Too Much of a Good (?) Thing

Credit to the Washington Post with a hat tip to Treehugger.

Informed consumers are a front line defense in the battle against unsustainability, but misinformed consumers are worse than random shoppers. At least with random choices you will get a smattering of both the better and the worse. The Washington Post reports on the 600 or so forms of environmental certifications that are now appearing on products from coffee to wood used in guitars.

Some are issued by the industry; others by consultants. The criteria used in awarding the certifications are not obvious in most cases. And there is a perverse effect when customers are pushed toward buying certified products, for example, fish with a Marine Stewardship Council seal of approval. Will these consumers put even more stress on the fishery or forest or coffee plantation? And will these buyers, as I have written earlier, feel satisfied that they are doing their bit for the Earth and slack off in other key areas.

The MSC has recently come under scrutiny for certifying what some claim are fisheries in bad shape. The London Times reported late last year:

An eco-labelling scheme intended to encourage people to eat fish from sustainable sources is being criticised by conservationists. The collaboration between the conservation group WWF and Unilever, until recently one of the world’s biggest seafood retailers, now gives its stamp of approval to $1.5 billion (£900 million) of business every year. There is concern, however, that the scheme’s blue label, which is put on packaging, is being awarded to fisheries whose stocks are not properly managed or where the ecosystem is being damaged.

The criteria used to certify the products are complicated and not easily understood by the customers, even sophisticated and concerned ones. Some, for example, the Cradle to Cradle Seal, are based on consultant’s proprietary analytic methods and databases. There is no means to verify independently the credibility or meaning of the seal. Others produced by a more public process are based on scientific models and data that are not universally accepted. Others, like GoodGuide. report the results of their scoring system to more precision than is justified. Is Dr. Bronner’s Magic Organic Citrus Hair Rinse with a score of 8.7 really better than Dr. Hauschka Shampoo With Nasturtium and Lemon with a score of 8.5? Yet on the home page the display rounds the first to 9 and the second to 8.

Back to the explosion of certification standards and seals of approval. The number of standards alone has begun to convey the impression that there is enough stuff out there that is “safe” to buy. Safety related to the health of the environment is certainly highly meritorious, but what is desperately needed is an independent warning that says, simply, we cannot keep the earth’s support system working if we continue to buy and dispose of so much stuff even if it is certified. Every label and seal now says very quietly, “It’s OK to buy this product.” That may be the right message for the economy, but not for sustainability.

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