Is Another Eco-Label What We Need?

Author: Michelle Graham

Shopping list in hand, I walk down the aisles of my local grocery store. I expect it to be a quick trip, in-and-out. But the next thing I know, I have spent over an hour shopping for food and this doesn’t even include the time I spent in the check-out lane. I found myself standing in front of a wall of coffee for over 10 minutes, overwhelmed by all the options. What should I choose: “Local”, “Organic”, “Fair Trade”, “Rainforest Alliance”, “Bird Friendly”, “Shade Grown”? If you are like me, you may be asking yourself, “What do all these phrases and labels even mean?!?

Today’s consumers are faced with an estimated 465 eco-labels across 25 industry sectors from energy and construction to clothing and agriculture, and at least 150 of those labels include standards for food and beverage. As consumers continue to vote with their dollars for sustainable goods and groceries, there are more and more labels popping up. All of which are trying to communicate their company’s socio-environmental efforts, or disguise their lack of socio-economic efforts with marketing ploys. The increasing numbers of eco-labels should not be interpreted as a sign of success, because many of these labels lack credibility and the food industry is flooded with greenwashing.


“Someday environmental responsibility won’t be a marketing position, it will be an aspect of product quality in each and every product. Until then, we’re in a really confusing stage where just about any product can claim some level of eco-friendliness. For example, many brands have been cutting back on packaging for years.  The reason was margin improvement, but now those projects can be touted as environmentally driven.” – Tom Fishburne,


In regards to your caffeine kick, you can find out more about the labels on coffee at GreenerChoices and the Daily Good. After all, Americans consume over 400 million cups of coffee per day so we may want to be more informed. While coffee is particularly tricky because it is an imported good, as a conscious consumer, I would argue that a carton of eggs is the most complicated item to purchase at a grocery store. According to GreenerChoices eggs have more eco-labels than any other product, this includes “Free Range”, “Pasture Raised”, “Cage Free”, “Whole Grain-Fed”, “Vegetarian-Fed”, “Organic”, “Naturally Raised”, “Pasteurized”, “Humane”, “Hormone-Free”, “Antibiotic-Free”, and so on. Read up on some of the terms and labels used to describe eggs what they mean (and don’t mean) at NPR’s The Salt or use a the infographic below as a quick guide.

A recent study shows that consumers are experiencing label overload and that there are gaps in understanding of both the general concept of sustainability as well as the meaning of specific sustainability labels. While mobile technology now makes it easier to access information, an ordinary shopper isn’t going to take the time to evaluate cartons of milk with four different certification labels to learn which one is best, in the midst of their shopping trip. If there were fewer labeling standards, confusion amongst consumers would decrease and the consolidation amongst third-party labeling organizations would allow the remaining labels to be more significant and credible. However, as Joshua Saunders of GoodGuide points out having only one overarching certification could be disastrous as, “a competitive market is necessary in order to keep raising the bar on all ecolabels in the market. Having various programs compete on transparency, rigor, credibility, service, and price, ensure all stakeholders receive maximum value from the market”. It is important to note that often when an industry is dominated by a small number of sellers, it can lead to higher prices for consumers due to collusion amongst the few producers working to minimize risk and maximize profit. As discussed in this USDA featured article, there are many complex economic factors that go on behind the scenes of voluntary food labeling.

It is important to know the difference between certified labels, single-trait labeling and broad marketing claims. As stated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “certification is a procedure by which a third party gives written assurance that a product, process, or service is in conformity with certain standard.” However, while a certification is always done by a third party, third party verification does not automatically guarantee an absence of bias. Then there is the use of single-trait label claims, such as “Cage-Free”, “Non-Gmo”, or “Raised without Antibiotics”. These single-trait labels are often misleading, as they are advertising an isolated trait of a more robust, credible certification. However, they are a little more dependable then the use of vague, broad marketing claims such as “Green” or “Environmentally Friendly,” which there are no regulations on and the claims may not reflect reality. Producers strategically choose these buzz words to entice the consumer, and in today’s market it is to the point of fraudulent. Companies take this confusion as an opportunity charge higher prices.

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We will soon be seeing another eco-label popping up at grocery store, “Regenerative Organic Certified”. Back in September, a draft for a new Regenerative Organic Certification was released by Rodale Institute. The creation of the certification, led by Rodale, is a cooperative effort among a coalition of farmers, ranchers, nonprofits, scientists, and brands (including the currently very popular eco-leaders, Patagonia and Dr. Bonners). Ethical consumers should keep their eyes out for this third-party certification as it not only checks for organic growing practices, but production methods that are both environmentally and socially, sustainable and responsible. The certification will go beyond organic by “establishing higher standards for soil health, land management, animal welfare, and farmer and worker fairness”.  If the certification is as robust as it claims to be, consumers won’t have to read for multiple labels to guarantee a product checks all the boxes, they just have to shop “regenerative”. If done correctly, the Regenerative Organic Certified label has the potential to help consumers identify truly sustainable products from greenwashing as EcoWatch states. On the other hand, if consumers are not properly educated about the new label it may just add to the already overly complicated “wild west” of eco-labels.

The Regenerative Organic Certification was open for public review and comment until December 31st, and is now in the stages of being finalized and launched. Educate yourself regarding this new production standard.


Image Credit: Rodale Institute


And remember during your next shopping trip…

  • Don’t fall for broad marketing claims (i.e. “Green”, “Natural”, “Eco-friendly”)
  • Check for certified third-party labels or single trait labels that you stand-by (Check out this useful guide: 36 Food Labels You Should Know )
  • Keep your eyes out for “Regenerative Organic Certified”