That can make it tricky to figure out if something is really as sustainable or natural as it claims—and what do they all mean anyway?
Breaking these labels and rankings down is helpful so you can shop for items that match your principles, diet, and health concerns. Below, seven sustainability labels and ratings systems, explained.
Related: Why Are These USDA Organic Chickens Crammed 3 Per Square Foot With Only "Porch" Access?
If you're just getting started, here's a handy guide to many of the more common food labels, like free range, pasture-raised, and no hormones, and you can also explore third-party verified labels such as Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved, and American Humane Certified, as well as the two most recent major labels below.
One of the biggest obstacles facing the consumer demand for affordable organic food is the limit of organic farmland (currently only 1% of U.S. farmland is organic). As conventional farmers work toward going back to their organic farming roots, it takes three years of transition to become officially organic certified by the USDA. During that transition, farmers essentially behave like organic growers but must sell food at conventional prices. Spearheaded by Kellogg-owned Kashi, The Organic Trade Association announced the new Certified Transitional label this year as a way to increase domestic organic production and offer consumers a way to purchase affordable food certified to avoid genetically modified seeds and prohibited conventional synthetic pesticides.
The American Grassfed Association (AGA) has offered certified grassfed meat for almost a decade. Now, to meet consumer demand for grassfed dairy products, the AGA has launched a new standard and certification process for grassfed dairy producers. The Certified American Grassfed Standard for dairy is the product of a collaborative effort including major organic dairy producers like Organic Valley. The new standard addresses what cows can eat, animal health and confinement, as well as sustainability. You can find this new label on products from Organic Valley, Maple Hill Creamery, and Trickling Springs Creamery.
Related: Why Grass-Fed Dairy Is Better For You—And How To Avoid The Fake Stuff
Beauty and Personal Care Labels
Introduced in March 2016, MADE SAFE is the first human health-focused certification to apply to a wide range of consumer products, including personal care, cosmetics, baby, and household items. Products bearing the MADE SAFE seal are reported to be free from ingredients considered to be known carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, reproductive toxins, neurotoxins, behavioral toxins, flame retardants, heavy metals, pesticides, toxic solvents, VOCs, or GMOs. Companies sporting the seal include S.W. Basics, and Naturepedic.
Related: 6 Ways To Eliminate Hidden Toxins From Your Baby's Bedroom
EWG VERIFIED takes Environmental Working Group’s widely used Skin Deep cosmetics and personal care rating system one step further. Approved companies must avoid ingredients flagged for potential health concerns, fully disclose their ingredients to consumers, ensure that their products are adequately preserved and free of contaminants, and follow good manufacturing practices. That's all to say that to be authorized to use the EWG Verified mark, a company must meet rigorous criteria. EWG Verified beauty brands include the likes of Beautycounter, Mychelle Dermaceuticals, and Sally B’s Skin Yummies.
Related: The 5 Most Toxic Beauty Products You’re Using—And The Best Organic Alternatives
Home Building Labels
Billed as "the nutrition label for buildings," DECLARE is a new transparency platform and product database used for LEED certification, developed by the International Living Future Institute. The label takes into consideration the lifecycle of building material, from where and how it’s made to where it goes at the end of its use. The Declare Label provides building manufacturers with a rubric to build more healthfully and sustainably, something that can be game-changing for what is currently an incredibly environmentally wasteful industry.
Related: The Toxic Home Conversation America Needs To Have
This web ranking system and app theoretically allows the user to swipe an item, say, a box of cereal, at the barcode to find out if it’s an ethical purchase, but the barcode function doesn't always work. Instead, the rankings are useful as far as browsing the HOWGOOD website for new sustainable and organic product ideas, like a new brand of coffee or potato chips. Products from pasta to coffee to canned goods are neatly categorized and ranked by a breakdown including use of pesticides, labor conditions, packaging, distribution practices, waste management, corporate structure, ingredient impact, and community engagement. You can also check out the app at howgood.com.
CLEAN LABEL PROJECT
A new label on the block, the Clean Label Project is dedicated to sussing out chemicals in pet foods (and moving on to baby foods next). The project recently launched with a pet food study examining more than 900 products from 74 brands for harmful contaminants. They license laboratory test results for heavy metals, chemical pesticide and herbicide residues, antibiotics and other potentially harmful contaminants. These ratings should be taken with a grain of salt, however—they measured for toxic chemicals, but didn't factor in nutrition in their ratings system. Plus, many of the chemicals they detected will show up in trace amounts in all soil and food sources.
Paige Wolf is the author of Spit That Out: The Overly Informed Parent's Guide to Raising Healthy Kids in the Age of Environmental Guilt, offering advice on making green living practical, manageable, and affordable. Follow @paigewolf on Twitter.