You may not remember it, but there was a time when nutrition was a guessing game. Food labels featured claims that were half-true, irrelevant to the product, or patently false. Manufacturers of concentrated orange juice labeled their product “fresh” with impunity, and soda manufacturers manipulated serving sizes to make soft drinks appear healthier. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler changed all that in the early 1990s. He standardized nutrition labels and seized entire shipments of mislabeled foods. Plenty of problems remain, but today we take for granted the right to know how food products affect our health.
When it comes to environmental impact, we’re still in Wild West days. You can’t attempt to quantify your personal carbon footprint in the way you could calculate your daily intake of calories or saturated fat. And there’s simply no way for a consumer to recognize greenwashing on a label.
A movement is afoot to make planetary health claims more like nutritional claims. Imagine turning over a product to find a listing of its carbon footprint, water use, and contribution to air pollution. If you scanned the QR code for every product you purchased, a smartphone app could tell you just how your buying habits were impacting the planet.
It’s a simple idea, and we’re pretty close to having the research we’d need to get started. Conservation scientists have been refining the models to estimate a product's full environmental impact. These estimates, called life-cycle analyses, are likely too complex to generate for each individual item on your shopping list, but they could be completed in short order for broad categories like LCD televisions, orange juice, and SUVs. That wouldn't help you to choose among individual brands, but it would give you enough information to guide overall decisions about what sorts of things to buy and what sorts of things to avoid.
But the promised land of full environmental disclosure is still far off for a variety of reasons. Manufacturers, retailers, and environmentalists can’t agree on what an environmental-impact label would say. A standardized label with exactly the same kinds of information for all products wouldn't be appropriate, because different products raise different environmental concerns.
Take wood, for example. In April 2011, an industry group produced an environmental product declaration (PDF) for red-cedar decking wood that shows the perils of standardized labeling. An environmental product declaration is supposed to summarize all the effects a manufactured good would have on the planet. This particular document lists such impacts as hazardous waste, ozone depletion potential, and eutrophication potential. The totals for all those categories are either zero or very close to zero. That’s wonderful, except for the fact that cedar logging operations simply don’t raise hazardous waste and ozone depletion concerns, and they never have. (A similar problem affects nutritional labels: In one instance, FDA Commissioner Kessler went after makers of vegetable oil for boasting about zero-cholesterol products when vegetable oil never contains any cholesterol.) What you won’t find on the environmental product declaration for red cedar is any discussion of categories that really count when it comes to logging—loss of old-growth forests, destruction of habitat for threatened species, and silting of waterways.
There are also big questions about how the calculations would be done. The environmental product declaration for red cedar has a line for “global warming potential.” The number is negative, indicating that the farming and logging of red cedar actually removes carbon from the atmosphere. How? As cedar trees grow, they inhale carbon dioxide. The trees, and their embedded carbon, are cut down and turned into decks, which store the carbon for 25 years. In the meantime, more cedars grow, pulling more carbon from the air. It’s not an implausible claim, but manufacturers can make favorable assumptions to tweak the outcomes. In many cases, they use an empty field as their starting point, ignoring the fact that to set up a cedar farm you may have to raze a stand of enormous trees that would otherwise have stored large amounts of carbon for decades. Manufacturers may also assume that every ounce of their wood products will remain intact for decades. In fact, some of them get discarded and burned within only a few years. And some wood is used for firewood almost immediately.