Courtesy of usda.gov
If calling a product “sustainably made,” isn’t governed by any law, does this mean that someone could label their product sustainable when in reality it is not? It seems there are so many different types of certifications, and no true way to monitor the truth behind the claim. We as consumers can be easily fooled by dishonest marketing. What would you recommend to a consumer when looking to purchase something? —Jenny P., St. Charles
This is an excellent question. To start, I would mention that I am opposed to calling very many products (including organically grown foods) sustainable. To me, sustainability is a big deal. It's a process and a spectrum. We're continually working towards becoming more and more sustainable, but as long as we're driving cars, using plastic for any purpose, and heating and cooling our homes and offices using non-renewable energy, we're not truly sustainable. Very few products have a zero footprint. But to answer your question, which raises a good point about how we can make the most sustainable choices when it comes to our food, I want to share an example of a time when marketing led customers to believe something which was not necessarily true about a product:
There was a “local” chicken farm selling at a St. Louis farmers market. Because of their very low prices, someone didn't believe that they could be using sustainable and humane practices to raise the chickens, so a regular shopper at the market looked into the farm and asked lots of questions. From Google Earth, he could tell that it was a CAFO operation. At some markets, market managers actually go and visit each farm, especially when the market is a “growers only” market, i.e. no re-sellers allowed, to ensure that they're growing or raising everything they're selling. Unfortunately, shoppers at the market believed that because the farm was local, that meant that they were using good practices. Thanks to the shopper who questioned their low prices though, and a subsequent series of questioning by the market manager, that vendor voluntarily stopped selling at that farmers market.
When shopping directly from farmers, questions that you can ask to tell if something is raised sustainably or not:
- Are you organic? (Producers that use organic practices but aren't actually certified will probably answer this question with a 'no' but tell you things that they do that are used in organic production. Producers who don't follow organic practices will likely simply state no.)
- Why or why not?
- Do you spray? (This generally refers to chemical pesticides, which includes herbicides and insecticides.)
- Do you use conventional fertilizers? (i.e. NPK petroleum-based fertilizers)
- Do you give antibiotics to your livestock?
- What do you feed your [chickens/pigs/cows…]?
When you buy something indirectly, i.e. from a grocery store or at a restaurant, those third party certifications can ensure an additional level of oversight beyond that of the store or restaurant. This website offers a wonderful explanation of many of the certifications and labels out there that define various things about the way in which the food was produced, including organic, fair trade, non-GMO, grass-fed, etc. Here is a good primer on what the various claims made on egg cartons—i.e. cage-free, free range, organic, etc.—actually mean.
In order to make the best choices for you and your family, it boils down to educating yourself about the way things are grown and raised, and why certain producers choose certain methods over others. So my main recommendation is to purchase it directly from the producer whenever possible. CSA farms are excellent for that because they typically offer the members the opportunity to visit the farm and see where and how their food is grown. Farmers markets where you're buying directly from the producer are the next best thing.
Good question. Keep asking them!
Molly Rockamann is the Founding Director of EarthDance. Stumped by your own sustainability issues? Send an email to email@example.com, with the subject line, “Question for Molly/Diggin’ the Dirt," and we will forward it to Molly to answer. Selected answers will be printed here.