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OPINIONS

The Lure of the Label

When I was a little girl, before I loved football, my mom used to take me shopping on Sunday afternoons “so we could be out of the house while Daddy screamed at the TV.”

We were a thrifty pair, debating the utility of each purchase, calculating unit prices and comparison shopping at every opportunity. But Mom made one exception to our financial bottom line: She avoided “Made in China” like the plague. (At the time, the Chinese manufacturing machine was just swinging into gear, so it was actually possible to find American-made alternatives.)

Like every other American consumer, we looked to product labels to guide our purchases, implicitly trusting the regulatory system to ensure the labels’ accuracy. But what happens when that regulatory system is absent or fundamentally flawed?

This week, National Public Radio ran a three-part investigative report on the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), whose blue, checkmark-fish logo brands seafood as sustainable. The MSC has been active since the late 1990s, during which time it has certified the sustainability of over 100 fisheries around the world, rating them according to their fish stock’s health, environmental stewardship of their regional seas and ability to respond to changing conditions. The MSC’s seal of approval adorns thousands of products sold in dozens of countries, assuring environmentally conscious consumers that the fish they purchase is safe for the planet as well as the palate.

But, the NPR journalists reported, the ecolabel might not be as reliable as the MSC wants us to believe. Critics point out that some surprising fisheries – like Antarctic krill and British Columbia salmon – have gotten the thumbs up from the MSC despite substantial scientific uncertainty. It seems that the MSC is erring on the side of optimism, offering the fisheries a labeling carrot in exchange for promises of good behavior.

While this approach is hardly ideal – and, many would argue, gives a misleading “feel good” high to consumers – it’s symptomatic of a fundamental problem in fisheries management: The answers to today’s questions rely on tomorrow’s data. Although, particularly in our oldest fisheries, we are sometimes lucky enough to have enough historical information to guess at future trends, much of fisheries management remains a mystery. Under pressure to provide a useful metric right now, the MSC has cut some arguably unavoidable corners, potentially at the cost of its label’s trustworthiness.

It’s hardly alone.

Motivated by – and in turn, motivating – growing consumer interest in “green” products, armies of ecolabeling schemes are battling for their corner of product-packaging real estate. As of this year, the Ecolabel Index (itself of dubious authority) was tracking 435 branding schemes active in 197 countries. Some – generally by arriving early to the game – have more name recognition than others. For example, you’d probably recognize the Rainforest Alliance’s green frog or the blue and green swirls denoting Fair Trade. Each label also has its own distinct meaning, some emphasizing environmental protection, some focused on social justice and some measuring sustainability. Labels also vary widely in their reliability, from the good-faith efforts at quantifying a product’s environmental impact to thinly veiled greenwashing intended to move product quickly off store shelves.

Unfortunately, without a universal set of standards for measuring sustainability, it’s almost impossible for the average consumer to make sense of the myriad branding schemes. Some governmental bodies – like the United States and the European Union – have tried, and sometimes succeeded, to put forward their own certification schemes, but these are hardly universal in coverage or usage.

Meanwhile, overwhelmed by claims of “greenness,” “sustainability” and “carbon neutrality,” consumers are losing faith and interest. This phenomenon, which industry experts call “consumer fatigue,” could spell disaster – or at least a major setback – for the environmental movement. We need unambiguous, consistent and universal ecolabels, and we need them now.

But that is a sun dream as elusive as the MSC’s quest for complete fishery datasets. And so, in the absence of a higher authority, the burden falls again to the consumer: to my mother and I, buying American-made; to the parent seeking pesticide-free produce; to the young executive dreaming of saving the world.

Our individual choices – how much more we’re willing to spend for organic, fair-trade coffee; how much time we’re willing to spend disentangling the environmental impact of each product – shape the economic system and the future of ecolabeling. We can start by looking local, where it’s easier to trace a product’s history and the lure of the label fades into the distance.

Holly welcomes reader feedback and stamps of approval at hollyvm@stanford.edu.

About Holly Moeller

Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).