The Lowdown on Eco-Labels: What Do They Really Mean?

October 6th, 2010 | Posted by cramcharran in Uncategorized

As we try to travel in greener directions through the wild, wild west of the consumer market, there are plenty of markers along the way to guide us–in the form of eco-labels, those little green symbols printed and/or stuck on nearly everything you can buy these days. There are symbols indicating that a product is organic, chlorine-free or grown upside down without soil; that it was made by people paid a fair wage or by chickens allowed to go for walks in the sun. If there’s an environmental issue worth considering, there’s an eco-label related to it—which on one hand is fantastic, but on the other… Well, it gets to be a bit much. After a while, all the symbols seem to fade into a solicitous green haze with about as much meaning as the words “As seen on TV!” on the box of the latest trendy gadget. And what’s worse, some of the labels don’t even mean what they appear to. Who would guess that their “free range” chicken might have never even seen the open sky? And others don’t mean very much at all, like organic labels on fruits and vegetables that aren’t normally grown with pesticides to begin with.

But we’re not likely to see any fewer eco-labels anytime soon–we’ll probably only see more, and some of them are genuinely useful indicators of qualities you might actually care about. So with that in mind, here’s a brief run-down of a few of the most commonly seen eco-labels and what they mean, then a list of places where you can learn more about these online and look up the rest of them, too.

EnergyStar is probably the most often-seen eco-label. EnergyStar is a joint program of the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) and the U.S. Department of Energy, and it awards the EnergyStar label to household products, homes and nonresidential buildings that meet its energy efficiency requirements. Its standards are lower than those required for LEED certification, but it’s a decent start.

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a program run by the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit organization with no government affiliation. LEED provides third-party verification that a building project followed green building procedures, meets energy efficient performance standards, and is a health place to live or work. The main criteria for evaluation are sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, the use of sustainable materials (e.g. low-VOC paint, green insulation) , and a healthy indoor environment. The program is based on a system that awards a silver, gold, or platinum certification level, based on the number of points a project was able to win by addressing the various criteria. Certification is entirely voluntary.

USDA Organic This label indicates that the product meets the National Organic Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s standards for using the word “organic” in its labeling. These standards vary for the different products that are eligible for the label, which include not only food but personal care products as well. But most require the absence of synthetic fertilizers, conventional pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones and sewage sludge in the production process. You can find a table outlining the different requirements for different products here.

Fair Trade This symbol indicates that the product has been certified by TransFair USA, which is the only U.S. member of FLO (Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International, the Germany-based umbrella organization for a group of 20 international fair trade certifying nonprofits). Fair Trade Certification standards help farmers and farm workers to lift themselves out of poverty by investing in their farms and communities, protecting the environment, and helping them developing the business skills necessary to compete in the global marketplace. The label signifies that the product was grown by small-scale farmers who are democratically organized, either in a co-ops or unions; that the buyer paid up to 60% of the cost of the raw materials in advance, that a fair wage was paid and no child labor was used in production, that none of the 10 worst pesticides were used in the growing process, and that the buyer paid additional premiums to go toward services to support and develop the farm community.

FSC The FSC label indicates, essentially, that a wood product was grown in a forest that is being managed responsibly and sustainably. The FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), certifies forest managers and manufacturers of wood products that it determines are managing forests and using forest products responsibly and sustainably. Among their major concerns are not allowing logging practices to destroy forests, protecting the habitats of endangered wildlife, and making sure the profits from commercial forest endeavors are shared fairly with communities living in the forests. The FSC is not affiliated with any government, is a nonprofit organization, and certification is entirely voluntary.

For more info on these and literally hundreds more eco-labels, see these links:

Consumer Reports’ Greener Choices Eco-Label page

The Global Ecolabel Index

Inhabititat’s Eco Labels 101

Top image courtesy of Shutterstock

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