You are here: Home Education & Research In Good Tilth Magazine Articles 2008 19iii The superlabel seal of approval

The superlabel seal of approval

By Joel Preston Smith

Imagine sustainable agriculture as concept, a brand, and a marketing ploy. Imagine it as a sonorous jingle rubber-stamped on virtually everything that can be harvested, packaged or promoted. The phrase flows easily off the tongue. It tastes great, and it’s less filling than our regular agriculture. It makes unruly agriculture shiny, bouncy and manageable, but best (or worst) of all, it washes away the gray, shadowy area surrounding the question of what is environmentally responsible agriculture and what is not.

There’s little agreement over what constitutes “sustainable” in agriculture or any other industry, but that won’t stop the phrase from coming soon to a food label near you. Scientific Certification Systems of Emeryville, Calif. rolled out a Sustainable Agriculture Draft American National Standard for Trial Use in April of 2007, and is pushing for its adoption (after revisions are completed) as a U.S. standard for food and other products.

 Some farmers, producers, certifiers and consumer-advocacy groups fear that this proposed “superlabel” will merely confuse U.S. consumers as they drift through supermarkets with their thousand-yard stares, bombarded by products that claim to be “eco-friendly.” An entirely different camp believes the “certification” to be nothing more than the latest attempt to greenwash ecologically unsound farming practices. Yet another faction believes “sustainable” to sound so all-encompassing, and yet so vague and intangible that as a certification it would eclipse the meaning of organic, stripping away health-and-Earth-minded consumers from the organics industry, therefore destroying the organic market itself. So a reasonable question might be, which is right?

 All of them. And in all fairness, possibly none of them. No one seems to question the wisdom of creating a sustainable, “green” food industry. But many do question how something that hasn’t been defined can be certified, who’s behind the push to create the new certification, and who stands to gain the most.

Some of the concern is centered on SCS itself. The company purports to be the first U.S. corporation to test and certify ‘eco-friendly’ products. SCS launched its Nutriclean certification process in 1987, offering producers and marketers a seal of approval, which consumers then assumed was a wrap-around bill of good health.

They were wrong. The Nutriclean label was stamped onto products that were supposedly free of pesticide residue. In effect, the label was shorthand for “we have kindly washed the pesticides off for you.”

The Nutriclean certification was not false. It was, according to Consumer Reports, merely “misleading.” The Eco-label Division of Consumer Reports advises consumers that the Nutriclean seal “is not equivalent to ‘free of pesticide residue,’ since there can still be residue of the pesticide below the limits set by Nutriclean. In addition, some of the pesticide residue limits set by Nutriclean are simply at the legal limit for certain pesticides on certain fruits and vegetables.”

To put it more simply, SCS allegedly rubber-stamped products that were already in compliance with standards set by the USDA. To find SCS now crusading for a “sustainable agriculture” label has staunch environmental advocates wringing their hands, worrying the stigmata.

In order to promote the label, SCS hired the Leonardo Academy, a Madison, Wisc. non-profit, to convene a committee that will draw up a standard that defines “sustainable agriculture.” Leonardo was chosen because the agency is accredited as a standards developer by the American National Standards Institute. ANSI standards are the ghost in the machine that is U.S. commerce and industry; they govern a host of processes and procedures, from defining the proper “contact pattern” on bevel gears, to how documents are be filed, to how computer servers communicate with one another.
ANSI standards do not guarantee that a product is safe, or eco-friendly, or “sustainable,” healthy, or even beneficial to the buyer. They merely signify that a product (or process) complies with a set of rules and procedures-except in cases in which compliance is voluntary.
And there’s the rub. As currently proposed, compliance with the “sustainable agriculture” label would be voluntary, inviting producers and merchandisers to purchase the right to certify that a product is “sustainable,” while requiring no verification that the product merits the designation. This is particularly irksome to those who fought to establish a mandatory standard for organics, now governed by the USDA’s National Organic Program.  

Those working to shape the new superlabel standards include the Monsanto Company, Syngenta Crop Protection, CropLife America, the Cotton Council and various representatives from the biotech industry and conventional agriculture-none of whom are easily (or rationally) associated with the term “sustainable.”

Natalie Reitman-White, sustainability coordinator for Organically Grown Company, a wholesaler of certified-organic products in Eugene, Ore. notes that while many organic farmers and producers might support a more comprehensive label-one that takes labor standards and farm worker’s health into account, for example-they worry that their participation in the superlabel process will undermine the gains made by the organic movement.

“The fear of the new label is that it could roll back all the success that we’ve achieved, if it allows for practices prohibited by the National Organic Program,” says Reitman-White.

Ronnie Cummins, national director for the Organic Consumers Association in Finland, Minn., argues that the superlabel is an attempt to tap into the organics market without living up to organics’ exacting standards.    
“It’s a campaign aimed at short-term profits,” Cummins says, “one driven by the idea that you can cut corners and still convince consumers to pay a premium price.”

According to Mintel, a market-research group in Chicago, Ill., the domestic share for purchases of “natural” foods, cosmetics and personal-care products topped $22 billion in 2006. As a whole, the organic sector of the U.S. economy has shown a steady growth of 20 percent or more annually since the USDA began tracking the industry in 2000.

With so many consumers ripe for plucking, claims of having gone-green abound-Eco-Friendly, CFC-Free, Ozone-Friendly are among the most common-and there’s little legal incentive to live up to one’s rented reputation. The Nature Conservancy has been castigated in the Los Angeles Times for leasing its oak-leaf emblem for $115,000 to General Mills to promote Nature Valley granola bars. According to Cummins, the Florida Chapter of the Sierra Club doled out the environmental groups’ logo to Clorox. If even the most respected environmental organizations can’t resist cashing in their names for profit, what’s to prevent companies from abusing a superlabel with no mandatory standards?

 Jim Kohm, head of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s Enforcement Division, says the agency can level cease-and-desist orders on false advertisers, or pursue civil fines with repeat offenders, but it can’t prevent corporations from simply costuming themselves in green.
“We’re not necessarily talking about deception when we’re talking about greenwashing,” says Kohm. “We only pursue companies whose claims can be proven false.”

According to Mitchell Katz, a public affairs specialist for the FTC, the agency hasn’t issued what it terms an “enforcement action” in the environmental-marketing arena since 2000. Kohm says the agency is swamped with cases of identity theft and Internet fraud, but is revamping its enforcement division in the wake of recent eco-advertising complaints.
Verifying eco-friendly claims has largely fallen on certifying organizations such as Oregon Tilth, consumer watchdogs such as the Organic Consumers Association, and, in rare cases, on corporations themselves.

Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps recently launched an offensive against companies allegedly misrepresenting their products as “organic.” Owner David Bronner filed suit April 28 in California Superior Court against 13 industry giants who fronted “eco-friendly” labels on products containing known carcinogens and other synthetics.

 Bronner’s company enlisted an independent laboratory to perform a battery of tests on products marketed as eco-friendly. Bronner says the lab’s chemical analysis found the carcinogen 1,4-Dioxane in ‘organic’ products marketed by Seventh Generation, Kiss My Face, Giovanni Organic Cosmetics and at least six other companies.
Bronner wants Estee Lauder, Stella McCartney and other manufacturers to clean up their allegedly unhealthy products, or stop marketing them under the organic banner.

“Organic is a truth-in-advertising program,” Bronner argues. “These companies are ruining the integrity of that program, treating it as a shtick for marketing.”

The organic community is wary of the superlabel process, there’s trepidation that getting involved with it will legitimize this effort, by sending a message to consumers that organic producers support the development of the standard. On the other hand many fear the results if they don’t participate.

“Many non-profit advocacy groups who work on the issues surrounding sustainable agriculture lack the resources to fully participate in the standard development process and therefore they worry their voice will be left out of the final consensus.” says Reitman-White.

While the organic production standard is beneficial to the planet, it isn’t a holistic label, Reitman-White concedes. When the USDA authorized the organic seal for food products in October 2002, many of the organic movement values were left out of the standard. The organic label doesn’t guarantee that farm workers were paid a living wage, or were treated fairly, or that the product was produced with a minimal impact on groundwater or the atmosphere, or that the product will be processed, packaged and shipped in an environmentally responsible fashion. Reitman-White argues that the USDA’s rules are a good first step and that we must move towards a more comprehensive “organic plus” standard.

The most pervasive concern about the superlabel is that it will destroy the very idea of organic—that it seems so all-encompassing, and yet so nebulous, that consumers will no longer be able to sort truth from fiction. Linda Brown, co-founder and executive vice-president of SCS says she believes the superlabel won’t destroy organic as a market, but will create more pressure for a truly sustainable society.
As for criticism that Monsanto and other GMO mega-corps will hijack the superlabel, Brown notes that in the 2007 SCS draft standard (written in conjunction with NSF International of Ann Arbor, Mich.), GMOs are prohibited under the superlabel.

“I’m concerned that if we don’t have a sustainable agriculture standard,” Brown says, “GMOs are going to get shoved down our throats.”
She argues that the development of a superlabel offers stakeholders a chance to formally, conclusively reject GMOs, pesticides and other eco-outcasts. She concedes, however, that food processors and packagers would not have to be certified in order to use the label.
Wouldn’t the lack of oversight, of validation, tempt some companies to abuse the superlabel?

“Theoretically I don’t think that will happen, but it is possible,” Brown admits.

Michael Arny, executive director of the Leonardo Academy, also believes fears of a “corporate takeover” of the label are unfounded. He says the process is balanced and open, and that “all negative votes or comments are addressed.”

Scott Exo, executive director of the Food Alliance, a Portland, Ore. nonprofit focused heavily on fair labor and sustainable agriculture, argues that the idea of codifying what “sustainable” means actually undermines what sustainable does.

“I think trying to establish a standard and set it in stone violates many people’s ideas about what sustainability is,” Exo explains. “Continual improvement is a core concept in any sustainable system. The standard works against ongoing modification and improvement.”

Both Arny and Brown say the superlabel is the inevitable product of a corporate mindset that is growing greener by the day.

 “There’s been a blossoming of commerce in building green,” Arny says, “and we think sustainable agriculture has that same potential. It’s now a race to the top for increased profits and increased market share in becoming more sustainable.”

The label may be new, but the message remains the same: buyer beware. As proposed, the label seems to offer no validation of claims of sustainability, and no measure of protection that consumers won’t be duped. For those who want an enforceable standard, or at least a prohibition against false labeling, there’s always the courts.

Bronner says that even if he’s unable to force Estee Lauder and other companies to stop pirating the organic name, “We’re at least going to make sure the marketplace is educated about what they’re buying. A lot of these people are flying under the radar, and that has to stop.”

The new and improved Joel Preston Smith, resides in eco-hysterical Portland, and is the author of Night of a Thousand Stars and Other Portraits of Iraq,


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