Eco-Labelling: Voting with Our Wallets

Since we are in a voting season, there is another kind of voting we can all do, and that is voting with our wallets by purchasing products that are produced with environmentally sound practices. Ecolabeling as it is called allows us to identify energy-efficient household appliances, forest products from sustainably managed forests, fishery products from sustainably managed fisheries, and "green" electricity from renewable sources. (For more see Chapter 12 of Plan B 2.0.)

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) awards ecolabels for seafood. In March 2000, the MSC launched its fisheries certification program when it approved the Western Australia Rock Lobster fishery. Also earning approval that day was the West Thames Herring fishery. In September 2000, the Alaska salmon fishery became the first American fishery to be certified.To be certified, a fishery must demonstrate that it is being managed sustainably. Specifically, according to the MSC: "First, the fishery must be conducted in a way that does not take more fish than can be replenished naturally or [that] kills other species through harmful fishing practices. Secondly, the fishery must operate in a manner that ensures the health and diversity of the marine ecosystem on which it depends. Finally, the fishery must respect local, national, and international laws and regulations for responsible and sustainable fishing." By October 2007 there were 23 certified fisheries worldwide supplying some 2.5 million tons of seafood.

The MSC's counterpart for forest products is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which was founded in 1993 by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and other groups. Some of the world's forests are managed to sustain a steady harvest in perpetuity; others are clearcut, decimated overnight in the quest for quick profits. The FSC issues labels only for products from the former, whether it be lumber, furniture, or paper.

Headquartered in Oaxaca, Mexico, the FSC accredits national organizations that verify that forests are being sustainably managed. In addition to on-the-ground monitoring, the accredited organizations must also be able to trace the raw product through the various stages of processing to the consumer. The FSC sets the standards and provides the FSC label, but the actual work is done by national organizations.

The FSC has established nine principles that must be satisfied if forests are to qualify for its label. The central requirement is that the forest be managed in a way that ensures that its yield can be sustained indefinitely. This means careful selective cutting, in effect mimicking nature's management of a forest by removing the more mature, older trees over time.

The FSC label provides consumers with the information they need to support responsible forestry through their purchases of forest products. By identifying timber companies and retailers that are participating in the certification program, socially minded investors also have the information they need for responsible investing.

As of October 2007, some 91 million hectares of forests in 77 countries had been certified under the auspices of the FSC.

To support this certification program, WWF has set up the Global Forest and Trade Network, linking NGOs, companies, entrepreneurs, and communities in over 30 countries, including Austria, Brazil, France, Germany, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. This network is part of the vast support group of companies that adhere to the FSC standards in their marketing. Three of the world's largest wood buyers—Home Depot, Lowe's, and Ikea—all preferentially buy FSC-certified wood.

Another commodity that is getting an environmental label is electricity. In the United States, many state utility commissions are requiring utilities to offer consumers a green power option. This is defined as power from renewable sources other than hydroelectric, and it includes wind power, solar cells, solar thermal energy, geothermal energy, and biomass. Utilities simply enclose a return card with the monthly bill, giving consumers the option of checking a box if they would prefer to get green power. The offer specifies the additional cost of the green power, which typically is from 3 to 15 percent.

Utility officials are often surprised by how many consumers sign up for green power. Many people are prepared to pay more for their electricity in order to help stabilize the climate for future generations. Many corporations are signing up as well. Pepsi, Whole Foods Market, and Staples all rank among the top 25 U.S. green power purchasers, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's Green Power Partnership. Literally scores of companies in California and Texas are subscribing.

Other types of ecolabeling include the efficiency labels put on household appliances that achieve a certain electricity efficiency standard. These have been in effect in many countries since the energy crisis of the late 1970s. There are also green labels provided by environmental or governmental groups at the national level. Among the better-known environmental seal of approval programs are Germany's Blue Angel, Canada's Environmental Choice, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star. Such programs and labeling schemes allow people to align their purchasing decisions more closely with their values.

By voting with our wallets, we can expand the range of eco-labeling.
(For more information see Chapter 12 of Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, which is available for free downloading.)

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