Monday, May 16, 2011

What's in a Label? - The Basics

As the demand for greener and more environmentally sound products continues to grow, it’s important to know which claims you can trust and which ones you can’t. Pick up any product around you, and you're likely to come across several logos, labels, or certifications meant to tell you something. Plastic bottles are adorned with (at least) a recycling code to tell you what material they are made from. Electronics can have UL listings, Energy Star logos, RoHS certifications, or a multitude of other badges meant to tell you how safe or environmentally friendly they are. Food can be labeled organic, free range, biodynamic, grass fed, GMO, non-rBST, or any number of other things. It's enough to make any consumer's head spin.

What do these labels even mean, and how can we find out? What information do we, as consumers, need to make an informed choice about a product, based on its labeling? The difference between a meaningful label, one that is regulated and specific, versus a marketing term or description, that could mean almost anything, is not an easy thing to determine at first glance. With new labels appearing all the time, it is important to know what to ask and where to get reliable answers.

  • How "meaningful" is the label? What criteria need to be met so that the product can use the label?
  • Is the meaning of the label consistent across different types of products? (e.g., organic food is not the same criteria as organic makeup)
  • Is information on the standards and certification process publicly available?
  • Who certifies the product, and is their contact information provided on the product?
  • Who supported the introduction of the label and who had input into the standards put in place, both from industry and the public at large? Were there any conflicts of interest (money, etc)?
  • What, if any, criticism does this label garner from opponents? Are there any loopholes that allow unscrupulous companies to bypass the restrictions?
  • Does the label adhere to the spirit of the movement from which it sprang? (e.g., USDA Organic vs the organic movement)
  • Where can you find the label on products? Does the location of the label on the product change its meaning? (e.g. USDA Organic front and rear labels)

A great resource for finding answers to these questions (and more) is the Eco-Labels searchable database on the Consumer Reports' Greener Choices website. It is important to know what these labels mean, and don't mean. The only way to truly make healthier decisions is to become an informed consumer who spends his money on companies who are committed to making better choices.

Researched and written by Dr. Rebecca Malamed, M.D. with assistance from Mr. Malcolm Potter.

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