Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



Getting Easier to be Green?

by Susan Lumpkin

Labels indicating that products meet certain standards for quality and safety, such as USDA inspected stickers on meat, have a long history. More recent is the proliferation of labels and logos promising how this or that product contributes to the social good—be it human health, humane treatment of farm animals, protecting wildlife, or doing less harm to the environment. No longer can careful shoppers simply compare trusted brand names and try to get the best value for their bucks, at least not if they want to match their consumption to their conscience. But do eco-labels make it easier to be green? Yes and no.

coffee branch
Shade-grown coffee and other products can earn eco-friendly labels. (Graeme Teague)

Unfortunately, not all labels are created equal. A few, such as USDA Certified Organic and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star label, are both highly regarded as meaningful and trustworthy and are well known to consumers. According to a recent survey, 70 percent of U.S. households are aware that the Energy Star label indicates that a product is more or less energy-efficient.

But what about all of the other eco-labels? Do they really stand behind what they seem to represent? Is the label backed by independent organizations or is it merely an industry marketing device? To help conscientious consumers sort this out, the Consumers Union’s Consumer Reports Greener Choices website describes and rates more than 100 eco-labels based on seven criteria such as meaningfulness, verifiability, consistency, and transparency.

Bird Friendly for coffee and Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance for a variety of foods all get high marks across the board. So does Certified Humane, which is found on eggs and meat and addresses the welfare of farm animals. In contrast, the Cruelty Free label found on cleaning products and personal hygiene products gets a failing mark from Consumer Reports. A Cruelty Free sticker would suggest that a product was not tested on animals, but Consumer Reports notes that this rating is “not meaningful and is potentially misleading to consumers.” Certified Vegan and Marine Stewardship Council certification of sustainable seafood get mixed but generally positive reviews. In the arena of sustainable forestry for wood and paper, Green Seal certification is rated highly favorably, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification slightly less so. (Full disclosure: The paper ZooGoer is printed on is FSC-certified.)

Not included in the Consumer Reports roster are eco-labels and certifications now being attached to various sectors of the tourism industry to promote responsible ecotourism and eco-friendly hotels, as well as to real estate brokers, house-cleaning services, and more.

Even if these programs aren’t perfect—even if they are no more than clever marketing—their growth is a hopeful sign that people increasingly care about protecting the planet. Putting that care into action by choosing products based on their eco-labels is tricky. If a label is not backed by reputable organizations and doesn’t meet standards such as those used by the Consumers Union, it’s probably wise to follow the old adage, caveat emptor—let the buyer beware.


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