If you haven’t noticed by now, there are a lot of eco labels out there. Consumer Reports’ Greener Choices lists 150, but one panelist at Sustainable Agricultural Partnerships 2010 cited a whopping 328. According to Scott Exo of Food Alliance, publicly available third parties back only a handful of these labels. So how do we navigate this cluttered landscape of certifications and agree on a standard? The answer may very well be that we don’t.
When it comes to defining standards, in the past, the concept of an outcomes-based focus trumped prescriptive practices. After all, how can we expect a farmer in California to implement the same practices as a farmer in Wisconsin? Different soils, different crops and different climates require different irrigation platforms and cultivation techniques. Standardizing across all of these anomalies is not only extremely difficult, but also potentially less effective. The question then becomes, where do we need consistency and where do we need flexibility in these efforts? Certainly being technology neutral is one example of flexibility but determining the consistencies may prove more trying. In the meantime, tools like the Keystone Center’s Fieldprint Calculator help growers benchmark their farming activities against regional, state and national averages.
Regardless of uniform standards, certifications function to acknowledge compliance or added value through differentiation and should ultimately verify traceability. The ability to track a product from cradle to consumer bolsters transparency throughout the supply chain. Dole has provided three-digit tracking numbers on organic bananas, which consumers can enter on the Dole Organic website to learn about the plantation of origin. Similarly, Stone-Buhr Flour launched Find the Farmer, a site connecting consumers to the Pacific Northwest farmers who grew their organic wheat.
As these concepts evolve, what will true transparency mean? Will we go beyond the farm to see all of the players in each product’s supply chain? Moreover, could an undertaking such as this avoid the creation of more labels?
Ali Hart is a sustainable communications and engagement strategist with a passion for life’s essentials: food, water and storytelling. Her background in the Entertainment industry, penchant for humor and MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School are Ali’s secret weapons in her quest to master the art of behavior change and to make sustainability inconveniently fun.