Can You Trust the Label?

G Magazine

How do you know if a 'natural', 'Earth-friendly' product is the real eco deal?


Credit: Jamie Tufrey

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Look at just about any environment-related product on the supermarket shelf and you'll see words like 'nature's best' and 'Earth friendly'.

These word might give a you a warm and fuzzy feeling that you're doing the Earth some good, but take a careful look and you'll see that these claims are often not backed up on the list of ingredients.

Which makes it mighty difficult to know if you're making a responsible choice as a consumer and buying what you think you are.

Take the word 'natural', variants of which show up on loads of things in the average house, from dog food to toothpaste. Along with 'biodegradable', 'organic', and 'chemical free', it's one of the most common terms used to attract the green consumer.

But a product might be labelled natural because it doesn't contain chemical additives, artificial preservatives, flavours, fillers or colouring, or is minimally processed. Or because its principal ingredient is derived from plant or animal matter.

At least that's what manufacturers intend us to think when we see this word. As CHOICE magazine explains, the use of words such as 'natural' can "influence what we buy because they create a variety of positive expectations about the products they describe — but there's no guarantee they'll deliver".

They found that products labelled 'natural' were not necessarily "any different from or better than a similar product on the supermarket shelf".

And they may not be environmentally preferable to their alternatives. The label 'natural' isn't monitored by either the government or an independent body, and carries no legal definition, so it's slippery at best.

'Chemical free' is another label heavy on implication but light on fact.

As emeritus professor of chemistry Ben Selinger explains, "A myriad of natural chemicals can be dangerous, including a lot of herbal products. Everything on Earth is made from chemicals. You can label them as natural or synthetic but that doesn't neatly transfer into good and bad, safe and unsafe, or even environmentally friendly or unfriendly."

A Label You Can Trust

So when you're buying food, cosmetics, or even appliances, how do you know if the claims on the box are legitimate?

Fortunately, there are reputable organisations that scrutinise and administer labels relating to a product's environmental standard (commonly called 'ecolabels').

These organisations can be independent, industry-sponsored, federal or state departments, or government-approved bodies.

And while they can't weed out all the pretenders or stop unscrupulous marketers from creating logos that look like they have substance when they do not, knowing which labels are worth your attention is a good start.

One of the most long-standing and well-regarded ecolabels is controlled by Good Environmental Choice — Australia (GECA).

Petar Johnson is the chairman of this national, not-for-profit, independent organisation that had its beginnings (as the Australian Environmental Labelling Association) in 1994.

"Retailers have a responsibility to ensure that products they stock with environmental claims are actually making honest declarations. This is not currently happening," he says.

"The challenge is to ensure the new green demand shifts the market. For this to occur, consumers need to be properly informed of the environmental attributes of products so they know which ones are genuinely greener."

Based in Canberra, GECA operates a voluntary labelling program — the Australian Environmental Certification Program.

GECA's program looks at the environmental impacts that occur during the life cycle (that is, production, consumption and disposal) of a range of consumer and building products.

They give their approval to goods that comply with guidelines set by the Global Ecolabelling Network (GEN) and International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO).

Government audits check they meet these guidelines, and regular review by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (the ACCC) keeps labellers on their toes.

GECA's labels are issued to companies for a period of two to five years, depending on the type of product, with one audit conducted during that time. To date, GECA has certified more than 400 products.