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Danielle Jenkins | Greenwise

What's in a label

Published: Friday, March 1, 2013

Updated: Friday, March 1, 2013 02:03


For all of you savvy shoppers who roll into CVS, Shaws or Market Basket, ready to peruse the aisles for green labeling: stop! Greenwashing has become more and more popular as bright colors, cute icons and clever phrases are used to deceive the eco-conscious consumer. Companies like SC Johnson have made their own logos and have started certifying their own products, thereby lowering the green standard. Don’t fret though. Here is a quick guide to the most common certification schemes so you can put your money where your mouth is.

USDA Organic (Quality Assurance International) — Generally a good thing. However, it is expensive for farmers to get certified so this certification can actually hurt local farmers who cannot afford the certification. As a result, they may not be able to charge as much for their produce as a bigger farm that can spend the extra cash can.

Fair Trade — Generally a good thing, but, like organic, not all fair trade providers can be certified, which means certain Fair Trade products are losing out to others.

Cruelty Free — This logo is just a bunny with pink ears. This is not the real deal and only ensures that the final product is not tested on animals. The individual components can be tested on animals.

Leaping Bunny — This is the real deal when it comes to animal rights certification. It certifies that the manufacturer and ingredient suppliers don’t conduct or commission animal testing.

Natural — This literally means nothing. If something costs more because it is “natural,” then don’t buy it.

Recyclable — Watch out for this vague claim. It only means that somehow, somewhere this product can be recycled. It does not mean it is made from recycled material and it does not mean that most recycling centers can take it. For example, Styrofoam is technically “recyclable” but it is too costly and intensive a process for most recycling centers to recycle it.

X percent Pre-Consumer — This is less promising than most would think. At paper plants, when they cut paper, little strips end up on the floor. These strips get picked back up and put back into the mix of paper pulp. So in reality the paper hasn’t been used before getting recycled, and the manufacturers would do this anyway to save on costs.

X percent Post-Consumer — This is the best recycling claim. It means that a consumer has used a certain percent of the content of the product before it made its way back to the recycling plant and into a new product.

Here is a quick tip: if it does not have third-party certification, be wary. Search the internet for any logo you see to make sure that an outside party is responsible for the certification and that it is not being used by a company to promote its products as “green” or “greener” than previous versions.

Decoding PLU numbers — Once you get tired of trying to decode all of the labels, take a glance at the PLU numbers instead. A four-digit number means conventionally grown, with pesticides. A five-digit number starting with the numeral “8” means that food is genetically modified, which might not always be mentioned on the label, so it is a good bit of information to know. Organic produce has five numbers and the first is a “9.”

Keep in mind that just because a label appears frequently does not mean that it is an honest example of a green product. Also, a green label does not mean that every aspect of a product is green. If a certification scheme only requires that a product use slightly less plastic packaging, it can have a green label on it, even if there are dangerous chemicals inside.



Danielle Jenkins is a senior majoring in English. She can be reached at 

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