by Marsha Rakestraw

When we’re able, many of us want to make more compassionate, sustainable choices.

Labels on products are one tool we use to help us choose items we hope do more good and less harm.

But with more than 460 “ecolabels” in 199 countries, it can be hard to tell what we’re supporting. As one industry representative stated, “Consumers are demanding them, but when you look at how many certifications there are, it’s hard to understand the labels and what it all means.”

And both consumers and businesses are becoming confused. As this Organic Monitor report notes:

“Growing consumer awareness of food production methods and sustainability issues has been responsible for the rise of eco-labels in the food industry. With the number and types of eco-labels proliferating, there is a concern that food producers could be discouraged to adopt eco-labels because of the growing disparity between standards and multiple certification costs. A larger concern is the effect on consumers: how can consumers distinguish between the growing number of logos and seals of organic / fair trade products, as well as differentiate them between other eco-labels?”

Researchers from Adelaide University discovered that citizens are often confused about what labels mean and may buy an “ethically labeled” product for reasons other than what the label stands for.

Educating ourselves (and others) about the issues and challenges around labels and certifications can help us all make more ethical choices as well as to understand the complex issues involve, and just what we’re choosing to support.

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

For example, how many of us know the real meaning behind labels such as:

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

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, and so on.

Students could also 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.

And what labels mean can change.

The USDA is seeking comments on its plan to revise the definition of “Certified Organic.”

The FDA just closed a call for comments to help them define the term “natural.” Many of us seek to buy “all natural” products, even though we (and the FDA and other regulating bodies) aren’t clear on what that means.

The FDA is also looking into amending its definition of “healthy.”

There is enormous controversy at all levels about whether or not to label GMO products, even though 89% of Americans want mandatory labeling.

An older example is from 2005, when the egg industry was forced to remove “Animal Care Certified” labels from its cartons by the Federal Trade Commission.

After researching current labels/certifications and gaining some context about all the issues and stakeholders involved, students could try developing their own criteria, definitions, and standards for food and other products.

Exploring these labeling and certification issues helps us hone our critical thinking skills, search for accurate information, and connect more deeply with the products and services we use and their impact on people, animals, and the planet.