Are Eco-Labels an Extension of Consumer Voice?

If you’re like millions of savvy shoppers out there, you browse a variety of consumer products before making your choice. If “observant” is one of your shopping qualities, then you’ve probably noticed a growing number of on-product logos certifying this product is [insert organic claim here] or [insert animal-friendly practice here].

A product containing the SFI Chain of Custody label allows a consumer to know that some or all of the product's fiber content comes from certified forests. Photo:

From leaping bunnies to green check marks, these symbols are meant to certify a quality of a product’s journey to the store shelf, allowing for increased consumer education about the product. With nearly 400 different eco-labels out there, consumers may find themselves questioning just what it is they are actually looking at.

More than one-third of U.S. consumers state a willingness to pay a premium for environmentally friendly products, according to a 2010 Mintel study. The power of an eco-label or eco-certification to drive green purchasing is massive, carrying with it an ethical responsibility with each printing.

Taking this responsibility very seriously are a handful of standouts, who understand the weight of their ability to educate consumers through the power of a product’s label.

Just ask Kathy Abusow, president and CEO of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), who sat down with Earth911 at the Sustainable Packaging Forum in Phoenix last month.

The Sustainable Forestry Initiative is an independent, nonprofit organization that is “responsible for maintaining, overseeing and improving a sustainable forestry certification program that is internationally recognized and is the largest single forest standard in the world.”

Voluntary third-party forest certification began in the 1990s, after concern increased about forest management and illegal logging, primarily in developing countries. SFI was launched in 1994, with the first SFI national standard backed by third-party audits in 1998.

So, what does the SFI certification mean for the product you purchase? The paper or wood product you are purchasing is from a responsible source, with well-managed forests and responsible logging techniques. Factored into responsible forestry audits are protection of water quality, biodiversity, wildlife habitat and at-risk species.

While paper recycling rates are relatively high when compared with other materials (The American Forest and Paper Association sites paper recovery rates for recycling at a record-high 63.4 percent in 2009), we wanted to know how consumers play into this rate to ensure the products they are purchasing are made from recycled content.

“The SFI Certified Chain of Custody label certifies the percentage of post-consumer recycled material in the product, marked right on the label,” Abusow said. “It is important to note, however, that a product shouldn’t be shunned because it isn’t made from a high percentage of recycled content. All paper items come from a forest – one comes a little earlier, one a little later.”

Paper is recycled through a process called downcycling, yielding a lower quality of paper fiber with each generation. At the end of seven cycles, a paper’s fiber is too short to create new paper without virgin pulp, meaning new sourced fibers will always be needed, especially as populations continue to increase.

As we will seemingly always rely on forests for paper and wood products, making sure these forests are responsibly managed is critical. With only 10 percent of the world’s forests currently certified, a consumer’s voice, heard through the purchase he or she makes, may be what drives this percentage higher.

With each label, Abusow believes “it brings the consumer into the discussion, allowing them to speak his or her voice.”

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  1. Don’t forget the Design for the Environment Label from the EPA – that’s an important one to know about when you buy cleaning products.

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