Natural Foods Merchandiser

Eco Labels: Deciphering the Meaning of the Icons

Shopper Savvy

I was shopping for a specific recipe, and it was round whites—not the organic Russet Burbanks or reds—that I needed. Knowing potatoes' standing as a top crop for chemical sprays, I don't like to buy the conventional version. Not one to hold back in a grocery store, I asked the produce manager for a "round white potato, environmentally grown." He knows my maneuvers with the terms and that I might have a lead. "We don't have an organic version. Any ideas?"

"Why yes," I say. "There is this great new eco-label, Protected Harvest, that certifies very strict Integrated Pest Management standards for potatoes grown in Wisconsin."

"Is it organic?"

"No, but it has a very reputable eco-label."

"Is it organic?" he asks again. Seeing the corner I am being talked into, I launch a clever defensive countermove, a quick lecture on eco-labels.

I tell him eco-labels are the new brands—the ones that mean something and have authenticity. As shoppers begin to find happiness with nutrition labels and organic standards, a new level of demand will come for credible and reliable information. According to the Natural Marketing Institute, labels are already the No. 1 way customers learn about products.

Whether we believe eco-labels will be the wave of the future or just another attempt at differentiation in an industry speeding to maturation, the labels are marching headlong into our stores. The Marine Stewardship Council, The Food Alliance, Free-Farmed—all are stamped on packages to call attention to something special about the product. But will customers take the time to decipher the icons?

Only seven out of 10 organic purchasers know the actual definition of organic, says NMI's Steve French. Still, shoppers apparently understand the implication of the standard and have increased their organic buying 20 percent per year for several years. The Hartman Group tells us that "peripheral" natural products customers gravitate toward the values of core organic consumers and the latter research their products.

Today, when staff members approach consumers browsing a grocery aisle, instead of asking, "Can I help you find something?" they might more appropriately ask, "Can I help you decipher that eco-label?"

Visiting eco-labels Web sites can be helpful. One credible source for information is Available since April 2001, the Consumers Union Guide to Environmental Labels site logs about 20,000 visits a month by folks seeking thorough, unbiased information on a variety of eco-labels. The site has several entry points to find a label's evaluation and provides a set of guidelines on what makes a good eco-label, such as transparency of standards and independent third-party certification.

People often ask me if I think consumers will be overwhelmed and in frustration refuse this plethora of seals. I have always felt that underestimating consumers is a mistake. With an average of 67,000 products filling a super-sized grocery store, customers seem to have choice figured out.

The big question is not the eye appeal and message of eco-labels, but their promotion. Will these nonprofit organizations have money to develop seals without manufacturers' support? The catch-22 is that the labels must be free of any taint of conflict of interest.

Compared with the U.S. Department of Agriculture organic label, eco-labels have a way to go in gaining consumer recognition. Many worthy eco-labels, such as Integrated Pest Management, aren't particularly sexy, and many others are based on issues that the public is only now beginning to comprehend.

But I am cheered by the positive signs of a future where reliable, verifiable and truthful information is in demand and readily supplied by eco-labels. A future where I can tell my produce manager, "I would like Protected Harvest white potatoes," and he won't hesitate to place the order that very day.

Cynthia Barstow, an adjunct member of the University of Massachusetts faculty, is author of The Eco-Foods Guide: What's Good for the Earth Is Good for You (New Society Publishers, 2002).

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 5/p. 20

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