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Raise, Lower, or Limbo? The Bar is Being Set

Posted 25 January 2011 by Anastasia O'Rourke to Ecolabel News, Opinion.

The new label from USDA for bio-based products is generating some controversy in its release this week. The New York Times quotes the Deputy Secretary of the USDA Kathleen Merrigan:  “The biobased label will help fill some of that void. People like me who go to CVS can shop purposefully”. However the author notes that “such purpose could be lessened by the program’s generous threshold, however.”

USDA has already designated as biobased some 5,100 products in 50 product categories. And federal agencies are required to purchase these products over their oil-derived counterparts where they are otherwise equivalent. For consumers, purchasing is optional and thus the program operates as a voluntary labeling scheme.

There is some dissatisfaction with the label and the program, and two main issues appear to be fuelling the controversy:

1. Where the thresholds have been set. Right now, in many categories the bar is set at 25% of content being biobased in order to display the label. People rightly wonder if this is a meaningful amount when the USDA’s other organic label is at 95% levels. The label does at least require that producers state the actual percentage of biobased material when using the label, which should provide some transparency. However, clarity over what that actually means – is it a good thing that a lip-balm is made from 25% bio-based materials? – still makes it all a bit fuzzy.

2. It is, um,  green? Does bio-based actually mean that  the product is eco-friendly or greener than equivalents? The answer – rather unsatisfyingl for an eco-label – is “it depends” and “maybe” and “not necessarily”. Without doing an LCA that considers the different inputs in the value chain of a bio vs non-bio-based product, we just don’t know.  And the agricultural practices used to produce the material are not required to be more or less eco-friendly. The good-ness  is US agriculture and forestry in general, and this shouldn’t be a surprise coming from the USDA and a farm-bill introduced in 2002.

Nonetheless, in looking at the label, most people would connect “bio” to “green” to “eco”  and thus  a green-claim of sorts is being made by the BioPreferred label. Even if consumers know the exact percentage of the product that is bio-based, they are likely to generally assume that this must be a good thing if the USDA is highlighting it as such.  For the same reason we include “fair-trade” labels as eco-labesl because for the general consumer who wants to buy with a conscience, they all deal with some aspect of sustainable development.

A path forward may be for the USDA to provide some more evidence on the environmental benefits of being bio-based, and to build on the requirements they have already established to encourage more ecologically sustainable agricultural and forestry practices.

So perhaps the analogy is more of a wedge than a limbo?