Making Unnatural Claims (G Magazine)

This article was nominated for the Australian Museum Eureka Prize 2008

There’s a bottle of moisturiser in my bathroom that, until last week, made me feel good. Not because of its scent or texture but because of how it looked sitting on my window ledge. Superficial, I know. The bottle is a pleasing shade of green, with a sketch of rosemary, lavender and geranium flanked on either side by the words ‘nature’s best’ and ‘earth friendly’. I felt I’d done an excellent thing choosing this moisturiser, and that it somehow represented a larger set of decisions I’ve made about my life.

But then I took a careful look at my bottle, and it turns out that none of the shrubbery in the picture show up in the ingredients list, not even the lavender (unless it’s ‘fragrance’). The most natural thing in my moisturiser is water. And I can’t imagine what the manufacturer thinks is friendly about it.

Sure, I could have checked this before bringing it home. I usually do so but was blindsided by the packaging. Lesson learned. But it’s not always easy to know if you’re making a responsible choice as a consumer and buying what you think you are.

Take the word ‘natural’, variants of which show up on scads of things in my house, from dog food to toothpaste. It is – with biodegradable, organic, and chemical free – one of the most common terms used to attract the green consumer. A product might be labelled natural because it doesn’t contain chemical additives, artificial preservatives, flavours, fillers or colouring, or is minimally processed. Or because it’s principal ingredient is derived from plant or animal matter.

At least that’s what manufacturers intend us to think when we see this word. As Choice Magazine explains, the use of words such as natural ‘can influence what we buy because they create a variety of positive expectations about the products they describe — but there’s no guarantee they’ll deliver.’ They found that products labelled natural were not necessarily ‘any different from or better than a similar product on the supermarket shelf.’ And they may not be environmentally preferable to their alternatives. The label natural isn’t monitored by either government or an independent body, and carries no legal definition, so it’s slippery at best.

‘Chemical free’ is another label heavy on implication but light on fact. As Emeritus Professor Ben Selinger, explains, ‘a myriad of natural chemicals can be dangerous, including a lot of herbal products. Everything on earth is made from chemicals. You can label them as natural or synthetic but that doesn’t neatly transfer into good and bad, safe and unsafe, or even environmentally friendly or unfriendly.’

So when you’re buying food, cosmetics, or even appliances, how do you know if the claims on the bag or box are legitimate? How can you be sure you’re not giving money to companies that are simply rebranding themselves in order to gain a foothold in the green market?

Fortunately, there are reputable organisations that scrutinise and administer labels relating to a product’s environmental standard: commonly called ecolabels. These organisations can be independent, industry-sponsored, federal or state departments or government-approved bodies. And while they can’t weed out all the pretenders or stop unscrupulous marketers from creating logos that look like they have substance when they do not, knowing which labels are worth your attention is a good start.

One of the most long-standing and well-regarded ecolabels is controlled by Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA). Petar Johnson is the Chairman of this national, not-for-profit, independent organisation that was founded in 1994 but wasn’t formally registered until November 2001 (there wasn’t much interest in ecolabelling schemes in the 1990s). He says, ‘Retailers have a responsibility to ensure that products they stock with environmental claims are actually honest declarations. This is not currently happening. The challenge is to ensure the new green demand shifts markets. For this to occur, consumers need to be properly informed of the environmental attributes of products so they know which ones are genuinely greener.’

Based in Canberra, GECA operates a voluntary labeling program – the Australian Environmental Certification Program. GECA’s program looks at the environmental impacts that occur during the life cycle (that is, its production, consumption and end of life) of a range of consumer and building products. They give their approval to goods that comply with guidelines set by the Global Ecolabelling Network (GEN) and International Standards Organisation (ISO). You may know GECA by another name: until 2006 it was called the Australian Environmental Labelling Association.

GECA’s credibility comes from their membership of GEN (which has a firm set of performance obligations for members), government audits to check they meet the ISO International Standard for Third Party Environmental Labelling and Declaration, and regular review by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (the ACCC). GECA’s labels are issued to companies for a period of two to five years, depending on the type of product, with one audit conducted during that time. To date, GECA has certified over 400 products.

According to the Department of the Environment and Water Resources, there are three types of ecolabels used in Australia:

•Labels that describe the whole impact of a product, as GECA does.

•Labels that evaluate one part of a product’s life, such as the energy and water rating labels for whitegoods.

•Labels that relate to production, used most often with food – certified organic is one example.

The International Standards Organisation (ISO) is a non-government technical standards body formed in 1947 and made up of 157 representatives from standards bodies worldwide – one per country, with its head office in Geneva. We are represented at the ISO by non-government body Standards Australia. Members of its technical assessment committee are not paid.

While not controlled by governments, the ISO’s recommendations often become law through treaties, or by being adopted by various countries as national benchmarks, making it quite powerful. Between 1947 and 2006, the ISO published more than 16,000 international standards documents.

The ISO has been criticised for being a bureaucratic behemoth, but since it draws from such a large pool of expertise its standards are used worldwide, making it quite powerful.

So who is responsible for granting and overseeing the use of some of the most common eco-labels? Let’s start with the big ones: water and power. Both have government-run labelling schemes.

The Water Efficiency Labelling Scheme (WELS) has, since July 2006, controlled how many stars we see on new washing machines, toilets, dishwashers, taps and showerheads. The more stars the better, with a maximum of six. As well as a star rating, the label shows a water consumption or water flow figure (per wash, per flush), allowing consumers to compare the water efficiency of different products. From January 2008 all such products will be bound by law to show a WELS rating.

The WELS website has a pretty comprehensive search facility so you can check the star rating and consumption rate of items before you go shopping. They point out that the star rating does not apply to second-hand products where consumption efficiency may have been affected by the age of the product.

The Smart Approved Watermark is a labelling scheme that deals with outdoor water-using products and services. The Sydney-based group is made up of: the Australian Water Association, the Irrigation Association of Australia, the Nursery and Garden Industry of Australia, and the Water Services Association of Australia, plus government representatives. A panel of technical experts from the plumbing, horticulture, and engineering industries assesses products. The federal government partly funds the group.

For a manufacturer to use a Smart Approved Watermark their product or service has to meet the criteria (too long to reproduce here), and pay a license fee, which allows them to use the label for two years. To use the label, the manufacturer must prove that its product or service is ‘directly related to reducing actual water use and/or using water more efficiently’.

To their great credit, the Smart Approved Watermark group use a waterless printing process for all their corporate material, and work with a printing company that aims to be carbon-neutral.

The rating system used for domestic appliances is similar to that used for water. Energy stars are issued by the federal and state government-run Energy Rating Label Scheme, which began in 1986. It wasn’t in use nationwide until 2000. It is now mandatory for manufacturers of refrigerators, freezers, clothes washers and dryers, dishwashers, some air conditioners, gas heating and hot water systems, to display a star rating which shows their level of usage as it relates to government minimum standards.

Like the water-equivalent, energy labels give a star rating from zero to six, and a consumption measurement. And as with water, the more stars and the lower the consumption rate number the better. Stars take into consideration the size of the object – a large freezer will use more energy than a small one, for example, but may be quite efficient as a model. The website points out that while regulation demands white goods show a star rating, it doesn’t mean the government has endorsed the product’s ‘quality or durability’. The label changed in 2000 when a new (stricter) set of standards was brought in.

Energy Star is the similarly named government-labelling scheme that focuses on office and home entertainment equipment like computers, printers, televisions and DVD players. It differs from the other stars in that it is not just an assessment of efficiency but a software program that actively reduces the amount of power used by equipment by switching it to ‘sleep’ mode when it’s unused for a set amount of time, and by reducing the power it uses in standby mode. Equipment with the Energy Star label on it is ‘enabled’ or activated when you buy it.

If you are using a computer that wasn’t labelled with an Energy Star when you bought it you can still use it following the downloadable instructions on their site. You may want to enlist the help of a tech-savvy friend.

In addition to buying appliances that use energy efficiently most of us want greener sources of power for our office and home. While we can’t yet directly access solar, wind, water and other sustainable energy sources off the grid, we can pay our power supplier to purchase, on our behalf, from a company that generates a cleaner source of energy. Right now, almost every energy supplier claims to offer green power, but they’re not all legitimate – or equivalent – which is where the third-party assessor GreenPower comes in.

Established in 1997, GreenPower is an accreditation program supported and managed by state and federal government, that sets standards for renewable electricity products offered by energy suppliers. When you buy some amount of green electricity (you can choose from ten to one hundred percent of your total consumption), your retailer will still source your supply from fossil fuels, but will ensure the same amount of environmentally friendly, renewable energy is put into the electricity network. Power sources that could cause environmental damage (such as large hydro projects or projects that intrude on native forests) are not approved.

Accredited GreenPower electricity suppliers submit regular reports to prove that sufficient approved renewable energy has been bought to meet customer demand. And suppliers themselves are required to buy GreenPower to run their own business.

There is another level of checks in place here, an assessment group checking the assessment group. Green Electricity Watch is made up of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Total Environment Centre and WWF Australia. A 2006 Green Electricity Watch report explains consumers need to be aware that the percentage of GreenPower they buy is what matters: ‘It’s only the accredited portions that make a difference. Even if the remainder is renewable, it consists of renewable energy that is already in the grid or already being counted towards mandatory targets.’ They recommend buying electricity labelled with the highest ranking and amount of accredited GreenPower, and to not buy non-accredited green electricity products.

Labelling windows and walls

R-values are assigned to walls, floors and ceilings and indicate the level of insulation they offer. Dr Tony Marker from the Australian Greenhouse Office uses the analogy of a thermos flask to explain R-values. ‘Think of the space between the inside and outside layers. If you put something in the void between the layers there is a conduction of energy from hot to cold that continues until the two temperatures are the same. An R-value tells you how hard it is for the heat to transfer from one side to the other. Typically in Australia, values go from about 0.5 (for, say, foil wrap) to 5 (thick bulk insulation). The higher the number the better the insulator reduces heat flow.’

Minimum acceptable R-values for homes are listed in the Building Code of Australia. The R-value of a home (or part thereof) refers to the amount of insulation provided by the combined building elements, that is, the brickwork or weatherboard plus the plasterboard plus insulation. Neil Evans, National Technical Director at the Master Builders Association says R-ratings are useful but says an energy-efficient house could not only meet the Code’s ‘deem to satisfy’ R-values but exceed them. He says there are software packages that trained builders and designers can use which allow them to go beyond R-values of unique objects and look at the energy efficiency of a house as a whole entity, taking into consideration its orientation, size, floor to window ratio and so on.

Windows have U-values instead, but in their case, the lower the number the better its insulating value. U-values measure how well a window stops heat from escaping. Residential windows will often display labels issued by the Window Efficiency Rating Scheme (WERS). Windows receive a maximum of five stars for their ability to retain cold or heat (depending on the climate), and the resulting energy impact on the whole house. The more stars the better.

And what of the labels ‘organic’, ‘all organic’ or ‘certified organic’? Sometimes it’s easy to spot cynical use of the word but there are hundreds of credible-looking labels that, on close examination, could just as easily have been issued by the Ponds Institute as an organics assessor.

When cosmetics companies use the word organic they are either being literal (their product contains a carbon-based compound, and carbon is found in everything that’s ever lived), whimsical (pure, natural, organic), or referring to the fact that some ingredients in their product were sourced from a legitimate supplier of organic plants. It doesn’t guarantee an absence in their product of non-organic perfumes, colourants or sudsing agents.

The word organic on food labels may mean the ingredients were grown on farms that employ organic methods – using holistic cultivation methods and no synthetic fertilisers, herbicides or pesticides. In the United States the National Organic Program governs the use of the label organic. Here, it’s heavily regulated by the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS) when produce is exported, but open to abuse for the domestic market, in a variety of ways. I buy a brand of pasta, for example, whose name is spelling like ‘organ’ with an extra letter. It displays labels saying ‘quality’, ‘gourmet’ and, of course, ‘natural’. But while it has many positive attributes it is not organic. None of its ingredients, however wholesome sounding, are organic. There’s no lie on the package; it merely offers me a selection of labels, images and letters that suggest organic. My brand of muesli bars has the word organic in its brand name but is made of a mix of ‘natural and some organic ingredients’

Labels that say ‘certified organic’ are different. For both food and cosmetics the label certified organic guarantees the product has been scrutinised by a third party. In Australia, there are eight organics certification companies that have been approved by AQIS. Labels from ACO and NASAA are the most common. Lyn Austin, an Executive Officer at NASAA, says ‘customers can have a degree of confidence that the label certified organic has substance to it. It’s not completely subjective, being supported by third-party rules and regulations.’ Obtaining the right to use NASAA’s logo is complex but in essence growers must agree to comply with NASAA’s written standards, prove they have a management plan in place to run their land organically, and allow inspections of their farm (including soil samples and assessment of the contamination potential from neighbouring properties). If they pass three years of surveillance (with annual and spot visits thereafter) they can use the ‘certified organic’ label. Until then, they label their products ‘conversion to organic’.

Organics certification groups also keep an eye on the labels ‘GE free’ and ‘GMO free’. Organic farming methods prohibit genetic engineering and modification but it is hard to monitor. Certifiers like NASAA do not issue labels saying GE- or GMO-free. The term they use is non-GMO. Lyn Austin explains that it is near impossible to test products to the point you can be confident no GM elements exist. Packages can claim that production and processing methods and materials haven’t used GMOs, but largely the onus is on the operator. Scott Kinear, from the Biological Farmers of Australia, says the Fair Trading Law, administered through the ACCC, ‘imposes a burden of truth on a manufacturer who says their products are GE free’. If a product labeled GE free is found to contain GE ingredients the manufacturer will be found in breach of trading laws. Companies that use the label GE-free do so, he says, ‘at their peril’ since penalties for misleading the public are serious.

In the United States, some organic food suppliers are trying new ways to use labels. Dole Organic, for instance, has a code on its bananas that corresponds with the grower of that fruit. If you key the code into their website, you can find the name of the grower, the farm, its location, and see photographs of the property. Yes, it’s a marketing strategy, but if you lived close enough you could, given these details, go to the farm and check for yourself.

Certification and labeling of Australian organics is about to undergo significant change, with Standards Australia pushing for one label and a unified national standard, a move applauded by most in the organics industry, including the Organic Federation of Australia.

What about the labels that accompany food from the sea? The most widely used is ‘dolphin friendly’, found on tins of tuna. Theoretically it means tuna has been caught without causing harm or death to dolphins who swim above them (whether by entangling them in nets or cutting them with boat propellers). However, there is no international certification board to monitor the use of this label. Some countries apply local law that governs its use.

Fiona Blinco from the Whale and Dolphin Society says this label is one that is the subject of much discussion among environmental groups. ‘To the best of our knowledge there is no local accreditation scheme. We recommend consumers be wary of this label, but it’s something we’re actively investigating.’

The Greenpeace website suggests this label be considered in a wider context: ‘While tuna may have been fished using methods less likely to catch dolphins, it may come from overexploited tuna stocks or have been caught using methods that impact on the marine environment in other ways.’ They recommend buying line-caught tuna when available.

Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC)

Founded in 1993 by WWF and other environmental groups from twenty-five countries, the FSC aims to promote responsible management of forests by establishing a worldwide standard of practices. The FSC doesn’t certify forest operations or manufacturers itself; it certifies third-party organisations to inspect forests and woodlands to see if they are being managed according to the FSC’s standards.

FSC members include WWF, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, as well as some large companies (such as IKEA). It is funded by charitable foundations, governments, and accreditation fees. The FSC label has been subject to some controversy: over the years wood products have had to contain decreasing amounts of certified wood to use the label (from seventy to thirty percent); and environmentalists argue that many countries can’t afford the certification.

Marine Stewardship Council (MSG)

The MSG was initially established in 1997 by food giant Unilever and conservation organisation WWF to find a solution to overfishing. In 1999, the MSG became independent from both organisations. It awards its ecolabel to environmentally responsible commercial fisheries that have achieved its standards of acceptable, sustainable practice. The MSG label has come in for criticism also, with claims that its standards for good fishing practice are too general. However, all of the environmental groups I spoke with held the label in high regard. Of course, our consumption habits impact on many animals. The label ‘not tested on animals’ is most commonly found on cosmetics and household products but there are moves in the UK to extend this to pharmaceuticals. (If you need any convincing that cruel and unnecessary testing still takes place check the PETA website.)

Cherie Wilson is a director and accreditation officer with Choose Cruelty Free (CCF). They allow their logo to be used by companies that have filled out a document guaranteeing none of the ingredients in their products, the end mix or its packaging have been tested on animals. Once a company vouches for this in writing, CCF adds them to their register. Companies cannot use the CCF logo until they pay a licensing fee.

Cherie says there is an element of trust at work, since they do not audit the companies on their register or pay spot visits. However, she says, the licensing document is legally binding and if they were to receive any complaint that the company has misled them they would take them to court. To date, they’ve not had to do that. ‘We have threatened cosmetic companies when they’ve used our logo without us knowing anything about them,’ she says.

She expresses concern at the use of the label ‘not tested on animals’ when it’s not accompanied by a recognised logo. ‘I’d treat that with great caution, and suspicion. It’s such a rubbery term.’ In Australia, she says, labels on food are much more rigorously scrutinised than on cosmetics. When purchasing imported cosmetics she suggests consumers look for the Humane Cosmetics Standard label, launched in 1998 by an international coalition of animal protection groups.


Labelling a substance biodegradable means it will break down into simpler parts within a reasonably short time after disposal. The length of time varies depending on the material and where it is disposed of. For example, in landfills materials degrade slowly, and some not at all. Plastics other than bioplastics are not biodegradable because their molecules are too large and tightly bound to separate and decompose.

In any case, biodegradable status does not mean an item is healthy or safe for the environment. Some products become quite toxic as they degrade.

There is a government standard for biodegradability, but according to Anna Bowden from Planet Ark it doesn’t amount to much, and the label is misleading. She says, ‘biodegradable does not necessarily mean the product is fully biodegradable – it may only be a portion.’ With laundry detergent, for instance, only the surfactant needs to be biodegradable for the products to be labeled as such, even though that ingredient may be as little as ten percent of its content.

And what of the plastic container that my moisturiser is housed in? It has the number 2 in a triangle stamped on the bottom of it. Honi Walker from the Plastics Industry (PACIA) tells me this means it can be recycled. She explains that the numbers one to seven can be found on some plastics containers, and they make up part of the (voluntary) Plastics Identification Code.

‘Plastic containers labelled 1, 2 and 3 can be recycled for use in other products,’ she says. ‘Plastics marked 4 to 7 can be recycled but due to the high cost of implementing recycling programs they are more difficult.’

PACIA says consumers can be confident that plastic labeled 1, 2 and 3 will be recycled, but Stuart Fyfe from Planet Ark says it’s not that simple. ‘While the vast majority of plastics manufacturers in Australia are compliant with this system, there are still some that do not mark their products, making it impossible for consumers to identify whether it can be recycled. There is also the problem that local councils will not necessarily accept all plastics for recycling. Many will only accept numbers 1 to 3 while some will take 1 to 5 and a smaller portion 1 to 7.’ Planet Ark recommends visiting, to check which plastic are accepted by your local counciI.

At least PACIA is making an effort at transparency, so to speak. In other industries new labels show up all the time that mean little but afford producers the opportunity of putting the words green, eco or environment on their packaging. When I bought my recycled, unbleached toilet paper yesterday it came with a label I’d not seen before. It said the paper had ‘enviro-quilting technology’. If anybody has a clue what that means, I’d love to know.

Website addresses for further reading:

Australian Greenhouse Office:

Australian Standards Organisation:

Biological Farmers Association:

Choose Cruelty Free:


Energy Rating Scheme:

Energy Star:

Forest Stewardship Council:

Good Environmental Choice Australia:

Global Ecolabelling Network (GEN):

Green Power Australia:

Humane Cosmetics Standard:

Insulation Council of Australia and NZ:

International Standards Organisation:

Marine Stewardship Council:

National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia:

Plastics and Chemicals Industry Association:

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals:

Planet Ark:

Smart Approved Watermark:

Water Efficiency Labelling Scheme:

Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society:

Windows Efficiency Rating Scheme:






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