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.

Cedar Lumber.
Cedar lumber.

Photograph by Thinkstock

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.

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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.

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?

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 writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and Earthwire. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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