By Bridget Washburn
‘Tis the season for cooking, sharing, and giving – a season to “shop till you drop”. This year, whether facing the crowds at a store or filling an online cart, take care to stay merry and bright by selecting gifts and groceries that support a more equitable and healthier planet. Thoughtfully selecting presents and goods provides an excellent opportunity to support environmentally sustainable and socially responsible businesses – so that holiday “gifts” may extend far beyond the intended recipient to also confer significant, long-term environmental and social benefits to individuals, families, and communities around the world.
The standard production of consumer goods takes a toll on the planet’s animals, plants, water, and climate. The United Nations reports that making a single pair of jeans requires around 7,500 liters of water…equivalent to what the average person drinks over seven years. Recognizing and reacting to the ecological costs and risks associated with continuing “business as usual”, a growing number of products and companies are implementing more socially and environmentally responsible policies and practices. These entities also enjoy a healthier bottom line – partly due to saved resources and partly due to rapidly rising consumer demand. A 2020 IBM survey reflected market-driven support for corporate sustainability, finding around 78 percent of respondents willing to pay a premium for brands that support recycling and practice sustainability.
Not all sustainability labels are created equal. Vague phrases like “all-natural”, “green” or “eco-friendly” lack definition and lack formal regulation. Meaningful sustainability labels require a company to identify and employ specific sustainability standards, or actions. Generally developed by an independent third-party group that may also collaborate with industry, credible certifications require a robust third-party certification by verified independent auditing agencies.
Some examples of credible labels include FairTrade, USDA Organic, and Cradle to Cradle, found on items like chocolate, coffee, clothing, linens, produce and prepared foods, carpet, and building supplies, and even hand sanitizer.
“USDA organic” labeled products recognize products grown, handled, and labeled in compliance with US Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program standards and verified by a registered third-party certifier. The global Fairtrade certification system delineates the ground rules for “Fair Trade” labeled items, overseen by the General Assembly – an annual gathering of representatives from across the Fairtrade system also charged with ratifying its Board of Directors. Internal and external stakeholders contribute to the development of the USDA Organic global strategy under the scrutiny of the Board, CEOs from Producer Nations, the National Fairtrade Organizations, and the Fairtrade International CEO. Likewise, technical and subject matter experts develop “Cradle to Cradle” standards, when are then vetted by the Standards Steering Committee (SSC), and finally approved by a diverse Board of Directors.
At their best, sustainability certifications and standards work to improve corporate accountability, transparency, and responsibility while increasing public capacity to protect the resilience and health of the planet through more informed purchases. For instance, the benefits associate with the FairTrade label ultimately reaches an estimated 1.8 million farmers across 72 countries worldwide. Emphasizing ecologically and agriculturally sound practices, including responsible water and waste management, biodiversity and soil fertility preservation, and minimal use of pesticides and agrochemicals, this certification also protects farmers from falling prices and ensures pay rates equal to or higher than the legal minimum wage. Forced and child labor are prohibited under the Fairtrade Standards.
Tangible benefits of a USDA certified organic product are healthier soil and water quality, wetland, woodland, and wildlife preservation, and avoidance of synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering. Purchasing USDA organic supports cycling of on-farm resources which helps to foster ecological balance and large-scale biodiversity.
Cradle to Cradle certified products support manufacturers working toward the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Cradle to Cradle certification measures the safety, circularity, and responsibility of products based on material health, which accounts for the safety of materials used in certified products for humans and the environment; product circularity dependent on the use of regenerative products and process design; clean air and climate protection; water and soil health; and social fairness designed to protect human rights.
Standards and oversight tend to make certified products safer and healthier gifts. From toys made in the USA with 100 percent recycled materials to clothes certified by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, or produced by certified B Corporations, a growing selection of sustainable items offer choices to please even the most seasoned shopper!