May 20, 2011
Weekly enviro-scribe Kera Abraham starred a Sustainability Institute panel as a must-view. Here's a look at what she prioritized and what she pulled from it:
Greenwashing is a perennial topic at the annual Sustainable Brands Conference in Monterey. Folks at the EcoFarm Conference in Pacific Grove like to debate the meaning of words like "natural" and "organic."
The marketplace is still full of claims meant to make us feel better about what we buy. The Aquarium's Sustainable Foods Institute weighed in on the topic this morning at a panel titled "Eco-Labels: The Road to Sustainability?"
Natural Resources Defense Council consultant Wendy Gordon got the discussion started with a little name-dropping. "Meryl Streep and I started an organization," she says: Mothers & Others for a Livable Planet, which looked at pesticides in the diets of children.
Gordon discovered that most people were more interested in what they should feed their children than in how to create political change—an insight that inspired her to later launch The Green Guide for eco-conscious shoppers.
But Jon Johnson, professor of sustainability at the University of Arkansas' Sam M. Walton College of Business (yep, that's named after the founder of Wal-Mart), suggested she's got it backwards: “The conventional wisdom in the industrial ecology world is that it’s not going to be the consumers that are driving the change.”
Urvashi Rangan, director of technical policy for Consumers Union, said that in the case of plastic additive bisphenol-A (BPA), the label itself made the difference. Soon after a study revealed that 90 percent of Americans harbor BPA levels that cause harm in lab animals, a few companies started advertising BPA-free products, she said. Soon major retailers like Babies R Us and Kroger were phasing out products containing the chemical.
The label “was the tipping point in consumer awareness and in driving the marketplace," says Rangan, who crafted a ratings system for evaluating green product claims.
What's the government's role?
For one, it can co-opt the label, says Jason Czarnezki, a Vermont Law School professor and author of several books on agriculture and the environment. The Organic Food Production Act set clear standards for the organic product claims companies are allowed to make.
But that's the exception, not the rule, Rangan countered. “Organic’s almost an anomaly," she said. "The government has a toe in all of these claims: 'hypoallergenic,' 'natural,' 'free range'…It allows for this loosey-goosiness to go on in the marketplace.”
So which labels can we trust?
"Organic, certified human, fair trade," Rangan said. Gordon added "Rainforest Alliance" to her list.
Czarnezki, a fan of the local and seasonal, says he looks for local co-ops with independent labels. And Johnson threw in the Marine Stewardship Council's seal for sustainable wild seafood.
Rangan, in a nod to her hosts, was quick to add: “And the Monterey Bay Aquarium [Seafood Watch] card.”