How-to: Become label literate
By CG Lifestyles & People Editor Neal Patten
Depending upon which circles you find yourself hanging out with, being “green” can range anywhere from a faint but genuine interest to a hardcore lifestyle. It seems that this past decade, sustainable practices are trendier than ever. While that is good news for environmentalists and signals that conscious living is moving away from “tree-hugging” and becoming accepted and mainstream, it also means that corporations are positioned to make money from the trend. Consider haute cuisine: cupcakes are currently all the rage and avocado has finally begun receiving its due praise. Now fast food companies are serving avocado and Cupcake Wars is one of Food Network’s more popular shows. However, there are some trends that cannot be hijacked for corporate gain, such as the national increasing interest in Farmer’s Markets – which although they have never gone anywhere – had seemingly become a hangout strictly for hippies. This green trend has given birth to hundreds of new food products or revisions of established brands. The other day I discovered Frito-Lay’s “natural” line of chips at Kroger and Dial’s “natural” hand soap at Family Dollar. “Natural” has become a ubiquitous buzzword yet remains misleadingly vague. Bottles of 7-Up hail it as natural, but how many people consider high-fructose corn syrup to be of nature after the complex process to derive it? This form of deception in marketing is known as greenwashing. It extends well beyond food to cars, energy companies, clothes and more. Being an informed consumer will help you to avoid the greedy brands and instead support companies that care.
Here are a few tips for your next trip to the store:
1. Jot down certification programs
There are so many certifying boards and nonprofits it can make your headspin. Take note of the logos you see and then research them at home. The Sustainable Forestry Initiative’s emblem has appeared on my toilet paper brand and my Christmas greeting cards. While that certainly sounds enticing – an initiative to sustain forests – what do they really do? How are they funded? SFI has come under fire by other environmental groups such as ForestEthics for supposedly receiving millions of dollars from the companies whose land they certify sustainable, despite logging practices. Never trust a certification logo at face value, do your homework so that you can differentiate between legitimate programs and posers. Another thing to consider is the process it takes to become certified. Is it simply a certification a company can pay to feature on packaging, or must they be independently verified before permitted under the certifier’s umbrella? It is up to you to vet the certifications the brands you love toss around.
Here are two websites to get started:
2. Consider the necessity of labels and certifications
Some companies are all-natural, socially responsible, and sustainable but you might never know it. Promoting themselves as such is not included in their advertising budget. Why not? Because they have spent years creating an open dialogue with their consumers to earn their trust, not high-flying claims. They outline their sustainability plans on their websites, invite you to tour their production facilities, make use of Twitter and Facebook to generate discussion. Businesses who believe in their claims of green integrity do not attempt to impress you with certifications and labels, instead they are transparent from resource extraction to end product.
3. Follow the corporate ladder
Proposition 37 will appear on California’s ballot this November. It would force companies that use genetically modified crops in their products to note that on nutrition labels. Many “natural” and “sustainable” food brands are publicly opposing the measure, or so it seems. The truth, however, is that many of these green brands are actually wholly owned subsidiaries of unsavory corporate parents. Naked Juice is manufactured by Pepsi, Honest Tea and Simply Orange are Coca-Cola’s babies, Kashi and MorningStar belong to Kellogg. When you go to the store, read the fine print – where do your favorite “sustainable” brands originate?
4. Heed the seven deadly sins of greenwashing
TerraChoice is an environmental marketing agency. They created this list.
- Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off: A product is not always cohesively green. A ream of paper may be 100% recycled but what about the plastic of or cardboard it comes stored in? Sometimes you are green in one way, but not others.
- Sin of No Proof: Never believe anything a company claims without researching it yourself.
- Sin of Vagueness: As mentioned above, what does it mean to be “natural?” Or “raised cage-free?” A cage-free hen could live its entire life roaming the barnyard, or live in a crowded hen house
- Sin of Worshiping False Labels: Some certifications can be bought, others are entirely made up.
- Sin of Irrelevance: “This product is chlorofluorocarbon free!” Except CFCs were outlawed in the mid-80s. Don’t be wowed by irrelevant claims.
- Sin of the Lesser of Two Evils: Sure, American Spirit organic cigarettes don’t contain any of the pesticides of basic brands but does that make smoking safe? No.
- Sin of Fibbing: …flat out lying!
It can be disparaging to attempt to be a true green consumer. Corporations do not make it easy. They flood the market with vaguely-labeled products, leaving you confused. Although just like learning to read a nutrition label, understanding claims of sustainability is a learned art. Just read the fine print, research the claims made and boycott misleading brands. Some say you vote with your dollars!
Finally, here is a guide to understand what certain labels mean from Modern Vintage Attic.