Too many green labels equal confusion for consumers

There are hundreds of "green" labels out there, providing plenty of confusion for consumers

There are hundreds of “green” labels out there, providing plenty of confusion for consumers

While participating in the recent Sustainable Foods Summit in San Francisco, I browsed the trade show outside the event. One of the first booths I encountered was for Control Union Certification, which is an independent inspection and certification body. In my conversation with their representative, I came across a startling fact.

There are literally hundreds of certification programs out there. It’s a veritable morass of information that is impossible for consumers – and even somewhat educated journalists – to keep up with, much less to understand!

Browsing through the marketing material I picked up from the booth, I discovered that there are fourteen categories of certifications (listed in their material; there may be others), each with multiple listings. The categories are:

  • Organic agriculture – with 14 certifications
  • Good agricultural practices (7 certifications)
  • Sustainability (6 certifications)
  • Biofuel and Biomass (6 certifications)
  • Textiles (4 certifications)
  • Forestry (4 certifications)
  • Environment (6 certifications)
  • Water (2 certifications)
  • Quality Management System (2 certifications)
  • Food safety / Packaging / Consumer Goods (5 certifications)
  • Feed (2 certifications)
  • Aquaculture and Fisheries (3 certifications)
  • Social compliance (3 certifications)
  • and Others (2 certifications)

And these lists are by no means complete. After carefully perusing these and seeing such familiar names as USDA, Starbucks Coffee and Farmer Equity (CAFE) Practices (really), Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Carbon Neutral, a few ISO certifications and many more, I realized that at least one I was introduced to at the trade show was missing – Certified Humane, which covers how meat, poultry, egg and dairy products are raised and handled. Even the familiar Energy Star label was missing!

How are consumers to begin to understand or trust products with so many official certifications? Just looking at some of our favorite products can give you a headache. More packaging features multiple certification labels. I’ve seen a few with at least 5 of them!

The Non-GMO ProjectTo say that it’s difficult to fathom and/or make sense of is an understatement. Being an educated consumer is becoming more complex and challenging. But with so many health-related recalls and lack of yet another important label – one that declares GMO ingredients – missing, consumers must muddle their way through this information minefield.

Does it come down to deciding what’s important to you? Perhaps. Knowing what’s in our food is critical. Sad to say but the label “USDA Organic” falls short these days, what with the federal agency’s allowing a percentage of GMO’s to be included. One label this writer personally looks for is that of the non-GMO Project. Newer, still growing and still working out some of the kinks involved, to be sure. But at least it provides a baseline to start with.

So we consumers have our work cut out for us these days. And speaking up for what we want as to safety and clarity in labeling is more critical than ever. As evidenced by all the online petitions these days, our voices are making a difference out there. Perhaps the more we speak up, the clearer things will (eventually) get.

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