By Laura Edwards-Orr
Festival green. Shamrock. Outrageous green. If you are looking to paint your house, there are countless shades of green to update your curb appeal. If you are looking to better your environmental footprint, on the other hand, getting everyone on the same page can be a little trickier. Whether shopping for food, clothing, or household products, more and more consumers are demanding environmentally sound and healthful products. Across the globe, companies are working to comply. But how do you know which products are the real deal and which are just wrapped in brown paper and convincing marketing claims?
If you are struggling with this question, you are in good company. So many, in fact, that Consumer Reports has developed an online database of eco labels, GreenerChoices, to bring some transparency to green marketing across industries. You can search by topic or scroll through their label index and click on the familiar brands and logos. Each claim or label is evaluated on the basis of the following questions:
- Is the label verified?
- Is the meaning of the label consistent?
- Are the label standards available to the public?
- Is information about the organization available to the public?
- Is the organization free of conflict of interest?
- Was the label developed with broad public and industry input?
Scrolling through these listings can help shape the kinds of questions you can ask yourself as you make your own choices in the marketplace. The themes of transparency, consistency, and third-party verification are at the foundation of a meaningful label. Those that are not supported by these principals could be legit but deserve some serious scrutiny.
In terms of labeling, no industry has more to sort through than food. Now, if you are shopping at a farmers' market, or someplace where you can ask your questions directly, you may be satisfied with their answers. For example, many organic farmers that focus on direct marketing (farmers' markets, farm stands, CSAs) grow in accordance with the USDA organic standards but are not certified because the certification process can be costly for small growers.
In talking with a farmer and asking questions about how your food is produced, perhaps even visiting the farm, you can easily make choices about which products are in keeping with your values. This kind of transparency, however, is limited when you are buying at a retail location. To help you sort through it all, here are some common labels that you might find at the grocery store.
- Natural: While it is quite possible that some companies use the term “natural” in good faith, it is only regulated by law in meat. Meat products labeled as natural must contain “no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.” Otherwise this claim is completely undefined and/or regulated. Read more about natural labeling and how it compares to organic.
- Free Range: Wide concern over animal welfare and their access to the outdoors has led to a proliferation of “free range” labels, particularly in eggs. While, again, this term could be used to describe responsible animal husbandry, it could just as well be used to describe hundreds of thousands of un-caged birds in a confined barn. This is certainly a label that deserves more investigation.
- Antibiotic Free or Raised Without Antibiotics: “Antibiotic free” has been banned by the USDA for use on meat and poultry. Farmers are allowed to use the claim “raised without antibiotics” or “no antibiotics administered” but the claim is not regulated or verified in any way.
- Hormone Free or Raised Without Hormones: “Hormone free” has been banned by the USDA for use on all meat products. “Raised without hormones” is defined but not verified by USDA. This label is commonly seen on poultry, which is somewhat misleading since the use of hormones is prohibited in poultry production across the board.
- GMO/GE Free: Despite the fact that more than 90% of Americans want labeling of genetically engineered products to be mandatory, this label is voluntary and unregulated as well.
- Organic: USDA Organic may be the most widely available green label in the food market. It is third party certified, defined by national legislation, and a guarantee of getting a product that is antibiotic, hormone, and GMO free. Organic meat and dairy animals also have mandatory access to the outdoors, making this label a nice shortcut to shoppers with concerns about greenwashing. Check out our Organic Living section for more reasons to go organic and tips for shopping on a budget.
While not quite as overwhelming as the food industry, personal care products and household products boast a fair number of green labels as well. Some of the most common ones include:
- Natural: Like in food, this claim is undefined and unregulated. A definite for the “ask more questions” category of your shopping list.
- Non-toxic: As above, this label is undefined and unregulated. “Toxic” is defined by the Federal Hazardous Substances Act as a product that can produce personal injury or illness to humans when it is inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin. Toxic products are required to be labeled as such. One could assume that “non-toxic” products are those that do not meet this definition but in no way indicates that the product doesn’t have the potential to be harmful.
- Biodegradable: There is no universal standard or regulation for biodegradable, but it is defined. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), biodegradable should mean that a product is degradable when exposed to air, moisture, bacteria, or other organisms and that the materials will break down and return to nature within a reasonably short time after customary disposal.
- Organic: Unlike in food, organic is not regulated in personal care or household products unless it contains agricultural products -- in which case, the product is eligible for organic labeling according to the USDA regulations. Read more about organic personal care products.
Not to be left behind, the clothing industry has been incorporating green labels and production into their marketing more and more. For example, the Outdoor Industry Association is developing an Eco Index to determine the sustainability practices within the industry. Expect to see more and more eco labels in clothing in the next couple of years. Here are two common labels that you might encounter:
- Made with post consumer/recycled content: This label is, again, mostly undefined and unregulated. However, clothing labels generally state what percentage of the product is made from recycled products, and company guidelines are often available to interested consumers.
- Organic: Currently organic standards in fabric are voluntary. However, there is a large body of work in the international community to bring more stringent regulations and oversight to the industry. Read more about organic clothing.
The good news is: more and more people, be they individual consumers or international manufacturers, are trying to create more sustainable products and better ways of doing business. Looking closely at labels, learning what questions to ask, and ultimately supporting the products that you believe in is one way to play an important role in this green revolution.
Laura Edwards-Orr started her career as a local foods advocate at the nonprofit and benefit concert Farm Aid. She is currently the marketing and communications manager for Canton, Massachusetts-based nonprofit Red Tomato. Ms. Edwards-Orr also works as a freelance writer, researcher, and data nerd for organizations and businesses working to create family-farm-based food systems and value chains. She lives in Providence, RI with her husband, twin babies, horse, dog, and two cats.