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There’s a widespread demand for green products, accompanied by a demand for clear eco-certification information and labeling. Why aren’t U.S. policymakers moving to provide a trustworthy national eco-certification system for consumers?

Green Irony?
Creative Commons License photo credit: DBarefoot

When I wrote my recent post comparing natural brands’ use of preservatives (such as California Baby, Dr. Bronner’s and Burt’s Bees), one of my readers expressed disappointment about how hard it is to make a reliable, safe and green choice. After putting in so much effort to get behind the ingredients, I wondered the same thing! Where was the independent body certifying natural and environmental claims on products? Where is my eco-label?

I dug deeper and learned that America lags far behind Europe and Asia in providing information on safety and eco-friendliness of our products.

Demand for Eco-Certification

In a study conducted recently by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media and the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, the demand for eco-friendly products was examined. It was discovered that not only is demand great, but Americans are also willing to pay more for sustainable products, even during the current economic downturn.

In the study, most Americans surveyed said that it’s important that products like automobiles, laundry detergent and printer paper are environmentally friendly. When respondents were asked if they would actually pay more for these green products, the numbers dropped by only about 10%.

Half of the respondents to the survey said they would “definitely” or “probably” pay 15% more for eco-friendly clothes detergent (51%) or for an automobile (50%). Forty percent said they would spend 15% more on “green” computer printer paper and 39 percent would do the same for “green” wood furniture.

What of those of us experiencing financial hardship? Will they still pay 15% more for green laundry detergent. Survey says? Yes!

Even those Americans who labeled their current economic situation as “fair” or “poor” were still willing to up the 15% extra cost to ensure their product was friendly to the planet.

Yet Americans want more information, and they want it on labels. The Gfk survey revealed nearly 80% of respondents want eco-labeling and trustworthy eco-certification on the environmental impacts caused by product manufacture, use and disposal.

In Search of an Eco-Label, but wait… Deja Vu?

The USDA Organic label is currently the only government-sponsored national eco-labeling and certification program in the U.S. With consumers hungry for a visible, independent label they can trust to cover multiple categories of consumer goods, it seems that the time is now to begin the development of such a program.
usda organic label

But is the time really now? Or was the time actually 10 years ago? As I began to investigate, I discovered that this far away dream of a reliable eco-label has been a reality in most major industrialized countries of the world for over a decade. Germany’s Blue-Angel eco-label was created in 1978 by the government’s Federal Minister of the Interior and Ministers of the Environment. Japan and Scandinavia followed suit in 1989, followed by a landslide of national eco-labeling programs.
EU Eco-label flower
A review of national eco-labels and their creation dates spells out a clear picture: the U.S. is far behind in providing a clear route to eco-certification that will both provide Americans the information they need and provide a means of regulating the expanding green market while maintaining economic incentives for sustainable practices. With even smaller countries like Croatia, Slovakia, Singapore and the Philippines leaving us behind in the dust, it’s no wonder American consumers are frustrated.

The closest thing to a national eco-label in the U.S., aside from the USDA Organic program which regulates only food products, is the independent Green Seal program. However Green Seal focuses on industrial products for facilities purchasing departments and is rarely found on consumer products.

By contrast, in a country like Sweden, three nationally recognized labels actually compete for consumer’s attention: the stringent and respected NGO Bra Miljöval label of the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, the government sponsored Nordic White Swan label, and the EU’s cross-country Ecolabel “Flower,” started in 1992 and currently expanding.

In recent news, on July 16th the EU unveiled its plan to expand their eco-labeling program. The EU Observer reports:

There are currently 26 types of products covered by the Eco-Label scheme. From soaps and shampoos to paints and varnishes - and even hotels and campsites. Under the second of the commission’s proposals announced on Wednesday, the scheme would be broadened to encompass some 40-50 product groups by 2015, in particular food and drinks.

European eco-labeling programs exhibit a stringency unknown to American consumers, one example being standards for eco-certification of cosmetics:

Ecocert, based in France, offers two levels of certification. The “Eco” label requires that 95 percent of a product’s ingredients are natural or from natural origin, that a minimum of 50 percent of the vegetable ingredients are certified organic and that at least 5 percent of the ingredients in the finished product are certified organic. The more rigorous “Bio” Label requires the same 95 percent of ingredients to be natural or from natural origin, that 95 percent of the vegetable ingredients are certified organic and that at least 10 percent of the ingredients in the finished product are certified organic. Both labels disallow mineral oils, silicone, parabens or animal products, and the agency also analyzes a producer’s manufacturing process, from the transportation and storage of ingredients and products to energy use and waste disposal. [emphasis mine]

BDIH, a German certification, doesn’t specify certain percentages for organic or plant-based ingredients. However, they do require the use of plant-based ingredients whenever possible (preferably those that are organically grown or “wild-harvested” in an unobtrusive manner), and they ban animal testing, by-products from vertebrate animals, synthetic dyes and fragrances, petroleum-based ingredients, parabens and other preservatives that might pose a health risk, and radioactive sterilization of ingredients or products. While not required, the guidelines encourage sourcing ingredients from fair-trade projects and avoiding any ingredients that have been genetically modified. [emphasis mine]

Nationalized Eco-Certification — A Solution to Greenwashing?

Although government sponsored eco-certification and labeling programs have become the norm in countries outside the U.S. Not everyone believes that a U.S. backed program would be the answer.

In fact, many of the original creators of organic agriculture have turned their back on the USDA organic label. In her book, To Buy or Not to Buy Organic (aff), Cindy Burke chronicles the backlash against the label and current alternatives in food safety sustainability:

Instead of organics changing the world for the better, it seems that, sadly, the world is changing organics. Monoculture (or growing a single crop); heavy machinery; and trucking food thousands of miles to the grocery store have become the new norm for organic food production… The integrity of the “certified organic” label … has been threatened several times by agricultural lobbyists… [who] keep trying to allow GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds, sewer sludge, and feedlot conditions to become legal organic standards.

Yet clearly a solution is necessary. As an example, the Consumer Reports Greener Choices website remarks on the meaning of the label “biodegradable,” for which all four of the following statements apply:

  • The label can have different meanings for different products.
  • There are no standards behind the label.
  • There is no independent organization behind the label.
  • The producer or manufacturer decides whether to use the claim and is not free from its own self-interest.

Although watchdogs such as Greenpeace’s StopGreenwash.org and Public Radio’s Greenwash Brigade blog have cropped up to investigate big advertising’s environmental claims, we are still left largely in the dark. No single non-government organization exists with the man-power to both regulate effectively and achieve the visibility necessary to provide a clear, meaningful standard for green-labeling in the U.S.

A wealth of scientific study into green production is occurring behind the scenes, such as the Clean Production Action’s Green Chemistry program reporting on the substitution of safer materials for hazardous chemicals. And a now-decades-old history of eco-labeling programs abroad exists with examples and lessons demonstrating that clearly the project is do-able. But would a national eco-certification program in the U.S. be strong enough to withstand the pressures of corporate lobbyists? Or should American consumers simply rely on their own research and information to make their decisions regarding green purchases?

What do you think? Would a single, government-sponsored eco-label be a help to you and your family in your quest to go greener?

Your thoughts are welcome!

Mama Hope

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3 Responses to “Europe, Asia trounce U.S. in Eco-Certification”

  1. Considering that the U.S.D.A. approval has come to mean little in my book, I am not sure where we would begin so far as national certification of green and eco-products. Green washing is a problem for consumers who are not savvy enough to decipher between good and not so good products. On a positive note, green washing indicates that consumers care about the environment, even if they are continuously consuming.

    Who would regulate said program?

  2. Well I typed and typed and typed into this little box and then I realized my response to you, Green Mamma, was another post! You can find it here, in my developing thoughts on green capitalism. Thanks for your comment!

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