New USDA Label Steers Consumers toward Renewables

While Congress continues to lag on passing a renewable energy standard, the US Department of Agriculture has a new plan to help consumers move away from fossil fuels.

The agency's new Biopreferred label will be slapped on products made from at least 25 percent renewable materials, instead of petroleum-based. So if you want to reduce the amount of oil in your life, look for the new logo starting this spring.

But what does that label tell you, exactly?

The USDA's press office says: "Biobased products are those composed wholly or significantly of biological ingredients - renewable plant, animal, marine or forestry materials." So that could be soy-based home insulation, corn-based foam packaging, and the like.

The USDA has already designated more than 5,000 biobased products as part of a 2002 program that mandates federal agencies give them preference. It says the new program will spur more biobased products, and create green jobs.

The new label will help promote the biobased concept on the shelves of Wal-Mart, says soybean producer Jim Schriver in Montpelier, Indiana.

The fifth-generation farmer says companies have been interested in soy-based innovations so that they, "can add something to their product and say they have a sustainable product." Making things with biomaterials reduces carbon emissions, he says, and helps businesses and customers reach environmental goals.

But he says if consumers are lured by the new labels, they may find that soy products can out-perform their oil-based counterparts, too. "The soy candles have less soot," he says, "and soy inks and paints have better color."

Flooring company Mohawk Industries makes a biobased carpet called SmartStrand with a corn-based polymer.

Sustainability director Jenny Cross says the company's interest in biobased technology is mostly out of concern over rising oil costs. Only about ten percent of Mohawk's customers ask for a sustainable product.

The new USDA label will promote biobased innovation across industries, Cross adds, the way EnergyStar did for electricy efficiency.

"It brings it under a bucket that's recognizable, and it's all companies doing that together."

But Scot Case at green marketing firm TerraChoice is critical of labels that only factor in one attribute of a product.

"You could have an Energy Star product that's laden with toxic materials," he says, "or a USDA BioPreferred product that's not better from a life cycle perspective than a petroleum-based product."

For example, an oil-based item may be more readily recyclable than its bio-based equivalent, making it a better overall choice for the environment.

Case says labels and ratings systems that factor in every aspect of a product's environmental footprint are much more complicated, but more valuable for business and consumers.

As for why the USDA would push a single-attribute label like BioPreferred, he says, "Well, it is their job to promote agricultural products, afterall."

The USDA has been criticized by some environment groups for making the BioPreferred standards too loose. Originally the agency suggested 50 percent renewable content as a benchmark for the label. But it found that so few products would meet that requirement, the label wouldn't get enough consumer visibility.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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