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Monday, November 09, 2009

Product Labeling: What's In Your Donut Today?

Back in May, looking for a quick snack at a Dunkin’ Donuts near Penn Station while in NYC for a conference, I saw something startling at the counter: calorie counts under each tray of donuts.  My favorite donut, Apple Crumb, had 460 calories, almost as much as a McDonalds quarter-pounder with cheese.  Thinking this was too much for my 9:30 am snack, I went with a glazed donut instead (220 calories). 

The calorie info was displayed thanks to a 2008 municipal law in New York City requiring calorie information at the point-of-purchase in all chain restaurants (the measure was upheld by the Second Circuit earlier this year against First Amendment and other challenges Download NYSRAOpinion).   Disclosure in NYC opened my eyes to what I was consuming, and it got me thinking more broadly about the role of labeling in consumer, public health, and environmental contexts.  If product labeling can help with nutritional choices, can it also be the path to ecological sustainability?  

Many countries now think so.  Eco-labels (which denote environmentally friendly products or help consumers compare products’ environmental characteristics) are proliferating in the EU and Japan. European car companies routinely tout cars’ CO2 emissions per kilometer in their ads.   Sweden now requires that the greenhouse gas emissions associated with food production and transport be listed on food packaging.   

And labeling is about to come to the United States in a big way.  In July, Wal-Mart announced that it is creating a worldwide “sustainability index” involving supplier disclosures about product impacts in four areas: energy and climate; material efficiency; natural resources; and “people and community.”   The information will be conveyed to consumers in a single sustainability rating for each product, right on the price tag.  Expect these new sustainability ratings in Wal-Mart stores in 2010 or 2011.

More widespread labeling about product sourcing, ingredients, and environmental impacts is a boon for consumers, and for environmental protection.   Consumers know more about the ingredients in a box of cookies than they do about the toxic contents of electronics, cleaning products, paints, or even upholstered furniture (which often contains flame retardants linked to cancer and birth defects). Cellphones, video games, and other personal electronic devices represent the fastest growing segment of energy use in the world, but how many of us know how much energy is consumed by our own gizmos? 

We seem to be entering an era of environment-related product disclosures that will make older labels, such as Energy Star, seem quaint by comparison.   Consumers are starting to demand more information on toxics, energy use, resource consumption, and even the conditions under which a product was made.  True, there might be only a small percentage of consumers who will track labels and adjust their buying habits accordingly.  But even if this segment is less than 10% of the market, it could still affect which products are stocked on the shelves.   I anticipate a number of legal conflicts from the labeling movement, including trade secret claims, contract disputes, consumer fraud, and international trade issues, but eco-labeling looks like a growth field that is not going away.

Posted by Noah Sachs on November 9, 2009 at 07:27 PM | Permalink


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