Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Green Glossary - Some insight into the world of ecolabeling

It's almost as if the inside of supermarkets, grocery stores, and almost every kind of consumer packaged good distributor is more of a sea of green than the ocean, a forest, or any other green location on earth. The proliferation of labels and claims about how natural, organic, or "...-free" something is has gotten a little out of control over the past few years.

As part of my regular day-job, I've had to come up with a bit of a glossary-meets-resource for people who are looking to get the straight goods on what all this stuff means.

Here are a few key definitions and explanations along with (in some cases) a nod to the actual benefit or lack thereof for many of the most common labels, accreditations and claims. Please note that these pertain primarily to Canada and/or the US:



B Corporation

The following is the ‘Declaration of Independence’ as stated by B Lab - a non-profit organization dedicated to using the power of business to solve social and environmental problems.
“We envision a new sector of the economy which harnesses the power of private enterprise to create public benefit. This sector is comprised of a new type of corporation —the B Corporation — which is purpose-driven, and creates benefit for all stakeholders, not just shareholders.
As members of this emerging sector and as entrepreneurs and investors in B Corporations, we hold these truths to be self-evident:
  • That we must be the change we seek in the world.
  • That all business ought to be conducted as if people and place mattered.
  • That, through their products, practices, and profits, businesses should aspire to do no harm and benefit all.
To do so, requires that we act with the understanding that we are each dependent upon another and thus responsible for each other and future generations.”
Source: B Lab

Fair Trade

Fair trade is a way of doing business that strives to ensure that the farmers and artisans that produce the products we use are treated fairly and get a good deal for the work they do. Often this means ensuring that they receive good compensation for their work, but it also includes the formation of longer and more stable contracts and relationships which provide added security for producers.
For businesses and consumers, the idea of fair trade, and the Fairtrade certification system itself are about providing information on which products are brought to market in line with these important values; ensuring that the choices we make about the things we buy have a positive impact on the world.
Source: Fair Trade Canada

Leaping Bunny

The Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics’ (CCIC) Leaping Bunny Program administers a cruelty-free standard and the internationally recognized Leaping Bunny Logo for companies producing cosmetic, personal care, and household products. The Leaping Bunny Program provides the best assurance that no new animal testing is used in any phase of product development by the company, its laboratories, or suppliers.


People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is the largest animal rights organization in the world, with more than 3 million members and supporters.

PETA focuses its attention on the four areas in which the largest numbers of animals suffer the most intensely for the longest periods of time: on factory farms, in the clothing trade, in laboratories, and in the entertainment industry. We also work on a variety of other issues, including the cruel killing of beavers, birds, and other "pests" as well as cruelty to domesticated animals.

PETA works through public education, cruelty investigations, research, animal rescue, legislation, special events, celebrity involvement, and protest campaigns.
Source: PETA

USDA Organic

The US Department of Agriculture defines and certifies products as organic using the following definition: Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation (exposure to radiation), and genetic engineering may not be used.
  • Products sold, labeled, or represented as “100 percent organic.” A raw or processed agricultural product sold, labeled, or represented as “100 percent organic” must contain (by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt) 100 percent organically produced ingredients.
  • Products sold, labeled, or represented as “organic.” A raw or processed agricultural product sold, labeled, or represented as “organic” must contain (by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt) not less than 95 percent organically produced raw or processed agricultural products.
  • Products sold, labeled, or represented as “made with organic (specified ingredients or food group(s)).” Multi-ingredient agricultural product sold, labeled, or represented as “made with organic (specified ingredients or food group(s))” must contain (by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt) at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients.
Source: US Department of Agriculture
For more information:

Cradle to Cradle

Where many certifications in the market address one aspect of a product or its production, the Cradle to Cradle CertifiedCM Product Standard addresses five categories relating to human and environmental health. In order to achieve certification, a product must meet the requirements for a given level (Basic, Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum) in all five of the following categories:
  1. Material Health - Making products out of materials that are safe and healthy for humans and the environment
  2. Material Reutilization - Designing products so all materials can be re-used by nature or industry
  3. Renewable Energy and Carbon Management - Assembling and manufacturing products with renewable, non-polluting energy
  4. Water Stewardship - Making products in ways that protect and enrich water supplies
  5. Social Fairness - Treating all the people involved in the product manufacturing process in socially responsible ways
Source: Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute

Design for the environment

The US Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment program works with industry, environmental groups, and academia to place the DfE logo on products, which means that the DfE scientific review team has screened each ingredient for potential human health and environmental effects and that—based on currently available information, EPA predictive models, and expert judgment—the product contains only those ingredients that pose the least concern among chemicals in their class.
The program is designed to empower consumers to choose products that are safer for themselves and the environment.
Source: US Environmental Protection Agency

Forest Stewardship council

The Forest Stewardship Council’s (FSC ) label guarantees that the wood and paper products bearing the mark come from responsible sources and have been verified to meet FSC’s strict environmental and social standards.
There are three types of label that help identify various levels of virgin fibre and recycled material within products.
  • FSC 100% labels identify products which are made of 100% virgin material from FSC-certified forests.
  • FSC MIX labels identify products which are made with a combination of FSC virgin fibre, and/or recycled materials with Controlled virgin fibre. The mobius loop represents the total pre and post-consumer recycled fibre.
  • FSC Recycled labels identify products which are made with 100% recycled fiber. The mobius loop represents the total pre and post-consumer recycled fibre.
Buying products that feature the FSC labels ensures that the wood used in making the products complies with the FSC’s strict standards on land use and management, indigenous peoples’ rights, community and workers’ rights, environmental impact, and other important considerations. By choosing to buy products bearing the labels, customers set important expectations about these standards for forestry companies who manage Canadian forests.
Source: Forest Stewardship Council of Canada


WaterSense is a US Environmental Protection Agency program that strives to help consumers save water by purchasing products, homes, and services that meet the programs requirements. Certified  products:
  • Perform as well or better than their less efficient counterparts
  • Are 20 percent more water efficient than average products in that category
  • Realize water savings on a national level
  • Provide measurable water savings results
  • Achieve water efficiency through several technology options
  • Are effectively differentiated by the WaterSense label
  • Obtain independent, third-party certification
Source: US Environmental Protection Agency

Energy Star

Products can earn the ENERGY STAR label by meeting the energy efficiency requirements set forth in ENERGY STAR product specifications. EPA establishes these specifications based on the following set of key guiding principles:

  • Product categories must contribute significant energy savings nationwide.
  • Qualified products must deliver the features and performance demanded by consumers, in addition to increased energy efficiency.
  • If the qualified product costs more than a conventional, less-efficient counterpart, purchasers will recover their investment in increased energy efficiency through utility bill savings, within a reasonable period of time.
  • Energy efficiency can be achieved through broadly available, non-proprietary technologies offered by more than one manufacturer.
  • Product energy consumption and performance can be measured and verified with testing.
  • Labeling would effectively differentiate products and be visible for purchasers.



Biodegradable refers to a product or packaging’s ability to break down over time after being exposed to the natural decomposing agents typically found in soil, but is often used quite generally to refer to photodegradable (after exposure to light) and degradable (after exposure to air) as well.
Product labels should tell you whether or not it is the product itself or the packaging (or both) that are biodegradable.
Note: To be biodegradable, degradable, or photodegradable, most substances need either light or oxygen, neither of which is available if the product is placed in a landfill. If a technically biodegradable or degradable
product and/or package ends up in a landfill or in disposal facilities that are deprived of the conditions necessary to the degradation process, the claim of biodegradability or degradability could be false or misleading.
Source: Canadian Standards Association


Describes a product, packaging or associated component that can be diverted from the waste stream through available processes and programmes and can be collected, processed and returned to use in the form of raw materials or products. Recyclable products will typically bear the mark of the ‘Mobius Loop’, three twisted chasing arrows forming a triangle symbolizing the three main methods of waste diversion; recycle, reduce, and reuse.
Note: Different cities and regions have their own recycling standards and facilities that will have an impact on which items are actually recyclable in a given area. Customers should ensure that the infrastructure in their area can support the recycling of a given product before it’s disposed.
Source: Canadian Standards Association

BPA Free

BPA, or bisphenol A, is a compound found in plastic food and drink containers, CDs, electronics and car parts, and in the lining of some metal cans. Research has linked its consumption to a number of health issues such as infertility, cardiovascular problems, diabetes and feminization of developing male infants.
Typically, the claim of “BPA-Free” is applied to non-polycarbonate plastic bottles as polycarbonate plastic bottles are known to contain BPA. A Health Canada study concluded that at high temperature, migration of trace levels of BPA from some non-polycarbonate baby bottles and bottle liners was observed. However, the tests were designed to represent a "worst case" scenario, and were significantly harsher than would be found in normal use. In addition, the amounts of BPA detected were in “trace amounts”, most of them in the range of parts per trillion. One part per trillion, as an example, is equivalent to one cent in $10 billion.
Based on Health Canada's screening assessment of BPA, the trace levels detected in the study are much lower than those that could cause negative health effects.  Health has no concerns with respect to the safety of baby bottles or bottle liners made from non-polycarbonate plastic.
Source: Health Canada


A characteristic of a product or its packaging (or both) that allows it to biodegrade quickly, eventually turning into soil.
Source: Canadian Standards Association


Cruelty-free typically means that the product was developed or produced without inhumane testing on animals, though there is no official definition of this claim for use in product labelling.
Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Some cosmetic companies promote their products with claims such as "CRUELTY-FREE" or "NOT TESTED ON ANIMALS" in their labeling or advertising. The unrestricted use of these phrases by cosmetic companies is possible because there are no legal definitions for these terms.
Some companies may apply such claims solely to their finished cosmetic products. However, these companies may rely on raw material suppliers or contract laboratories to perform any animal testing necessary to substantiate product or ingredient safety. Other cosmetic companies may rely on combinations of scientific literature, non-animal testing, raw material safety testing, or controlled human-use testing to substantiate their product safety.
Many raw materials, used in cosmetics, were tested on animals years ago when they were first introduced. A cosmetic manufacturer might only use those raw materials and base their "cruelty-free" claims on the fact that the materials or products are not "currently" tested on animals.
Source: US Food and Drug Administration


A product could be considered gluten-free if the food contains no gluten protein or modified gluten protein, including any gluten protein fraction, referred to in the definition "gluten”.
‘Gluten’ means any gluten protein or modified gluten protein from the grain of any of the following cereals or the grain of a hybridized strain created from at least one of the following cereals:
(i) barley,
(ii) oats,
(iii) rye,
(iv) triticale, or
(v) wheat; khorasan or spelt
Source: Health Canada


GMO-Freedescribes products that have been made without the use of genetically modified organisms. Since genetic manipulation is a relatively new technology, there is little known about the long-term health risks it could pose. For this reason, many consumers choose to avoid products containing GMOs.
Notes: Due to background levels in the environment and the potential for contamination at all phases of production;technically, no product should be labelled as “GMO-free” according to the Canadian General Standards Board. The board does however recognize the claim that food can be “not a product of genetic engineering.”
  • Claims that a food or an ingredient in food is not a product of genetic engineering can be made only ifobtained from sourcesof which less than 5% are products of genetic engineering.
  • The claim cannot be made if the food or ingredient is obtained from sources to which food that is a product of genetic engineering has been intentionally added (e.g. to meet the maximum permitted allowance of 5%).
  • The claim cannot be made for a food or ingredient of which no genetically engineered strains have been offered for sale, unless accompanied by an explanatory statement (e.g. “like all other oranges, these oranges are not a product of genetic engineering.”)
Specifically for Multi-Ingredient Food:
Claims implying that a multi-ingredient food is made solely or completely from ingredients that are not products of genetic engineering
a)      Shall not be made when ingredients, including enzymes, that are products of genetic engineering that have been added to the multi-ingredient food; and
b)      Shall not be made when ingredients, including components of ingredients, that are of unverifiable origin.
Source: Canadian General Standards Board


Parabens are the most common preservatives used in cosmetics, and have received much scrutiny over the past number of years due to a research paper that detected parabens in breast tumors and noted the estrogen-like attributes of parabens. This study however did not actually show that parabens cause cancer, and the study also neglected to compare paraben levels in normal tissue.
The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) has since concluded that methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben, the three most commonly used forms of parabens, are safe for use at levels up to 25% in products. Typically, products contain parabens at levels ranging from 0.01 to 0.3%.
Many products now feature the claim “paraben-free” as a response to changing perceptions in the marketplace; however the studies have shown that there is no health risk directly linked to their use.
Source: David Suzuki Foundation/US Food and Drug Administration

Product of Canada

A product is considered to be a ‘Product of Canada’ if it meets the following two requirements:
a) the last substantial transformation of the good occurred in Canada; and
b) all or virtually all (at least 98%) of the total direct costs of producing or manufacturing the good have been incurred in Canada.
Source: Competition Board of Canada

Made in Canada

A product is considered to be ‘Made in Canada’ if it meets the following three requirements:
a) the last substantial transformation of the good occurred in Canada;
b) at least 51% of the total direct costs of producing or manufacturing the good have
been incurred in Canada; and
c) the "Made in Canada" representation is accompanied by an appropriate qualifying statement, such as "Made in Canada with imported parts" or "Made in Canada with
domestic and imported parts". This could also include more specific information such as "Made in Canada with 60% Canadian content and 40% imported content".
Source: Competition Board of Canada


There is no official government definition for how the claim of ‘natural’ can be used in labeling, however there is consensus that products making this claim must not contain any artificial flavoring, color ingredients, chemical preservatives, or artificial or synthetic ingredients, and are only “minimally processed”, which the USDA defines as a process that does not fundamentally alter the raw product.
Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary/US Department of Agriculture


As of June 30, 2009, any product with an organic claim must comply with the requirements of the Canadian Organic Products Regulations:
  • Only products with organic content that is greater than or equal to 95% may be labeled as: "Organic" or bear the organic logo.
  • Multi-ingredient products with 70-95% organic content may have the declaration: "contains x% organic ingredients." These products may not use the organic logo and/or the claim "Organic".
  • Multi-ingredient products with less than 70% organic content may only contain organic claims in the product's ingredient list. These products may not use the organic logo.
Certified organic products must also bear the name of the certification body that has certified the product as organic.
List of Accredited Certification Bodies
Source: Canadian Food Inspection Agency


Though there is no governing body regulating the use of vegan claims, the term vegan generally refers to a lifestyle choice which focusses on avoiding any products, materials, or processes that use animals, animal by-products, or animal testing.
In modern times this is a truly difficult thing to accomplish when the supply chain for goods we use every day is long and complicated.
The term vegan is also often attributed to a dietary regime that avoids animal products. A vegan eating pattern is based on grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes (dried beans, peas and lentils), seeds and nuts. It excludes meat, fish, poultry, dairy and eggs or products containing these foods and any other animal products.
The benefit of a vegan lifestyle or diet is that avoiding using animals for food or in the production of goods avoids the complicated and largely unknown effects of modern industrialized agricultural and production methods.
Source: Dietitians of Canada

Made of sustainable materials

This claim speaks to a method of harvesting or use of a resource so that it’s not depleted or permanently damaged. If a product is made of sustainable materials, this typically means that it was made using resources that are renewable, and using techniques that will not deplete the resource faster than it can replenish its self.
Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary


A characteristic of a product or packaging that has been conceived and designed to accomplish within its life cycle a certain number of trips, rotations or uses for the same purpose for which it was conceived.
Source: Canadian Standards Association


A characteristic of a product or packaging that can be filled with the same or similar product more than once, in its original form and without additional processing except for specified requirements such as cleaning or washing.
Source: Canadian Standards Association

Powered by Renewable Energy

Renewable energy is energy obtained from natural resources that can be naturally replenished or renewed within a human lifespan, that is, the resource is a sustainable source of energy. Some natural resources, such as moving water, wind and sunshine, are not at risk of depletion from their use for energy production. Biomass, however, is a renewable resource only if its rate of consumption does not exceed its rate of regeneration.
Source: Natural Resources Canada

Reduced energy consumption

Reduction in the amount of energy associated with the use of a product performing the function for which it was conceived when compared with the energy used by other products performing an equivalent function.
Note: Claims of reduced energy consumption are commonly expressed as energy-efficient, energy conserving or energy-saving.
Source: Canadian Standards Association

Water Efficient (Reduced water consumption)

Reduction in the consumption of water associated with the use of a product performing the function for which it was conceived when compared with the amount of water used by other products performing an equivalent function.
Note: Claims of reduced water usage are commonly expressed as water-efficient, water-conserving or water saving.
Source: Canadian Standards Association

Designed to remove toxins

Toxins are found in many of the things we’re exposed to daily. Pesticides in our food, contaminated water, cigarettes, and air pollution are just a few of the contributing factors to toxicity in our bodies. Some natural substances can actually help the body get rid of these toxins when they’re ingested. Vitamin C, foods that are high in fibre, and clean water will help your body stimulate the breakdown of toxins and transport them from your liver to your digestive tract where they can be flushed out.
Products claiming they are designed to remove toxins may indeed do so, though it’s worth noting that they are usually designed to promote the body’s natural processes of detoxification.