Going Green / What’s in a label?


As we strive to reduce our daily environmental impact, it’s critical to not only think about how we dispose of products by reusing, recycling, or composting, but also what goes into creating those products—the business practices, ingredients, and packaging that make everything from the food we eat to the furniture we use.


Increasingly, consumers demand that businesses clean up their supply chains, manufacturing processes, and carbon footprint. A 2015 Nielsen report found that two-thirds of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products, while a 2016 survey by Morgan Stanley found millennials are twice as likely as older generations to make purchases based on sustainability, indicating that, thankfully, this trend isn’t going anywhere soon.


Apart from exhaustive research, how can you tell if a product is good for you and the earth? Packaging is often littered with eco-labels proclaiming the various environmental and health benefits of the item inside. But some are just marketing noise and haven’t been verified by a reputable third-party organization. Instead, look for trusted certifications with rigorous standards. Here are several to consider, and what they mean for your family and the environment.



Fair Trade Certified:

The nonprofit Fair Trade USA certified its first product in 1999, and, today, more than 12,000 Fair Trade-certified products can be found at retailers across the country. The organization has strict standards that require producers to earn fair and stable prices for their crops, ensure safe working conditions and work hours, and mandate safe farming practices that prohibit certain chemicals and GMOs. Additional standards mandate that farm workers have access to basic health care and proper nutrition.

Coffee is the leading Fair Trade product, but you’ll also find the label on produce, tea, sugar, grains, herbs and spices, apparel, home goods, and more. You may also see “Fair Trade Ingredient” labels, indicating that certain ingredients meet these standards, but others are either not eligible for certification or don’t meet the standards.



Rainforest Alliance Certified:

Rainforest Alliance formed in 1986 in response to the growing destruction of the world’s rainforests and threats to the species that depend on them. Today, thousands of products bear this certification; you can find them all at rainforest-alliance.org.

For an ingredient or product to be certified, its farms must meet standards set by the Sustainable Agriculture Network, a group of international nonprofits working to conserve biodiversity and rural development. Among other criteria, it mandates that farmers protect native ecosystems in the surrounding landscape, avoid deforestation, maintain healthy soil and water resources, and respect workers’ rights, including prohibiting discrimination and forced child labor.



FSC Certified:

Rainforest Alliance also was a founding member of the Forest Stewardship Council, which strives to ensure that forests worldwide are responsibly managed. Products—including furniture, copy paper, and other paper products—displaying the FSC certification originate from forests where habitats are protected, biological diversity is conserved, and the local community’s rights are respected.



USDA Organic:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic certification is the most stringent of its kind. To use this label, farmland must be free from prohibited substances for at least three years before the crop is harvested. In addition, farmers must use organic seeds and planting stock when possible, as well as proper soil fertility, crop rotation, and farm management practices.

Products can be certified “100 percent organic,” “organic” (ninety-five percent of ingredients, except for water and salt, are certified organic), or “made with organic ingredients” and indicate those specific ingredients on the label.



USDA Certified Bio-Based:

A bio-based product is derived from plants or other renewable agricultural, marine, or forestry materials. Some federal contracts mandate bio-based purchasing, and consumers may see this label on cleaning products, laundry soaps, ink, fertilizers, or food packaging, indicating the percentage of the product or packaging that came from renewable resources. Though the label does not mandate specific practices in regard to sourcing these resources, it does ensure that a product claiming to be “plant-based” is, in fact, plant-based. To search all certified products, visit biopreferred.gov.



Non-GMO Project Verified:

Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are living organisms whose genetic makeup has been artificially manipulated to create something that does not occur naturally. Though there is no scientific consensus to say GMOs are unsafe, research has connected GMOs with some health and environmental issues. Many countries significantly restrict or ban their use, but the United States has not followed suit and does not require products to list GMOs on their ingredient labels.


According to Consumer Reports, the Non-GMO Project Verified label is “a highly meaningful label for consumers wishing to avoid GMOs in the foods they buy and to support farmers who don’t use GMOs.” One note of caution: just because a product is GMO-free doesn’t mean it’s free of all harmful pesticides or chemicals. On the other hand, any product certified organic must be free of GMOs—and other dangerous chemicals, pesticides, and fertilizers.



Certified B Corp:

On products from such companies as Seventh Generation, Plum Organics, Ben & Jerry’s, and Happy Family, you’ll see a B Corp logo, indicating the company’s commitment to social and environmental impact. Certified B Corp companies must achieve a minimum impact score, report annually on their social and environmental performance, and amend their corporate charters to legally include sustainability and social benefits in its mission. While this label doesn’t provide information about the specific product it’s found on, it does show that the manufacturing company is committed to greener business practices.        


Going Green writer Matthew Biddle is based in Tonawanda. Tweet him @matthew_biddle.


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