Sometimes Labels Can Be a Good Thing

By Mark Petruzzi, Green Seal Senior Vice President of Outreach and Strategic Relations As a society, there are certainly those among us who are what can be politely termed "label conscious." From the hood ornament on the car to the small embroidered graphic on the front of the shirt, we are quite used to recognizing brand labels and making personal judgments one way or another about the quality of the item, the price of the item, and the person wearing/driving it. In an effort to expand your visual shopping horizons, I'm inviting you to take a look at some other labels the next time you find yourself behind the handle of a cart. Organic Want to make sure that item was produced without synthetic herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers? That no added hormones or antibiotics were used? If you don't happen to personally know Farmer Will from your weekly treks (in season) to the Farmer's Market, how do you know if it truly is organic? An easy way to be sure that the item was actually organically produced is to look for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Organic label on the product. Fair trade How much was the farmer paid for his production of that pound of coffee or chocolate? Was it enough to cover his costs, feed his family and provide for a more sustainable economy in his town or village? For many commodity crops, the price is often dictated by large buying groups and caters more to industrial agriculture than the family farmer. When you purchase fairly traded items, you are buying items for which the producer was paid a realistic and fair wage. Nonfood products that are fair trade-certified may come from small business enterprises, often in developing countries, where the proceeds contribute to local endeavors. Energy Star You bump into something with the Energy Star logo practically every time you turn around. The Energy Star program, developed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, now covers more than 50 product categories and helps consumers identify products that are more energy efficient. No matter what home improvement retailer you visit, you're sure to find products with the Energy Star label that will help you to save energy, money, and the environment. Forest Stewardship Council Paint stir sticks possibly only fall behind chop sticks and match sticks in the disposable wood items category. And yet, the last time I purchased paint at a locally based home improvement chain, the paint stir sticks were stamped with the certification mark of the Forest Stewardship Council, signifying that the stir sticks did not come from any old-growth or endangered forests, and the trees used to make them had been harvested sustainably (e.g., not from a clear-cutting operation). You can also find dimensional lumber, furniture, and paper that have been certified by the FSC (for paper, check the back covers of some of the many holiday catalogs that are piling up this time of year). WaterSense Similar to Energy Star, this program from the EPA helps consumers find products that perform their intended function with a reduction in water use. In these drought-conscious times of ours, every drop truly counts. Believe it or not, there are actually high-performance toilets that use less than 1.6 gallons per flush and shower heads that use less than 2.5 gallons per minute. As far as high performance commodes are concerned, let's just say the WaterSense testing involves copious amounts of soybean paste to ensure a fully complete flush. Speaking of flushes, another high performance option is the dual-flush toilet, which allows you to choose a half flush (0.8 gallons) for liquid waste or a full flush (1.6 gallons) for solids. Roughly 80 percent of the time only liquid waste is involved, so you can see how the half-flush savings would add up. To start each day in a conserving frame of mind we switched to a high-performance shower head that uses 1.7 gallons per minute instead of 2.5 (but this doesn't mean we can take a longer shower). Green Seal My own personal favorite, and not just because it has been my employer for the past 17 years, Green Seal develops environmental standards for products and services that consider the entire life cycle from raw materials to production to disposal. Found on everything from paint to cleaning products to hotels, the Green Seal identifies products that perform well with reduced impacts to people and the planet. I enjoy using my engineering powers for good by making complicated life-cycle considerations easier for consumers - just look for the Green Seal . As you start noticing and using more third-party labels, don't be afraid to ask questions. The good ones will be happy to tell you where they get their funding, how they set their standards, and the process for awarding their seal of approval. These are just a few of the credible and informative labels that can help your purchasing dollar do more. Although especially important in this heavy shopping time of year, these socially and environmentally responsible labels know no season. While I am definitely in favor of gifts that leave a lighter footprint on the planet (e.g., food, charitable donations, or gifts of service), looking for these labels can help you decide which gifts are Naughty or Nice. Portions of this column originally appeared in the Lexington (NC) Dispatch.