Ecolabels have been around since the 1970's and continue to evolve. They come in a variety of forms and have a variety of meanings. You know them as USDA Certified Organic, Fair Trade, Energy Star, FSC, MSC, EU Ecolabel, and many others. They are essentially market strategies for differentiating products that meet some standard set of expectations. But do you know what those standards are or who set them?
Some ecolabels such as USDA Certified Organic are standardized by federal legislation. Others are the construction of individual companies, trade organizations, or marketing firms. Of course, even in the case of ecolabels standardized by law, those laws change continuously based on who is in office and who may or may not have been appointed to oversee the subcommittee charged with the regulation.
Over the past five years I have been involved in debates over whether small farms should carry the USDA Certified Organic ecolabel. Some small farmers do not wish to be subject to federal policy, others don't wish to fill out paperwork, and still others insist that the trust associated with standardized practices comes only from one-on-one communication. While I respect the desire of small farmers to "brand" their products as healthy or sustainable on their own terms, I must insist that there is a strong need for standardization.
Believe me, I wish we lived in a world where I could trust the farmer at the farmers market or the sales rep selling me clothing, but I have witnessed first hand that this is not always such a good idea. I believe some ecolabels help keep the producers of our ec0-goods responsible to the interests of the consumer.
Over the next several days I will be outlining and commenting on a number of ecolabels that you may see, including many we look for at Silent Springs. I hope that by the time I'm complete you will better understand why ecolabels are so popular, understand how you might use them as an eco-thoughtful shopper, and most importantly know when to view them as nothing more than a meaningless green wash marketing strategy.
Do you have an ecolabel you would like me to cover? Just let me know. I have a few prepared, but I would certainly be willing to cover others that may be on your mind!
Vincent M. Smith