USDA's New Green Label: Can You Trust It?

usda green green policeComing soon to a store near you: Lip balms, cleaning supplies and other products bearing a new green stamp of approval from the federal government. The U.S. Department of Agriculture hopes its awkwardly-termed new ecolabel -- "USDA Certified Biobased Product" -- will steer you to buy these products just as "Energy Star" stickers help spur sales of energy-efficient appliances.

But don't assume the new logo means what you'd expect, starting with this fact: Guess how much of a given product must be green to qualify for this voluntary label? You probably figure nearly 100% -- but rules require a minimum of just 25%.

"Why would the USDA confuse the market by allowing a general 'biobased' claim on a product of anything less than 95% biobased material?" asked Andrew Beauchamp of Green Seal, which itself is a private certifier of green products, in his comments submitted to the USDA. He noted that the same federal agency requires organic products to contain at least 95% organic material, so this new program "will mislead consumers."Requiring at least 51% -- as the USDA originally proposed, before some industry concerns complained -- makes sense to Benjamin Locke of Metabolix, a biotechnology company that makes plastic from plants. It would "bring credibility to the label and prevent potential 'greenwashing,'" he wrote to the USDA.

Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan says the new label, which should start appearing in stores in the spring, is "not meaningless. You have to have a 25% threshold to achieve this label, which is not insignificant."

That's just one of many consumer surprises posed by the new label. Check it out:
  • An ordinary paper plate made almost totally from trees can't bear the "biobased" logo, but a disposable plate made of 25% corn-derived plastic would qualify, as Greenwire points out in this good story laying out the issue. "Not only is this unfair, but it is arbitary and capricious," wrote John Wissmann, of Lincoln Paper and Tissue, to the USDA, echoing the sentiment of the American Forest & Paper Association's Paul Noe.
To the USDA, expanding agricultural markets is part of its reason for being. So the new label can't be slapped on paper plates or wood furniture or other products that already significantly penetrated the national market back in the specified year of 1972.

This makes little sense to Laura A. Rowell, director of sustainable packaging for MeadWestvaco, who wrote to the USDA that a consumer looking at an older product "will have no idea why it is not (or cannot be) USDA certified as biobased."

Keep in mind as well:

Just because a lip balm or household cleaner is "biobased" doesn't mean it's eco-friendly, argues Rita Schenck, secretary of the American Center for Life Cycle Assessment.

The new label doesn't follow international consensus standards on ecolabels, she says. That's because it doesn't take into consideration a particular product's impact on the environment from its creation to its grave, eventually, in a landfill or waste incinerator. Even Walmart recently announced plans to require such life-cycle assessments from its vendors, with the intent to provide a label for everything it sells, Schenck points out.

The forerunner of the new logo is the USDA's in-house federal purchasing program, which for a decade has encouraged government buying of products with significant biological content. They were known as "BioPreferred," and were required to have a life-cycle assessment. With the new label, that requirement is going by the wayside.

Schenck is troubled. She notes the biggest source of environmental impact on Earth is agriculture: Nearly 40% of land globally is devoted to agriculture, including crops, range and pastureland, while 30% is forested. Every year, more forest is cut to create farmland.

"If we use agricultural land to make stuff like oil or biofuels, that means we don't have enough land for food, so we cut down forests to grow more food," Schenck says. She fears the new label to some extent will help create demand to cut forests for agriculture.

In announcing the new label on Jan. 19, Merrigan said: "Today's consumers are increasingly interested in making educated purchasing choices for their families. This label will make those decisions easier by identifying products as biobased. These products have enormous potential to create green jobs in rural communities, add value to agricultural commodities, decrease environmental impacts, and reduce our dependence on imported oil." (Find more info and a database of BioPreferred products here.)

On the bright side, all labels are supposed to state the percentage of the product's biological content. And manufacturers are to submit proof that their products contain biological ingredients. So you'll be able to gauge if it meets your personal green standards.

Just don't mistake the new logo to mean your lip balm is "sustainable."

"If you're really serious about labeling for sustainability, you have to advocate for changes to the one label that matters most: the price tag," Clark Williams-Derry, a statistics guru at Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based nonprofit sustainability think tank, told me.

"When we actually charge companies for the pollution they create, and for the environmental problems they cause, or for the full cost of the non-renewable resources they consume, those costs get incorporated into the price of what they sell -- and unsustainable products become more expensive than sustainable.

"Making the price tag tell the environmental truth is the best way to ensure that consumers pay attention to the impact of their purchases." Without that, "even the most environmentally conscious consumers can be lead astray by misreading labels."

In the end, I agree with James Dong of Berkeley, Calif., who wrote to the USDA about its new label: "I appreciate the effort ... but another eco term? No wonder green fatigue is becoming a problem." This creates "yet another ambiguous and vaguely defined" label.
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