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How do you like your eggs? Organic? Free-range? Free-roaming? Shade-grown? Dolphin-safe? You've got plenty of options in a world that's laying all kinds of certifications, seals, and other promises on food and other product labels. These assurances sound great, but behind them is often a lot less than meets the eye.

On one hand, the incredible proliferation of eco-badges and sustainability labels is a welcome thing, a sure sign that a nation of concerned shoppers is voting for a better world with their wallets. If millions of consumers weren't basing their purchasing decisions on larger issues, manufacturers wouldn't be falling all over themselves trying to show that their products make the conscientious grade.

But productively navigating a marketplace crowded with dozens upon dozens of competing seals and certifications requires a fistful of ozone-friendly, fair trade aspirin and the patience of a dermatologist-tested saint. It's confusing at best and useless at worst.

Then there's this: all too many of the labels popping up on products are really hollow feel-good marketing schemes that don't mean a single sustainable thing.

Certainly many labels help us make better choices. The USDA Certified Organic seal brought needed clarity to a previously undefined term and its anything-goes industry. And the USDA Biobased label, which adorns Seventh Generation's stuff, employs similar street cred.  The USDA BioPreferred Program is an accreditation for products with demonstrated biobased content – meaning the ingredients containing carbon come from renewable sources – and the USDA certified biobased product label shows consumers the percentage of biobased carbon content in each product. Certifications like these are important tools for consumers.

Other labels, like "Dolphin-Safe," are a bit fishy. This label, for example, is federally regulated yet not all tuna bearing it have been checked out. Other terms may have no legal definition in the US, so their meaning is up to the manufacturer. And the only thing behind claims like "Earth Smart" and "Not Tested on Animals" is the manufacturer's say-so.

It's a pretty mixed bag. But ask the right questions and we can pull the right stuff from it:

  • Is the seal just a pretty logo or does it have actual guidelines behind it? Anyone can design a fancy graphic. The ones worth heeding need to stand for something concrete.
  • Does the seal have specific standards based on sound science and/or ethical principles or are they loose and/or overly generic? The qualifications should be detailed enough to make a difference and tough enough to stand for something.
  • Who verifies that the label's standards have been met? Is it the manufacturer themselves or an industry trade group? Or a much more reliable third party, like a non-profit or government agency?
  • Is the certification periodically renewed? Things can change, and responsible labeling programs will monitor supply chains to make sure they haven't.
  • Is all this information on the label or a website? If it's not easy to find, the label's not easy to trust.

Even with a smart phone, fact-finding like this is nearly impossible to do while we're actually shopping. If you see a certification that looks good, do a little research at home before you buy to make sure it keeps its promises. To learn more, check out the label guide at Greener Choices and the suggested criteria and other information at the Global Ecolabelling Network.

Geoff the Inkslinger and his Dog

The Inkslinger has written about environmental issues for over 20 years and is a freelance writer for some of America's most iconoclastic companies and non-profits. His true loves include nature, music of the Americana/rock and roll variety, interior design, books, old things, good stories, pagan rituals, and his wife of 24 years, with whom he lives in an undisclosed chemical-free rural Vermont location along with his teenage daughter and two infinitely hilarious Australian shepherds!