Can Manufacturers and Environmentalists Agree on Environmental Product Labels?

News and commentary about environmental issues.
July 10 2012 2:15 PM

Greenwashing, Inc.

The battle for environmental labels is on.

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Ground zero for the struggle over how to assess and publicize a product’s environmental impact is the Sustainability Consortium, an organization established and funded largely by Wal-Mart and based at the University of Arkansas and Arizona State University—two schools that have close ties to the world’s largest retailer. The consortium’s board includes representatives from some of the United States’ biggest companies, which are trying to get out in front of strong government action.

The resolution of these technical issues has major implication for both the planet and corporate earnings. For example, environmental disclosures can make imported steel look roughly equivalent to U.S. steel in its impact on the planet, but only by ignoring categories like disturbance of local ecosystems and untreated hazardous-waste emissions. In fact, steel made in China and India can be up to 100,000 times worse in those categories, according to some conservation scientists. If you’re a retailer and a huge percentage of your wares come from China, you might not want that fact appearing on your products.

The risk isn’t just to major corporations, though. Hundreds of companies, large and small, extract higher prices from consumers by marketing themselves as green. What if hard environmental science showed that their products were only 5 percent better than a much cheaper competitor? Or no better at all?

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There’s also the overall risk to a consumption-based economy. When shoppers dig into the numbers, they’ll see that the only way to really make a difference is to consume less, not consume differently.

So far, the Sustainability Consortium has had a contentious relationship with many environmental groups. They claim that the corporate bigwigs have shelved proposals contrary to their commercial interests and make most of their decisions in backrooms. In August, the consortium made a spot on its board for an nongovernmental organization representative. The World Wildlife Fund currently holds the spot and intends to push the organization to improve the model its member-corporations will use to produce environmental assessments of their products.

Researchers at the consortium are pushing ahead on their efforts to generate assessments, despite ongoing disagreements over the method and the content. The good news for those who disagree with their system, though, is that the process is moving at a glacial pace. According to a November article in Grist, the consortium completed just 10 assessments out of the thousands of product categories sold at a typical Wal-Mart in its first two years of existence. There’s still plenty of time to influence assessment standards, or to present alternatives to the group’s assessment system.

Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.