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From two-by-fours to fish fillets, "environmentally friendly" labels are popping up everywhere. Heres what some of the green claims really mean.
By Dave Wortman
Heading to the store to pick up something tasty, fresh, and healthy for dinner should be an easy task. But the barrage of boasts on food packaging"natural," "free range," "organic," "sustainable"may leave you wondering which claims to believe. And the confusion isnt limited to grocery items. Over the last 15 years, "environmentally friendly" products of all kinds have burst into the mainstream as businesses seek to cash in on the growing interest in responsible consumption. With so much to choose from, how can we be sure were making the right choices?
Government labeling programs have provided one answer since 1977, when Germany introduced its Blue Angel eco-label to raise environmental awareness, encourage market innovation, limit pollution, and promote resource conservation. Today Blue Angel certifies 3,700 products and is recognized by nearly 70 percent of German consumers. More than 25 other countries, from Singapore to Canada, now also have national eco-labels applying to a wide range of goods.
In contrast, most eco-labeling initiatives in the United States are driven largely by the private sector, and minimally monitored by the Federal Trade Commission. While FTC guidelines require truth in advertising, the standards remain vague at best, and dont even address increasingly common terms like "sustainable" or "free range." Given the lack of adequate outside scrutiny, Dr. Urvashi Rangan, director
of the Eco-Labeling Project for watchdog group Consumers Union, cautions shoppers to do their research before they buy. "If industry is making an honest effort, by all means we are for it," she says. "But some companies are using the environment as a marketing gimmick." Rangan notes that many cleaning products now carry the term "eco-friendly," but have changed fewif anyof their dangerous ingredients. As another example, she cites "organic" claims that appear on cosmetics even though the word bears no official meaning in that product category.
To make up for the lack of federal oversight, a number of environmental and consumer groups have developed programs to evaluate and certify products that promote everything from organic farming to forest conservation, green energy to labor rights. By buying the right food, wood products, and appliances (to name just three main categories where eco-labels have taken hold), you can support sustainable farming and fishing, help protect forests, reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and slow global warming. Heres a guide to help make your shopping choices clearer.
Dave Wortman writes from Seattle about travel, the outdoors, and the environment.
For more information, check out "The Consumers Union Guide to Environmental Labels" at www.eco-labels.org. This comprehensive site issues "report cards" for a variety of labels, giving the best ratings to those with consistent, verifiable standards that are developed with broad public input and free from conflict of interest. Java junkies and carnivores can consult previous articles in Sierra for tips on buying the most eco-conscious coffee and beef (see "Food for Thought," July/August and March/April).
IN THE GROCERY STORE
For at least three years before harvest, land used for organic production must now be free of pesticides, synthetic substances, and petroleum-based fertilizers as well as those containing sewage sludge. The regulations also ban the use of genetically modified organisms or ionizing radiation (irradiation), and prohibit antibiotics and growth hormones in raising animals for organic meat. With USDA oversight, these claims are verified by over 50 private certifiers and 15 state agencies that must uniformly comply with the federal standards.
To carry the label, products must be 95 percent organic by weight, although those "made with" organic ingredients may have as much as 30 percent non-organic content. (Products that are less than 70 percent organic may only list organic ingredients; they may not display the organic label on their packaging.) The standards dont require delis or restaurants to back up organic claims, and regulations have yet to be developed for some products, including mushrooms.
Whos Behind It: The National Organic Standards Board, which assisted in developing the new rules, includes organic growers, producers, retailers, and consumer and environmental groups. The Organic Trade Association supports the USDAs final rules, touting increased consistency in labeling and broader consumer recognition.
Whos Not So Sure: While the new regulations enjoy wide support in the organic industry, they are not without controversy. "Weve been critical of the whole idea of placing the organic program in the hands of the USDA," says Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the Organic Consumers Association, who considers the standards "minimal." "They stop short of promoting social justice, fair trade, or local food production, things wed like to see part of a true organic label."
Watchdog groups are also keeping an eye on attempts by corporate agribusiness to muscle its way onto the board and weaken the regulations. "Theyve tried to roll back the standards for confinement of farm animals and use of organic feed for poultry," says Cummins. "Weve won the first few skirmishes, but I think the fight is just beginning."
Where Youll Find It: Organic produce, meats, grains, and dairy products are fast becoming common in conventional supermarkets.
The Food Alliance
Whos Behind It: The Food Alliance is a coalition of farmers, scientists, grocers, processors, and distributors. Its Stewardship Council, which advises the board of directors and helps review and improve evaluation standards, includes individuals from the EPA, Public Citizen, and Defenders of Wildlife. Until recently, farmers dominated the organizations board of directors, but now agricultural researchers and organic advocates have a more prominent presence.
Whos Not So Sure: Rangan of Consumers Union calls the groups goals laudable, but their socially responsible guidelines "vague," noting that they lack specific standards for securing worker health insurance and setting minimum wages.
Where Youll Find It: Food Alliancecertified fruits, vegetables, herbs, dairy products, beef, nuts, and wines are available in Washington, Oregon, Montana, and other western states, as well as some national chains such as Whole Foods. The group next plans to certify bananas for Hawaii stores.
The Marine Stewardship Council
Whos Behind It: The fishing industry is well represented on the councils ten-member international board. Unilever has announced plans to ensure that all of its fish come from certified fisheries by 2005. The Natural Resources Defense Council and Consumers Choice Council, a nonprofit coalition of environmental and human-rights groups, have expressed support for the label.
Whos Not So Sure: Some conservation and fishing organizations, including the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, and Greenpeace, are concerned about the groups certification choices. "They are turning a blind eye to the controversies," says Vivian Newman, vice chair of the Sierra Clubs National Marine Wildlife and Habitat Committee.
The councils certification of New Zealand hoki, the countrys largest commercial fishery, with an annual catch of over 200,000 tons, sparked fierce protest. Local environmentalists claim that over a thousand seals and seabirds, including three albatross species listed as threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, are fatally entangled in hoki nets each year.
Environmental groups are also opposing the proposed certification of Alaska pollock, a major food source for the threatened Steller sea lion and the worlds largest fishery, with an annual harvest of over 1.1 million tons. "They should be maintaining the integrity of the ecosystem, but that does not seem to be the case with pollock," says Phil Kline, a fishery policy expert with the international advocacy group Oceana. In 1998 and 2000, the National Marine Fisheries Service implicated the pollock fishery in the decline of sea lion populations, which have fallen more than 80 percent since the 1970s. Kline favors the Audubon Societys "Seafood Lovers Guide," a scale ranking the health of various fish and shellfish species, available online at www.audubon.org/campaign/lo/seafood.
Where Youll Find It: The Marine Stewardship Council has certified six fisheries worldwide: Alaska salmon; New Zealand hoki; western Australia rock lobster; and Thames River herring, Burry Inlet cockles, and southwest mackerel handline in the United Kingdom. While the entire Alaska salmon fishery is certified, council spokesperson Karen Tarica notes that few American stores have pursued licensing to use the label. Consumer exposure to the label in the United States is generally limited to Alaska salmon in Whole Foods, some individual specialty products such as smoked and canned salmon, and certified lobster in some restaurants. The council is assessing 18 other fisheries for future certification.
WHEN BUYING WOOD
The Forest Stewardship Council
While FSC rules do not prohibit the harvesting of old growth, they do restrict logging in old-growth stands of 15 acres or greater and require protection of "high conservation value" forests. Chip- and fiberboard may receive the seal of approval when as little as 30 percent of the product comes from certified forests.
Whos Behind It: The Forest Stewardship Council is backed by 14 major environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which calls the FSC the "only environmentally credible forest-products certification and labeling program in existence today." The Rainforest Alliance, among other groups, provides on-the-ground review and certification of wood products for FSC through its SmartWood program. The Certified Forest Products Council essentially serves as the FSCs marketing arm.
Whos Not So Sure: Oakland-based Scientific Certification Systems reviews wood products for the FSC but now also plans to launch its own forest label, citing increasing red tape and certification costs. Some groups, including the Sierra Club, have questioned individual forest certifications while remaining supportive of the program as a whole.
Where Youll Find It: Over 8.3 million acres in the United States are FSC-certified, and more than 8,000 forest productsincluding plywood, furniture, and hardwarehave been certified worldwide. The FSC label is found on lumber and wood products at the Home Depot and Lowes, and on sundry items such as Victor mousetraps, Gibson guitars, Venture snowboards, and wood-handle brushes at the Body Shop.
The Sustainable Forestry Initiative
Whos Behind It: The SFIs board is heavily influenced by its industry members. "Its clear whos running the show," says Daniel Hall, director of the Forest Biodiversity Project at the American Lands Alliance. "Its about timber, first and foremost." Yet board members also include the heads of the Nature Conservancy, the Conservation Fund, and Conservation International. "By working with the SFI and engaging industry, we hope to have more influence over the programs direction," says Nature Conservancy spokesperson Jordan Peavey.
Whos Not So Sure: Many environmentalists remain skeptical of the councils vague and open-ended standards, which often allow companies to practice business as usual. Unlike the Forest Stewardship Council, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative does not have a prohibited list of pesticides, a policy to limit harvest of old growth, or any ban on the conversion of natural forest to plantations. Genetically modified organisms are allowed, and average clearcut size may be up to three times larger than in FSC-certified forests. The SFI also does not address social impacts or labor concerns. As the Natural Resources Defense Council sums up, most environmental groups "do not believe that SFI merits a green certification label for wood products at this time."
Where Youll Find It: The SFI has certified more than 100 million acres in the United States and Canada but has delayed launching of its marketplace label, claiming weak consumer demand. Participants manage more than 90 percent of private timberland in the United States.
TO SAVE ENERGY
Whos Behind It: Standards are initially developed by the EPA and Department of Energy with industry input, then opened to review and comment from the public, along with environmental and consumer groups. Despite some concerns, several conservation organizations back Energy Star, including the Alliance to Save Energy, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club. "Energy Stars claims of cost savings resonate with consumers," says Noah Horowitz, a senior scientist with the NRDC. "Theyve done a great job providing a good starting point."
Whos Not So Sure: Energy Star lacks a life-cycle evaluation that would reveal true energy consumption from production to end use, particularly for products such as computers. Because of this, Urvashi Rangan of Consumers Union believes that "Energy Star may be missing the big picture."
"Energy Stars efficiency standards are a weak approach, but probably all the nation can muster at this point," adds Paul Craig, chair of the Sierra Clubs National Global Warming and Energy Program. "Its the only game in town." And one whose future might not look as bright as its past. Although the Bush administration has launched an aggressive Energy Star marketing campaign, it has simultaneously worked to ease federal efficiency standards on appliances such as air conditioners.
Where Youll Find It: Recognized by over 40 percent of U.S. consumers, the Energy Star label appears on some 11,000 products, including computers, refrigerators, televisions, dishwashers, and stereo systems.
While supporting renewable energy, Green-e allows providers to supply up to 50 percent of their power from conventional sources. "The more renewable the product, the more expensive it is," says Green-e spokesperson Këri Bolding. "Its definitely a balance between promoting green energy and providing a viable product."
Whos Behind It: Green-es governing board includes power-industry representatives, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the American Lung Association, Environmental Defense, and the Union of Concerned Scientists. Renewable-energy consultant Scott Sklar applauds the groups biomass standards, calling them "spiffy clean."
Whos Not So Sure: A fairly recent program, Green-e remains largely unknown and without major critics. Its inclusion of biomass as an approved energy source has raised some eyebrows, since these facilities may generate power by incinerating municipal waste or participating in wood-to-energy programs that endanger native forests.
Where Youll Find It: In 2000, there were 160,000 Green-e residential and commercial users nationwide. Green-e was hit hard, however, by the California energy crisis, which forced many certified power providers out of
business and left potential customers without a green option. (These small suppliers often could not afford to purchase power at the sky-high prices during that time.) Green-e companies continue to sell directly to consumers in five states with deregulated marketsPennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Texas. Green-e plans to expand into New York, Michigan, Illinois, and a handful of New England states.
THE WIDE WORLD OF ECO-LABELS
Every time you go shopping, it seems like theres a new eco-label promoting anything from pesticide-free produce to salmon-friendly wine. Below is a quick roundup of some more labels you might see.
Core Values Northeast
Demeter Certified Biodynamic
Rainforest Alliance Certified