Is it possible to walk down the aisles of a supermarket and not know what you are about to purchase? With listings of every component ingredient, exact macronutrient content, and perhaps some other catch words thrown on top like “organic,” or “free range,” it would seem as if the average consumer has ample access to information regarding what they choose to put in their bodies.
However, this type of excessive labeling in the food industry that has allowed for such a wealth of knowledge about our food was not always at full disclosure. In reality, full standardization of nutrition labels required by the Food and Drug Administration did not come into effect until the early 1990’s. Since that point, companies now utilize this information boom to cater to niche groups of consumer interests such as “gluten free”, “fat free”, or “super food.” In these cases, a category may be easily defined or advertised on the front of a product to provide the consumer with an conveniently, condensed version of the wealth of required information listed—or hidden—on the back of the item. Advertising in this case provides a more efficient way for consumers to inform their purchasing decisions, and allows advertisers to more effectively target a section of the market.
In a like manner, now advertisements are branching even further with their claims than just those of implied healthiness, but also now implying the quality of a product in terms of sustainability or environmental impact. Recycled cardboard labels with minimalistic designs can inform the consumer through visual cues, while token words such as “green” can imply some sustainability practice has been integrated into the production practice. As sustainability and health consciousness are two trends that can be seen as running parallel to the newfound importance of standardization in food labeling, it seems only natural that sustainability issues should also have some reference in individual product design. Yet dissimilar to “healthy foods,” with a list of all food components and labels assigned accordingly, labels designed to imply a low environmental impact of a product have no supporting, relevant data that can be conveniently found on the back of the product. In fact, the use of environmental impact labeling and inclusion of relevant product information by organizations is not is regulated at all.
“Green Washing,” is when an organization uses environmental themes in advertising to imply that a product may be more sustainable, even if that product does in fact contribute to severe environmental degradation. In some cases, there is a clear incoherence between this implied information that consumers receive, and what actually constitutes a product and its production methods. In order to reconcile this issue, many scientists and environmentalists alike are starting to call for a standardization of environmental impact labeling similar to that of the food industry in the early 1990’s. While there is much debate surrounding the most accurate way to gage a product’s sustainability in a standardized fashion, it is imperative that consumers are given a way to better inform their decisions regarding a product’s environmental impact.
One way many scientist have tried to create a more standardized procedure to compare products is by developing calculators in the fields of water, carbon and nitrogen footprints for individual products. Below there is a link posted to a particular nitrogen footprint calculator created by a scientist named Alison Leach!
While consolidated regulation may be in the distant future, as more consumers push for better information regarding the environmental impacts of their products, perhaps the impact a food or product has on the environment will be as readily accessible as the information we have regarding its impact on our bodies and health.