Should we define a “sustainable” food label?

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Since the successful passage of a GMO labeling bill in Vermont earlier this year, much attention is being paid to other labels and claims on our food. As the FDA reaches out to the public for help to define “natural” and is pressured by industry players to redefine “healthy” (what’s healthier, whole foods or low-fat?), many people might be wondering about another word commonly used by food companies both “good food”-leaning and not: “sustainable.”

The biggest issues for words like “healthy” and “natural” seem to be its ephemeral understanding both in the public eye and amongst the science community: for instance, in the past, dieticians advised against coconut oil for its high levels of saturated fats, whereas now it’s practically praised as a miracle food. “Sustainable” is a bit more evergreen. But it is much more problematic to define as a food label.

So let’s first dissect what exactly sustainable means in food. Rather than having anything to do with taste or nutrition, it’s a production principle of not depleting resources in order to produce a food — and this is generally understood as the earth’s resources where “sustainable” is used to describe food (we’ll get more into that below). Its goal is to maintain healthful posterity for both that food and other environmental and human factors that may be affected by producing it. “Responsibly produced” is another common way of expressing the same.

It comes up a lot when restaurants and artisanal food brands describe their ingredients.

Food advocate and author Anna Lappé said of the word sustainable, “It’s a way of food production that generates abundance while ensuring future generations can do the same.” The Sustainable Food Trust, a nonprofit organization, highlights issues of global hunger, health, and biodiversity in its mission, as well as “good science” that “creates a deeper understanding of the complexity of our natural environments.” These concerns imply that “sustainable” is a broader philosophy, under which many individual challenges and goals may be explored. Indeed, there are many certifications and qualifications from third-party organizations that can be applied to food products — for everything from animal welfare to fair trade—which hinge on the word “sustainable.”

Therefore, there are three huge challenges to creating a “sustainable” food label:

1. Sustainability occurs on a sliding scale.

You can’t measure how sustainably a producer may be producing its food. Just how many crop rotations or heirlooms to promote biodiversity or roaming acres to allow livestock should a farm achieve to pass the sustainable litmus test? There are too many variables amongst individual farms to make any one-size-fits-all calls, and to impose them could result in unfavorable side effects.

2. Sustainable is also used to describe business viability.

Just as it applies to the health of the planet, sustainable can apply to the health of a business. It is all too easy to confuse the two meanings when used to describe a food company. For instance, a small-batch granola company can be an entirely unsustainable from a business standpoint while sourcing only sustainably produced ingredients. But, perhaps more frequently, a restaurant can be sustainable at operating efficiently at a profit, yet pay its workers horribly and rely on factory-farm meat from sick animals. Both could be called a “sustainable food business.”

3. Sustainable is an umbrella term for a great number of causes.

You could say that non-GMO and organic are both attempts at tying down a piece of the sustainability pie in food labeling. Same for Animal Welfare Approved, antibiotic-free, free-range, and cage-free. But what happens when a food business meets none of those merits, yet still describes itself as “sustainable”? Well, as of now, that is perfectly fine.

And therein lies the problem. You might be wondering by now, why all the talk about defining sustainable if we can’t really define it after all? Because understanding the tenets and existing formalities for sustainability in food will help us better identify truly sustainable practices from the hyperbole. And we are seeing a lot of “sustainable” hyperbole. Not just from that small-batch granola maker, too.

Take, for example, this corporate statement from Darden, Inc., the mother company of The Olive Garden and other restaurant chains. The posting was published the day before a campaign was launched by Friends of the Earth, a public-action network, calling on Darden to adopt “more ethical practices.” Taking stock of the landing page and many interior pages, the word “sustainable” comes up more than a dozen times. Yet the actions that Darden pledges in it are weak tea compared to any certifications such as those described above — pledging to phase out antibiotics “important to human medicine” in meat by 2016, battery-cage eggs by 2018, and gestation-crate pork products by 2025. I guess that’s why Friends of the Earth was pressuring them.

With many major food corporations pledging like crazy to phase out cage-free eggs and antibiotic-treated meat, the impending problem lies in supply. There are just not enough supplies of more sustainable food ingredients to go around if everyone adopts to these changes. But the word “sustainable” is not to be used in lieu of making more firm and immediate changes. It is not a bandage to struggling profits or poor public perception of one’s brand.

If you cannot afford or find a possible way to follow one sustainable practice, you can always find another. That’s where the vastness and flexibility of “sustainable” comes in handy. Perhaps you can’t make the pledge for only heritage meat, but you can commit to seafood from responsibly maintained fisheries. Say you can’t always ensure the local and pesticide-free origin of your fruits, but you can pledge to pay workers a fair and equitable salary. Going after these efforts with honesty and transparency — perhaps through achieving some of the labels that do exist in food — is a much better way to earn trust than a vague “sustainable” spin. Sure, it will be hard to fault a producer exactly for using the word “incorrectly.” But the public should be prepared with a good radar for BS where this word is concerned. There may never be an appropriate way to label “sustainable” in food, but understanding why will help us be more empowered to support the food production practices we truly value.


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