Whats in a label?

Have you ever stood in front of the supermarket shelves trying to make sense of the claims to be environmentally friendly, green or socially responsible? It can be confusing and frustrating. It can also be very irritating when you find out that the product youve been buying doesnt live up to its claimed credentials.

What to believe? We have to rely on information largely provided by others so trust becomes an important issue. We might look for brands we trust. Or for symbols indicating endorsement by an organisation that we trust, like the Biological Farmers of Australia.

The trouble is that labelling a product eco-this or green-that is about marketing. In some cases its a cynical exercise in tapping into peoples willingness to pay more to buy products they believe to be produced in a more ethical manner. It really is a case of buyer beware.

For example, theres a product lets call it X that is now Eco-X and endorsed by a credible industry organisation. But the sole difference between X and Eco-X is that growers sign a declaration to say theyve used chemicals responsibly. That, to my mind, does not mean that X is now environmentally friendly. It also begs the question about any grower in Australia who is not using chemicals responsibly. I would like to think that that is a given.

So its not enough to go with the label and assume its based on meaningful criteria that address real ethical issues.

Okay, so the ethical issues that each of us think are important might well be different. For some the focus is environmental, for others it is social justice or Australian-made and so on. So, truth in labelling is important.

For example, it is now possible to determine whether a product is made in Australia from Australian ingredients by an Australian owned company or some combination of these. Buying a product that has all three means we are participating in a system that has at least some environmental and social safeguards.

Another example is fish. All fresh fish now has to be labelled with information about where it was caught and whether its fresh or frozen. So, when I go into one of the fish co-ops, I can choose locally caught fresh fish and avoid imported hake or species like orange roughy that are over-fished.

Other than that, its a matter of taking some organisations endorsements on trust or finding out more about what it takes to get that endorsement. Or buying as much as you can locally from the people who actually grow or make the products. Ethically speaking, theres more to a label than pretty symbols and comforting words.

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