As consumers become more aware of our impact on the environment and try to do our part to make the best choices, the array of eco-friendly product labeling seems to grow more complex and confusing. What do all those labels really mean, and are they something we can trust? More than 450 eco-labels are currently in use worldwide, according to Ecolabel Index. More than one-quarter of those labels are used in North America alone, so it’s no wonder that consumers can be routinely confused by what the label means and what they are truly buying when they see a particular label.
Making sense of eco-friendly product labels
In 2012, the Federal Trade Commission issued its fifth revision to its Green Guides to product labeling in response to a growing number of companies using various labels but with increasing ambiguity about what those marketing labels actually mean. In many cases, labels can be used to imply certain far-reaching and substantive benefits to the consumer, but sometimes they don’t actually back up the purported claim. The Green Guide revision sought to provide more clarity to both marketers and consumers.
As a consumer, it’s important to look at product labeling carefully and do your research on the certifying organizations. Products that have been certified will have the associated certification emblem on the label. If it doesn’t, yet makes an environmentally friendly claim, it’s a good idea to move on to another product.
Here’s a list to help you become familiar with the labels out there so you can make better choices when you shop.
In America, the USDA is the governing authority on whether or not a product is labeled or considered organic. Organic means the product is free of synthetic materials, such as antibiotics or pesticides; refrains from GMOs; and preserves natural resources as well as animal standards. The USDA sets a comprehensive set of standards for organic farming and livestock production. Look for the USDA organic label on everything from meats to pet food to baby food as well as plants grown organically.
Most of us would assume that a product that is labeled “natural” doesn’t contain anything artificial or synthetic. However, this term is currently up for review with the FDA. Many find this term too ambiguous as currently defined, and it can be used to mislead consumers about the environmental safety of a product.
A “green” product or service is an umbrella term to describe a product that has less of an environmental or human impact than a traditional product. It also encompasses the economic gain for individuals, such as farmers, for using environmentally sustainable practices. Green products are commonly sourced locally (therefore not traveling as far to the consumer using fossil fuels), free of ozone-depleting chemicals, and made from renewable or recyclable resources. They might be compostable or biodegradable. Green Seal is the certifying authority for products labeled as such. If the product label says it is “green” but the product isn’t Green Seal certified, beware of greenwashing.
A compostable product, according to the American Society for Testing and Materials, must break down to carbon dioxide, water, and inorganic compounds at a rate similar to paper. Compostable is different than biodegradable in that the product is specifically able to be composted at home or at a composting facility and breaks down into matter that provides nutrients to the soil. Biodegradable, on the other hand, simply means the product breaks down and goes back to nature or even disappears entirely.
Fair trade is sometimes confused with organic. While nearly half of fair trade products are also organic, it’s not a requirement. Fair Trade Certified means the product was created using agricultural diversification, erosional control, and no slash and burn. It also means the products are made with minimal pesticides and are non-GMO. Fair trade products in turn offer farmers better wages, improving poverty conditions throughout the world. An example of products that use the fair trade label includes flower delivery company FTD, which has a social and environmental commitment to using one or more eco-friendly certifications in its products.
A product can be labeled “free-of” if a substance typically associated with a product is only found in trace amounts, that any trace amounts present don’t cause harm associated with that substance, and the substance wasn’t added to the product intentionally. The missing ingredient can’t be substituted with some equally damaging substance. An example of a “free-of” product might be gluten-free bread that doesn’t have gluten grains, a set of plant-based products that consumers would typically find in a loaf of bread.
Recycled content means the product was made from either pre-consumer waste, such as scrap or sludge, or post-consumer waste, such as a consumer product that no longer can serve its intended use. Examples of post-consumer waste include toilet paper rolls, milk jugs, aluminum cans, and newspapers. Green Toys, for example, makes all its toys out of 100% recycled material, primarily recycled milk jugs.
Renewable materials are those which can be made over a short time using a natural process. Examples of renewable materials include palm oil, rapeseed oil, bamboo, and sugarcane. Renewable materials are slightly different from renewable resources such as wind and solar power. Being made from a renewable material doesn’t necessarily mean it’s recyclable. A good example of a product made from a renewable material is bamboo and cork flooring, which are both materials that can be rapidly grown, sustainably harvested, and produced using no pesticides.
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