|Most Co-op shoppers don't
realize it, but some of our products are not as perfect as we would
like them to be. Co-op workers don't always have the time to vet out
all the products that might not belong in our store. We shoppers can't
assume that the Co-op has done all the work for us--so we must choose
carefully and use the product labels to help us make judgments.
To be a good reader of labels, you need to understand what they will
tell us and what they won't tell us and even how they might mislead us.
In "Eco-Labels 101," you will learn just that. Our main text is the
most recent edition of Mother Jones magazine (Nov./Dec. 2009). Mother
Jones notes that there are over 300 eco-labels floating around out
there. Some are helpful and some are not. Some even have official
looking seals that are created by the industries themselves and are
little more than advertising in disguise. Often the claims are what a
manufacturer would like us to believe, with little or no evidence to
back it up. Here are some things you may find on product labels that
will be useful for you as you shop:
"Fragrance" or "Natural Fragrance" means just about anything the
manufacturer wants it to mean.
"Cruelty Free" is another label that means whatever the manufacturer
wants it to mean-- but that cute little hopping bunny you find on
cosmetics and cleaners is a very good sign. The "bunny standard" is set
by the watchdog group the Humane Society.
"Not Tested on Animals." While the product as a whole was not tested on
animals, we are not told about the companies that supply the individual
ingredients for the product. Maybe they used animal testing.
"100% Organic" mean just that. But "Certified Organic" has the exact
same green and white label, and can have up to 5% non-organic
ingredients. "Made with Organic Ingredients" will not have the green
and white label, but it means that up to 30% of the product can be
"Organic" labels do not mean the products were grown at small farms
with sustainable methods. The labels may be obtained by multi-national
agri-businesses that grow mono-crops, exploit workers, etc.
"Natural"-labeled meats can have antibiotics and hormones.
"Hormone Free" is not always true except for pork and poultry-- which,
by law, must be hormone free anyway.
"No Additives" sounds great, but it means whatever the manufacturer
wants it to mean.
"Free Range" has no standards for beef, pork or eggs. Chickens can have
this claim if the have "access" to the outdoors for 51% of their lives.
(Who is the gatekeeper?) Given the horribly crowded conditions on
factory farms, one has to wonder if they can even find their way to the
"Biodegradable" means a product will return to nature--but who believes
that plastics will be returning to nature?
"Dolphin Safe Tuna" means that you may be sparing most of the dolphins,
but not sparing other threatened species.
"Hypoallergenic," "Fragrance Free" and "Non-Toxic," "Earth Smart,"
"Earth Friendly," "Green," "Nature's Friend," "Environmentally Safe,"
and similar terms sound so sweet-- but have no legal, or extremely
"Recyclable" labels on many plastic and metal containers are often in
theory only, because your local trash hauler is probably not about to
recycle anything but #1 and #2 plastics. The rest go to landfill.
Still, there is plenty you can do. Shopping at your Co-op, local farm
market, farm store or CSA is still the safest bet. In the stores, read
the labels and ask questions. Talk to the managers at the Co-op about
your concerns. Educate yourself and others. Make your own air
fresheners, toothpaste, bath and kitchen cleaners in just a minute or
two, and store them in reused containers. Remember that there are
advocacy groups and even some companies out there that are fighting
with us. (Dr. Bonner's is an excellent example.) But without your help,
they won't succeed.