Question: Can one label adequately compare products’ sustainability?
In my humble opinion, not yet. Labels represent a quick “seal of approval” that a product meets standard for quality, labor or environmental integrity. Until recently they have tended to focus on only one or two attributes. A product may contain recycled material, but the process to recycle may produce a highly toxic pollutant. Consumers are conflicted and confused…the good news is that there is a movement here at Staples and other companies toward full life cycle accounting where all of the most material impacts are tracked and measured. We look forward to the day when that product labeling will easily convey comparative scores for consumers to compare cradle to cradle impacts.
Consumers need information that is scientifically rigorous, but still easy-to-understand and actionable in the marketplace. GoodGuide draws from more than 1500 data points to create ratings on the environment, health and social impacts of products and companies. Without a comprehensive approach, consumers are left to sort through a bewildering array of competing product claims on their own. Credible, streamlined solutions are essential to empowering consumers to make healthy, safe and socially responsible choices.
This, unfortunately, is a ridiculously complicated question! I wish it weren’t so. Having said that, it would be great if companies should aim for a one-size-fits-all label for their products, ideally certified by an independent third party. It should take into account the overall responsibility of the company (a CSR rating) and a science-based lifecycle assessment of the product (carbon footprint, water usage, use of recycled material, etc.). It would seem to be to be possible, if not easy, to reduce all this to a couple of letter grades, A through E, with one for the company and the other for the product. Fortunately, smart people are already at work on this. I’m thinking of the sustainability consortium convened by Wal-Mart and the folks at UL Environment, among others. Let’s all wish them luck.