The Last Word on Eco-Labels

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With over 300 different eco-labels slapped on packaging, even the most careful consumer can become confused. Good thing Rebecca Clarren is on the case: Writing for Mother Jones (Nov.-Dec. 2009), the investigative journalist (whose story “The Dark Side of Dairies” is on p. 42) turns her scrupulous attention to official-looking seals, manufacturers’ claims, and familiar feel-good terms.

The emptiest assertions of all—worthy of a “virtually meaningless” ranking—are so common they often fly under the radar. Hypoallergenic, for example, has no meaning or standards; the word is a creation of cosmetics advertisers circa 1950. Fragrance free merely indicates that a product doesn’t have a conspicuous scent; substances that cover up or neutralize odors can still be present. A product labeled nontoxic “won’t kill your kids if they ingest it,” Clarren writes, but still “might contain chemicals that can cause serious health problems.”

Clarren likewise gives failing grades to biodegradable (“No one enforces this overly broad standard”); no additives (“Implies a product doesn’t have ingredients like Red No. 40 or MSG. Or not—the maker decides what it means”); and hormone free (“Bull. Producers can call beef ‘hormone free’ even if it contains hormones such as testosterone”). Natural, cruelty free, and free range also flunk her test.

Not all eco-labels are total B.S., of course. Clarren passes the USDA’s Certified Organic stickers, the Demeter Biodynamic label, and the Certified Humane Raised & Handled stamp of approval. Co-created by the Humane Society, the Leaping Bunny logo is also legit; it indicates no ingredients tested on animals. And while the term biodegradable is abused, soaps and cleaners bearing Scientific Certification Systems’ Certified Biodegradable seal will break down quickly and safely.