It all started with turkey. (The bird, not the country.) Personally, I’m partial to meat without loads of hormones and antibiotics in it (plus I’m allergic to gluten), so I tend to read food labels in detail. So when I read “All Natural” on the front of the Butterball ground turkey package, my first thought was: “what does that mean?” There are plenty of things that are “natural” but that doesn’t always equate to “good.” Cyanide, mercury and lead can fall under the general category of something natural, after all. Fortunately the USDA has a handy little glossary of meat and poultry labeling terms that defines what “natural” means when it comes to that innocuous little packet of Butterball ground turkey, as certified by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
Turns out, an “All Natural” label on meat, which is likely aimed at people with some level of concern about health or perhaps animal rights issues, just means there is no nitrite present in the meat; it has nothing to do with Butterball’s environmental track record or about practices on the poultry facilities. In fact, the Humane Society of the United States has accused Butterball of animal cruelty, and a Mercy For Animals investigation in 2012 revealed a pattern of animal abuse and neglect at several facilities in North Carolina. So just because the turkey comes along in a pleasing package with green accents and the words “All Natural” on the front, doesn’t mean that the turkey frolicked in green pastures with its turkey friends, having turkey fun, without being pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics and living out its days in cramped, dark, dingy places like something from a B horror film (if that’s something that is important to you as a consumer).
The turkey got me thinking about branding in general, and how there are a range of branding and labeling techniques used to sell to a certain market – a conscientious market.
There’s information – but is there time?
Given our industrialized and global society, everything from clothes to food to electronics carries with it a complex story by the time it reaches the rack, your table, or the shelves. But sometimes what you think is a quirky animated family film turns out to be a gritty urban noir!
The great thing is that today’s consumers are increasingly conscientious and have unprecedented access to information about that story, and thus consumers can make more informed choices about which companies to support and which to boycott, depending on what issues are most important to them.
The tricky part is that figuring out that story often takes time – a lot of it – and effort – a lot of that, too – and a willingness to go down the fiber optic rabbit hole, because let’s be real, who has the time (or willpower) to do a full in-depth investigation every time you need to pick up a roll of toilet paper? Packaging, commercials, and certifications are used to target consumers and deliver a certain amount of information that the consumer may deem important. Cage-free. Cruelty-free. Antibiotic-and-hormone-free. (Apparently we like a lot of things “free.”)
Companies are selling products and need to market those products – I get it. Though it feels somewhat disingenuous to call what’s essentially sugar water, “Vitamin Water,” or claim that your baby shampoo is “as gentle to eyes as pure water” (no, it’s not! It really hurts!), it’s less offensive (nee, potentially harmful?) than other forms of misleading branding.
Fair trade labeling, for example, is a great concept, promoting companies and products that theoretically adhere to certain rights standards. It’s visible (a pretty little sticker or label), and simple (“hello consumer, this is a good thing to buy if you care about the rainforest or, you know, hate slavery”).
The fair trade labeling certification system, like all systems, has its flaws. Consider, for example, that a company can promote itself as a Fair Trade company, even if only a small percentage of its products are Fair Trade certified. This article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review looks at the complicated impact of certification for Fair Trade coffee. While it is generally a very useful tool aimed at improving standards around the world and giving more voting power to the consumer to support important issues (a worthy pursuit, of course), there are some inconsistencies with fair trade labeling that make it occasionally unreliable.
For example, companies can apply for and receive the fair trade label, even if they’re only part way through improving conditions. So a company can theoretically acquire a Fair Trade certification before all the standards are met, and follow up in ensuring that all labor rights standards is not always consistent, or at least imperfect. Factory visits are often scheduled ahead of time (allowing for factory owners to pretty up their facilities temporarily for the sake of the walk-through), or on occasion even conducted via telephone. Trust in self-regulation in the realm of capitalist economics doesn’t have the best track record.
Don’t get me wrong; I think fair trade labeling is a wonderful idea and a useful tool. It’s just that, like most things, it can’t always be taken at face value.
For a start, Fair World Project has put together a useful analysis of different fair trade certifications – which are more trustworthy and why - with a handy breakdown to explain the grade (whether good or less than stellar) that a certification gets. Think about what issues matter most to you and there are a number of resources out there - from apps to articles - to help you make an informed decision as a consumer. Also, consider signing a petition regarding something you care about. Whether it’s about demanding more humane conditions in the chocolate industry, the garment industry, or improving fair trade certification systems, there is always something you can do, and always a place to start.
Questions? Comments? Talk to us!