds are leached from dried leaves into water. Wine leaches tannins and other flavours from the wine barrels. An infusion is by definition leaching something from a solid item into usually vinegar, alcohol, or oil. Nutrients (whether from fertilizer or not) leach out of soil with rain or watering and are carried away, often into water bodies. Many mines (especially gold) use leaching to dissolve the gold out of the ore.
Purification by any of a multitude of processes? Supplement stores and drug stores are filled with "all-natural" pills made from materials purified out of plants; it doesn't come that concentrated in nature. I don't know what combination of processes is used; it's probably different for each one, but will very likely include at least leaching and precipitation, both of which are chemical processes. Most natural fibers have to be purified of their (also natural) contaminants before they can be used: bamboo fiber has to be separated from the lignin gluing it together, and hemp fiber has to be separated from the stalk and other matter holding the fibers together into a stem. Paper is purified trees, metals are purified rocks, and gasoline is purified oil.
What about chemical transformation? Based on how many people recoil at the thought of "chemicals", I suspect many people would want to draw a line here. But can we, really? Soap, even the artisanal "all natural" soaps that I see at the farm market, involve a chemical reaction. Lye (sodium hydroxide, NaOH) reacts with fat in what's called a saponification reaction to create soap. Or leather, which includes chemical transformation of the structure of a raw hide into finished leather. People may argue about the ethics of using leather, but I haven't heard anybody arguing that it isn't a natural material. The chemical transformation of cellulose fibers (wood, bamboo, cotton, etc) into rayon is largely a chemical reaction making the fibers significantly longer and more consistent. The chemical transformation of ethylene gas, the same stuff produced by ripening fruit, into polyethylene, a common plastic, is a chemical transformation known as polymerization. (The ethylene gas is usually purified from oil, as ripening fruit only produce a small amount. But chemically, it's the same molecule.)
Then a step further than chemical transformation: what about chemical synthesis, where simple chemicals are reacted together to either duplicate something found in nature or to create an entirely new compound? If the purified version and the synthesized version end up identical, how can you tell which one gets the label "natural" short of tracing the provenance of the ingredients?
I still don't have a firm grasp of what exactly defines a "natural" product. The closest I've been able to come has less to do with the actual properties or process of the product, and more to do with a combination of how long it's been around and whether or not the person making the determination understands how it's made. If this is the case, then "natural" is a misleading term (or at least a marketing term) instead of anything objective.