Image courtesy of plakboek/Flickr.

Many people wanting to make more compassionate, sustainable choices often find themselves confused, overwhelmed, frustrated, and possibly inadvertently supporting practices they oppose, because many labels are either not regulated or don’t mean what many think they do.

How many of your students (or you, your friends, co-workers, family, etc.) know the real meaning behind labels such as:

  • cage-free
  • cruelty-free
  • dolphin safe
  • environmentally friendly
  • fair trade
  • free range
  • GMO-free
  • natural
  • organic
  • recyclable
  • recycled
  • sweatshop-free
  • vegan

It would make an interesting lesson on seeking out accurate information and thinking critically to ask your students (or others) to define what they think these labels mean, and then have them research the definitions of the labels and the true meanings behind them.

Tools like the Consumer Reports’ Greener Choices Eco-labels Center provide “report cards” on different labels, including what kind of official standards exist, what the claim means, whether or not it’s meaningful and consistent, etc.

Students could dig even deeper into these issues, exploring, for example, the reasoning behind having certain labels, who supports and opposes those labels and their reasons for doing so, and so on.

A great case study would be the recent defeat of GMO labeling in California (Prop 37), the backlash from various stakeholders, and a look at who supported and who opposed the proposition and what their motivations might have been.

Another recent example involves “sustainable” seafood and the Marine Stewardship Council label.

And here’s a not-so-recent example: In 2005 the egg industry was forced to remove “Animal Care Certified” labels from its cartons by the Federal Trade Commission.

There have been controversies over labeling meat and products from cloned animals, changing the definition of organic, and more. So there are plenty of opportunities for exploration. And there’s also the added complexity of what multi-national corporations own other companies thought to be “eco-friendly” or “sustainable” or “natural.”

For a more global perspective, students could explore the kinds of labels and protections that some countries have that others lack, as well as the impact of international trade on labeling.

Students could even develop their own criteria, definitions, and standards for food and other products.

Exploring these issues helps us hone our critical thinking skills, search for accurate information, connect more deeply with the products and services we use and their impact on people, animals and the planet, and better understand the systems and policies in place that promote helpful or harmful practices.

~ Marsha

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