The ubiquitous product label, long a trusted source of information about consumer concerns like safety and nutrition, has finally established itself as an effective tool for social and environmental change. Thanks to a relatively recent surge in so-called “eco-labeling” programs, which tag (with independently certified seals of approval) everything from nontoxic paints and locally grown food to responsibly harvested timber, consumers can voice their consciences every time they shop.
The labeling of environmentally friendly or socially responsible products is rooted in the belief that a majority of consumers, given a choice, will buy them. A 1996 nationwide analysis of buyer attitudes about farming and food appears to support that theory. “The Hartman Report: Food and the Environment, A Consumer’s Perspective,” discovered that 52 percent of the population cares about the environment and the impacts that agricultural practices have on it. In a dollar-driven marketplace, that’s a figure that producers—many of whom traditionally list the environment among the least of their concerns—can’t afford to overlook.
According to Katherine Gilje, a senior associate in the Food and Agriculture Program at the Minnesota-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, the reason eco-labels have been so successful is because they bridge a communication gap between producers and consumers. Gilje explains, “For producers, they’re a way to express a personal ethic, the environmental-stewardship components of their operation, or the social benefits of their manufacturing practices. For consumers, it’s a way to use the everyday act of shopping to express their values.”
Playing it Safe
Consumers in Montana, Idaho, Utah, Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, for example, can shun conventional food brands in favor of wine, dairy, fruit and vegetables stickered with the Pacific Rivers Council’s Salmon-Safe label. The council only certifies growers that follow stringent conservation guidelines designed to preserve salmon habitat. To date, more than 40 growers have earned Salmon-Safe designation by planting cover crops that minimize streamside erosion and employing ecologically acceptable methods of weed and pest control that don’t harm threatened salmon.
On the other side of the continent, in New England, a partnership between New York-based Mothers and Others for a Livable Planet and regional apple growers has resulted in the CORE Values Northeast (CVN) labeling program. Betsy Lydon, the program’s director, says CVN was born from a desire to help local growers gain greater marketability among ordinary shoppers. “Our motto,” says Lydon, “is ‘Bring Good Farming Home.’ Bring it home, feed it to your children, feed it to your family. And tell your friends and neighbors about it, too.” To qualify their apples for the label, farmers must minimize their use of pesticides through Integrated Pest Management (IPM), and strive to maintain healthy, ecologically balanced growing environments. In turn, the labeled apples are distributed throughout the Northeast at farmers’ markets, supermarkets, schools and restaurants. Consumers get great-tasting, locally grown apples, plus the knowledge that they’re supporting farmers who care about their health and the well-being of the environment. And the farmers—well, they make money.
To Deborah Kane, the executive director of The Food Alliance (TFA), the profit motive is a path to economic justice. “We’re trying to use the marketplace to pull more growers down an environmentally friendly and socially responsible path,” says Kane. Before awarding its seal of approval to a farm’s products, TFA evaluates that farm’s working conditions and environmental integrity. One TFA-approved farmer built housing on his land in order to accommodate his immigrant workers. Another built a daycare facility on site. Their reward? Recognition by socially conscious shoppers with dollars to spend. “When Food Alliance farmers are getting into new markets, are selling more products and are getting price premiums,” explains Kane, “that’s something that their neighbors can’t ignore.”
TransFair USA certifies companies that practice what’s called “fair trade,” meaning that a significant percentage of the retail price is returned to the producer. According to TransFair, fair traders work with producer cooperatives and ensure that working conditions are good, that benefits are available, and that profits are reinvested in communities. TransFair’s first licensed product is coffee. Importers have to agree to buy from small farmers, to pay a minimum “fair trade price” of $1.26 a pound, to develop long-term relationships with farmers, and to deal in “shade-grown” coffee that protects mature forests and songbird habitat.
Agriculture isn’t the only industry raising the bar with new eco-labeling programs. Sustainable forestry operations, lumber companies and manufacturers that make products from their timber can all seek certification through the Rainforest Alliance’s SmartWood Program. “While the industry by and large canned the idea two to five years ago,” notes the program’s director, Richard Donovan, “today almost all of the companies are looking at it and doing preliminary assessments to decide whether they want to be certified.” Considered in the certification process, among other factors, are the long-term security of the forest, actions taken by the forest managers to ensure watershed stability and biological conservation, and the impact operations have on local communities and employees. Certification isn’t a sure thing; many would-be applicants don’t meet the standards. “Certified companies aren’t the ones that go in there, get the wood out and leave,” explains Donovan. “They’re companies that plan to stay a while.” Today consumers can find the SmartWood label worldwide on everything from furniture and musical instruments to picture frames.
Green Seal of Approval
Another well-known national label, that of Washington, D.C.-based Green Seal, appears on many household products, including paints and cleaners. By analyzing products’ life cycles and impacts on the environment, Green Seal develops a set of standards for a particular product category. Once the standard is established, any company can see how its own product measures up. If it meets or exceeds the criteria of the standard, it’s eligible for the seal. “The Green Seal,” says Arthur Weissman, the company’s president, “serves as a signal to consumers that if they buy that product, it will have less impact on the environment than most of the other products in that category.”
Of course, just because something has less of an impact on the environment doesn’t mean that it’s good for the Earth. “Motor oil is always bad for the environment,” notes Alexei Monsarrat, program administrator for the Consumer’s Choice Council, a nonprofit group working to protect the environment and promote human rights through ecolabeling. “So is it a good thing to say one motor oil is at least somewhat better than the others? To allow producers to say, ‘Look, this is how we made this and this is why you may be interested?’ Our view is it’s worth it if people can find that product and buy it.”
Still, don’t just dash to the store and fall for every “environmentally friendly” label you see. Not all claims of environmental or social good are legitimate. A general rule: If the label comes directly from the manufacturer or from a private trade association, proceed with caution. It may be “greenwashing,” unjustified environmental claims. On the other hand, if the label has been awarded by an independent, third-party program with no vested interest in the product itself, it’s probably for real. Consumers Union was recently awarded a $150,000 Ford Foundation grant to sort through the sometimes bewildering thicket of eco-labels and produce a user-friendly informational database.
Ultimately, says Monsarrat, producers look to eco-labeling for one of two reasons: “It’s something a business will do because they’re looking for the image that kind of thing can confer, or because they really care.” Either way, if a product is better for the Earth, then we, as consumers, can put our dollars to work.
CHRIS HAYHURST is a freelance writer in Fort Collins, CO.