A Boston Globe article about the new trend of assessing the “life cycle” of foods (in other words, accounting comprehensively for all the resources—from fertilizer to fuel to packaging—involved in getting a foodstuff to market), is accompanied by a cartoon illustration of a grocery-shopping man holding a bunch of bananas tagged with an origins label so long it curls like a scroll. It’s funny, but more than that it perfectly encapsulates the today’s ethical-shopping consumer experience. We’re told that buying local is good—unless you’re buying lettuce grown in a greenhouse that requires so much fuel for heating that you’d be better off with sun-kissed Mexican frisée. We get psyched about strawberries for sale in June until we realize that they’re from New Jersey and we’re on Pacific time. 

What’s your average consumer, vaguely willing to make “the right choice” but unmotivated by the hours of research and exhausting philosophical-ethical legwork involved in making that choice, supposed to do? It’s enough to make anyone throw hands up in desperation and just run to the nearest KFC, or maybe I’m just craving crappy fried chicken.

The methodologies of Life Cycle Assessment, which the article describes as “an ambitious attempt to understand how food—and the massive, almost impossibly complex system that produces and moves it across the globe—affects the environment,” might help.  The idea originated among engineers and chemists in the late 1960s to assess the environmental impact of cars and appliances, but has started being applied to food in Europe and, increasingly, here. It takes into account everything from “fertilizer and fuel to the concrete and steel used to build a packing plant and the electricity used to keep it cool,” ultimately ascribing a score to the product so it can be compared to others in kind. For those shoppers who prefer the supermarket to the farmer’s market, for time, cost, or whatever other reasons, this might be one way to make ethical decisions easier. 


In the marketplace, retailers like Tesco and Bon Appetit, as well as the Swedish government, have made plans to affix “carbon labels” to products so that consumers can figure out how much carbon was used in production and distribution. On a slightly different plane, Whole Foods has suggested assigning stars to meat describing how humanely the animals were raised. In creating all these labels, however, we should strive for both accuracy and simplicity if we don’t want to end up, like the cartoon described above, completely perplexed by the literature accompanying our bunches of bananas. 

A very carefully designed set of labels based on Life-Cycle-Assessment scores—and widespread public education of the concept—would be a vital step forward in helping consumers suss out how green their produce really is.


Now, what’ll those look like?

Story by Nathalie Jordi. This article originally appeared in Plenty in June 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Labels for food miles
With all of the things to take into consideration, what's a food shopper to do?