Understanding Labels & Certifications as a Conscious Consumer

As aspiring conscious consumers, the noisy marketplace can be overwhelming. Undefined terms like clean, eco-friendly, sustainable, natural, free-range of cage-free make it confusing for shoppers trying to choose ethical products. Certifications exist to aid the consumer in making these decisions. However, do we actually understand the validity and qualifications of the certifications we trust? I attempted to dig up the dirt around these labels. Keep on reading for a quick information session on the most popular eco certifications.

To be fair, I went into a deep rabbit hole while researching these certifications. There are multiple sides to every claim, and I have more questions now than when I began. The conclusions drawn here are my opinions, I would love to discuss differing views and broaden my understanding! So, drop a comment and tell me what you think.

Disclaimer: I listed examples of certified organizations below each label description. However, this is in no way meant to be a call to support these companies through purchase decisions. As always, do your own research and analyze the companies as a whole.


1% for the Planet

Initiated by the founder of Patagonia, this program does not analyze business practices, rather what they do with the profits from those practices. Members contribute 1% of their gross profits to environmental non-profits and engage in an advising partnership with counterparts in the non-profit organizations. In theory, this is a wonderful program to support change. However, the businesses themselves may continue the same harmful ecological and social practices within their own supply chain. There is no regulation on that front. Yes the donations through 1% have made an impact, but I would rather encourage organizations to remedy the root cause of the issues.

Greenwashing? Potentially.

Examples: Patagonia; King Arthur Flour; High Brew Coffee; Honest Tea


B Corp

Certified B Corporations balance profit with a greater purpose. Founded under the principle that for-profit business is necessary to aide non-profit and government organizations in the achieving inequality, poverty, climate change, etc. solutions, the B Corp label is the symbol of a “good business”. These socially-responsible businesses consider the impact of every operational decision. The acquisition of this certification is three-fold. Companies must 1) pass an assessment assuring social and environmental performance standards, 2) commit to B Lab requirements in their governing documents, and 3) pay an annual fee ranging from $50 to $50,000. All aspects of the business are analyzed – from supply chain to employee benefits. There are 2,500+ Certified B corps around the world in a myriad of industries.

Greenwash? Nope.

Examples: Alter Eco; Avocado Green Mattress; Bee’s Wrap; Bombas; Brew Dr; Dr. Brite; Dr. Bronner’s; Emmy’s Organics; Garden of Life; Hilary’s; Jeni’s Splendid; King Arthur Flour; NadaMoo; New Belgium; Numi Organic Teas; REBBL; Ripple; Sir Kensignton’s; Soapbox; The Soufull Project; Navitas; Rachio; Recycle-A-Textbook; Tom’s of Maine; Vital Farms

You can view each company’s B Impact score through the directory!


Certified Carbon-Neutral

A business has achieved carbon-neutrality when its carbon footprint has been reduced to zero through internal process efficiency and external emission reduction support. This certification outlines a protocol to aide businesses in achieving neutrality. Either entire organizations or individual projects can be certified. Third-party experts analyze emissions and develop data-collecting procedures. Supported by the National Capital Partners, this certification signifies an ongoing commitment, not necessarily the achievement of neutrality.

Greenwashing? Not really.

Examples: Microsoft; Sky


Certified Gluten Free

This label is the result of third-party verification guaranteeing quality and integrity. With serious allergies on the line, this strict certification can be trusted. However, gluten-free is not an automatic seal of “health” or “eco-friendly”. Choose gluten-free items produced by companies conscious of their impact in other areas.

Greenwashing? The label can be trusted, but alone does not guarantee a “good” product.

Examples: Nature’s Path; Primal Kitchen; Purely Elizabeth

Climate Neutral Certified

Similar to the certification above, this program measures emissions to calculate the deficit organizations need to overcome through carbon-offsetting measures. However, instead of changing internal processes, they purchase “carbon credits”. These credits apparently help accelerate the transition toward climate change solutions. The solutions that the credits support are verified by third parties. I understand this process is better than ignoring the issue all-together, but a truly green company would be actively searching for internal solutions as well. Research the company as a whole – the Climate Neutral site displays in-depth measurements of every company under their umbrella.

Greenwashing? It could be a green band-aide.

Examples: Avocado Green Mattress; Bread Alone; Twine Fair Trade

FairTrade

The FairTrade label applies to food and clothing products that are produced in line with monetary compensation regulations. Governed by Fairtrade International, Farmers must be treated ethically and paid a minimum that protects them from market price variability. Premiums are used to improve the producing communities’ through social and environmental projects. The certification process can take up to 9 months, during which the Fair Trade committee and third-party organizations analyze production methods. Audits are conducted annually to ensure the supply chain upholds the strong ethical guidelines. Critics of the label suggest there is no true way to analyze and protect working conditions – Are the funds being used as they were intended? Also, with many women around the world creating artisan products in their homes (not through an organization), it is challenging to regulate their conditions.

Greenwashing? Potentially. Do your research on the company as a whole. Better than standard for sure!

Examples: Cocokind; The Roasterie; Driscolls; Alter Eco; Lundberg Family Farms; Wholesome; Boll & Branch; Pottery Barn

Interesting Frobes article.

Forest Stewardship Council Certifications

The FSC Forest Management certifications confirm that “a specific area of forest is being managed in line with the FSC Principles and Criteria.” Forest owners or managers contract with an accredited certification community or join a Forest Management Group to begin the audit process. Every organization involved in the production, manufacturing, processing, and trading must be verified through the FSC Chain of Custody Certification. The labels have three tiers: 100%, MIX, and Recycled. Critics of the FSC claim the sustainability standards do not decelerate tropical deforestation and even greenwash illegal logging operations. As always, check the company’s other sustainability standards to verify authenticity.

Greenwashing: Potentially. Much better chance for sustainable procurement than un-controlled wood.

Search for FSC-verified materials HERE.

GBB

Rather than certifying an entire organization, The Green Business Bureau’s (GBB) receives recognition for individual activities. In addition to identifying completed sustainability efforts, the GBB helps guide future initiatives and progress. This assessment allows small businesses to truly customize sustainability measures. Cost is dependent on business size ($375 – $875).

Greenwash? No.

Global Organic Textile Standard

This certification guarantees that a product maintained an organic standard throughout production – from raw material harvest to labelling finished goods. Chemicals used must meet strict environmental and non-toxic criteria. The Global Organic Textile Standard

Examples: Avocado Green Mattress; Boll & Branch

Guaranteed Fair Trade

This certification is different from the Fair Trade label discussed above. It is governed by the World Fair Trade Organization – a democratic community of social enterprises that engage in fair trade practices in all aspects of their business, not just sourcing and production. These companies aspire to “transform local communities, pioneer upcycling, empower women, champion refugee rights and practice organic farming.” Their reach impacts over a million livelihoods (and 74% are women!).

To be included, rigorous self-assessments and audits must confirm the organization puts their people and the planet first. It could be argued the same downfalls of FairTade apply here as well. However, because the WFTO is total-enterprise-focused, this certification has a stronger foundation.

Greenwashing? Nope.

Examples: Dr. Bronner; Maggie’s Organics; Ten Thousand Villages

USA Sub-Group: Fair Trade Federation

Leaping Bunny

Awarded by Cruelty Free International, Leaping Bunny is the only internationally recognized certification organization for cruelty-free brands. As such, it is touted at the gold standard for cruelty free cosmetics, personal care, and household products. Compliant businesses have monitored supply chain systems (ingredient manufacturer -> final product) that are analyzed through ongoing independent audits. They must also adhere to a fixed cut-off date policy. Fees start at $70 and depend on size of business.

Greenwash? No.

Examples: Burt’s Bees; Dr. Bronners; Drybar; Lululemon

Interesting article about VEGAN label legitimacy and meaning.

LEED

This certification is granted through the U.S. Green Building Council. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design is an ecology-oriented certification awarded to buildings committed to environmental stewardship across several categories, like energy use and air quality. LEED buildings can earn Silver, Gold or Platinum ratings, depending on ecological impact.

Greenwash? No.

Examples: One Bryant Park (NYC); Shanghai Tower (China); Yale School Of Forestry & Environmental Studies (New Haven, CT); San Francisco International Airport Terminal 2 (San Francisco, CA)

Marine Stewardship Council Standards

A company is supported by the Marine Stewardship Council when it meets a set of standards for sustainable fishing worldwide. These standards are consistent with guidelines provided by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), ISEAL and the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative (GSSI). Reviews of practices are conducted by independent academics, fellow NGOs, governments and industry experts. The MSC was jointly founded through a project between a third party and company (WWF and Unilever). Therefore, experts claim the sway of the organization leans toward loose standards that benefit profiting corporations. Much like modern day waterways, this certification is murky. Does it hold water? It is a good place to start, but I’d suggest researching the individual company in depth to ensure sustainable practices all around.

Greenwashing? Likely. Do a deep dive yourself.

Looking for examples? Access the database here.

PETA-Approved Vegan

The process to receive this certification is not rigorous or assured by a third party. Companies simply must fill out a questionnaire to promise their products are vegan and pay an annual fee of $250. It is called their “beauty Without Bunnies” program.

Greenwash? Possibility of false documentation. So, yes.

Rainforest Alliance Certified

This certification seeks to support the environmental health of forests around the world. The seal claims a farm, forest, or tourism enterprise meets environmental, social, and economic sustainability standards. Rather than guaranteeing a minimum price (like FairTrade), the Rainforest Alliance focuses on improving farmers’ environmental management holistically through encouragement to protect biodiversity, conserve natural resources, sustainable ecosystem management, and pay workers ethical wages for improved well-being. The Rainforest Alliance was actually a founding member of the FSC and continues to work with them on their forest policies.

Greenwashing? Nope.

Examples: Yogi Tea; Evolved; Chocolove; Patagonia; Teapigs; Miss Jone’s; Newman’s Own; Follow Your Heart; Yum Butter

Find more here!

SITES

Rather than a general-sticker-of-approval certification, SITES outlines unique performance measures for each project under its umbrella. It is joint effort of the American Society of Landscape Architects, The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the United States Botanic Garden. Landscapes with this certification filter and reduce rain runoff, utilize less water overall, reduce energy consumption, and improve air quality. Registration and introductory fees range from $8,000 – $9,000.

Greenwash? No.

Examples: Dell Medical District—University of Texas at Austin; Hunts Point Landing – Bronx, NY

The Whole Grain Stamp

The Whole Grain Council oversees the qualification for stamp usage. Companies must apply, submit products for review, and pay a membership fee. The stamp could be 100%, 50%+, or Basic. These tiers signify what quantity of the product is deemed as “Whole Grain”. Basic – the lowest level – means the product is over half non-whole grain, but there are still 8g per serving. I think 100% and 50% are self-explanatory. Products could be whole grain but not have the stamp on their packaging. On the flip side, an unsubstantiated “whole grain” phrase could appear on packaging when the product has very minimal whole grain inputs.

Greenwash? Read the label. Also try to uncover if those grains are responsibly procured.

Examples: Mary’s Gone Crackers; King Arthur Flour; Canyon Bakehouse; Pamela’s Products; General Mills

TRUE Zero Waste

The Green Business Certification Inc. administers this certification to businesses and projects that are actively working toward zero waste, reducing their carbon footprint, and supporting public health. The TRUE Zero Waste Certification means the company/project has diverted 90%+ of non-hazardous materials from landfills, incineration, and the environment over the past year. The annual fee ($1,200 – $1,500) is dependent on the square footage of operations.

Greenwash? No.

USDA Certified Organic

This certification addresses soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives in food production. Certified Organic items are produced without forbidden methods (genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, sewage sludge) or prohibited substances (arsenic, potassium chloride) and are overseen by a USDA National Organic Program-authorized certifying agent. Produce is verified if no prohibited substances have been used in the soil for a minimum of three-years prior to testing. Organic meat regulations mandate natural behaviors (pasture grazing), 100% organic feed and forage, and no antibiotics or hormones. Processed food regulations guarantee no artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors. These processed organic foods can contain approved non-agricultural ingredients, like yogurt enzymes, pectin, or baking soda. An “organic” packing claim should not be trusted unless backed by a certification seal. One exception: organic farmers who sell less than $5,000 worth of product do not need to pay for certification. Critics believe that big businesses involved in organic certification are continually lowering the standards. For example, an amendment made in 2006 added a list of allowed artificial ingredients.

Greenwashing? Potentially. Look into other eco-claims to determine sustainable farming practices. Buy small and local when possible.

Examples: Allegro Coffee Company; Bob’s Red Mill; Forager

SIMPLY SUSTAINABLE EBOOK – FREE

MARVELOUS MEDITERRANEAN EBOOK – FREE

The Caffeine Conundrum

What is caffeine?

To many, it is synonymous with energy, alertness, the jolt you need to get moving and grooving.

But what is it really?

It’s a crystalline compound (C₈H₁₀N₄O₂) that stimulates the central nervous system of the consumer. Caffeine is quickly absorbed into the blood stream and broken down by the liver. The resulting compounds primarily effect brain function, through bypassing the effects of the neurotransmitter responsible for relaxation – adenosine. This phenomenon increases the activity of dopamine and norepinephrine, boosting blood adrenaline levels.

 

Bottom line: Caffeine stimulates the brain and results in a heightened nervous state of alertness and focus.

Primary sources of caffeine are coffee, tea, and cacao. Approximately 80% of the world’s population (90% of North American adults) consume at least one caffeinated beverage every day. Coffee is the boost-beverage of choice for the vast majority of North American consumers. With approximately 100mg of caffeine per cup, it can provide the surge of energy needed to seize the day.

 

The effects of caffeine have been analyzed by many – with results indicating positive nutritional and functional benefits. Caffeine elevates cognitive alertness, which has been shown to increase memory retention for up to 24 hours. Consumption prior to a workout can decrease inflammation and increase muscle torque. It has also been shown to help regulate blood sugar levels, leading to stable insulin sensitivity and a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The stimulating properties of caffeine can also fire up your metabolism, aiding in weight management. Antioxidants and polyphenols in coffee, tea, and cacao also provide nutritional benefits.

These results seem fabulous. Increased energy and a myriad of other benefits? We should all be chugging cup after cup of coffee. Right? Not necessarily. 

As with most things in life, the greatest benefits are realized through consumption in moderation. The recommended caffeine threshold for an adult is 300mg per day. The equivalent of two Tall brews from Starbucks. Sipping on a small cup of coffee at the start of your day could provide the benefits discussed above. However, the average American consumes over 3 cups throughout the day. So what happens when the scale tips toward the dark side of caffeine excess? 

The stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system caused by caffeine shifts the body into a fight-or-flight state of awareness. The smaller boost provided by a single cup of coffee can be beneficial in the morning when your hormones are primed for higher cortisol levels. However, continual stimulation can send the system into overdrive. Extended periods of heightened adrenaline cause physiological issues such as high blood pressure and heart rate as well as psychological downsides. Caffeine excess can increase the propensity to irritability, anxiety and panic. The problem does not lie with the chemical compound of caffeine itself, but rather continual consumption which repeatedly activates and overrides the nervous system without allowing for adequate recovery. The hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis is the subsystem which regulates hormones and manages stress. Over time, the heightened cortisol levels disrupt the normal patterns of other hormones, bypassing the HPA axis and ultimately causing dysfunction. The result is adrenal fatigue. The HPA axis can no longer properly manage the effects of caffeine, so it shuts down – draining energy instead of boosting it. 

So what can be done? How can the benefits of caffeine be achieved without the risk of excess? For many, the answer lies in tea. The polyphenols and antioxidant properties found in coffee are also present – sometimes to an even greater extent – in various forms of tea. The world of tea also offers a vast range of choices. Different flavors. Different benefits. Different caffeine levels. At 40mg per 8oz cup, black tea contains the highest level of caffeine. With only 20mg per cup, white tea offers the least. Herbal infusions such as chamomile are caffeine free. Mindfully choosing and brewing a cup of tea can give your nervous system a gentle boost without causing detrimental fatigue.

How to Make Almond Milk

Homemade almond milk.

It sounds so fancy. So bougie. And so complicated.

But guess what: It’s not.

Only a couple ingredients.

Less the five minutes of active work.Sounds pretty fabulous to me.

But still – Why make almond milk if you can just buy it from the store?
1. No artificial stabilizers.
2. Smaller batches for less waste.
3. More bang for your buck – get almond meal too.
4. Less expensive in the long run.
5. Sustainable option – no cartons get trashed.

Those are pretty solid reasons if ya ask me.

So let’s get to it.

The process starts with soaking raw almonds for at least 8 hours.

I typically do this overnight on Friday to make a fresh batch on Saturday mornings.

Use a jar at least double the volume of the almonds – they will swell as they absorb some water.

When the soak-time is up, drain and rinse the almonds.

Add them to your blender with fresh water, a pinch of salt, and maybe a splash of vanilla.

How much water?

About 4 to 5 cups per 1 cup of pre-soaked almonds.

You can always adjust this ratio for your batch size.

Example: If I soaked 1/2 cup of almonds, I would add 2 – 2 1/2 cups of water.

To make the milk, blend on high for 2 minutes, then strain through a nut milk bag.

A nut milk bag? Yep. I’s finer and more durable than a cheesecloth. I love mine from Ellie’s Best!

Squeeze all of the liquid out until you are left with this nut pulp.

But don’t throw it away.

Use it to make almond flour!

Spread onto a cookie sheet and dehydrate in a 200 degrees oven for about an hour. Then pulse in a blender to break up the chunks.

Now you have almond meal to use in recipes.

Happy nut milking!

Homemade Almond Milk

Cost-effective, delicious, and easier than you think!

Ingredients

  • 1 cup almonds
  • 4-5 cups water
  • 1/8 tsp sea salt
  • 1/4 tsp vanilla *optional

Instructions

  • Soak the almonds for 8 hours / overnight.
  • Drain and rinse the almonds.
  • Add to a blender with the fresh water, salt, and vanilla.
  • Blend on high for 2 minutes.
  • Pour through a nut milk bag over a large bowl. Squeeze all of the moisture out of the almond pulp.
  • Transfer the almond milk to a glass jar and store in the fridge for up to 5 days.

Notes

Save the pulp to make almond flour!
Spread out on a cookie sheet and bake at 200 degrees for about an hour. Then pulse in a food processor to break up the dried clumps.

Quick Guide to Flour Swaps

It’s no secret that gluten-free baking can be tricky.

All these random flours that aren’t actually flours?

Do you really need all of the exact types of flours the recipe calls for?

It’s confusing.

So here’s a quick guide to acceptable swaps that generally work.

*Note: Every recipe is different. Swap at your own taste bud risk.

Almond Flour

made from blanched almonds; lighter in color than almond meal

best to incorporate in portions (i.e. swap 1/2 flour for almond); some recipes can handle a 1:1 for wheat swap, but density will be effected

paleo / grain-free

Almond Meal

made from unpeeled / un-blanched almonds; more course than almond flour; could be subbed for almond flour with the understanding the texture will be different

tip: make your own by saving and dehydrating leftover almond pulp from homemade almond milk

paleo / grain-free

Amaranth

ancient grain from the same botanical family as wheat and rice; higher protein content

more dense than wheat, chickpea, and oat

not grain-free

Arrowroot

called flour and powder; made from plant roots

can be used in place of cornstarch as a thickener; works well in frying batter

paleo / grain-free

Brown Rice

avoid gritty texture by purchasing finely ground varieties

more dense than white rice flour; comparable to wheat and oat flours

not grain-free

Buckwheat

actually a fruit…!

more dense than wheat, chickpea, and oat; distinct brown color

not grain-free

Cassava

unprocessed cousin of tapioca starch, making it paleo

swap for starches in some recipes; potential to swap for rice and oat flours

paleo / grain-free

Chickpea

also called Garbanzo Flour; distinct flavor

fairly easily swapped for wheat, oat, and quinoa flours

not grain-free

Coconut

DOES NOT SWAP WELL

the most absorbent flour in existence; swap at your down risk

paleo / grain-free

Corn Flour

hearty and dense flour; be mindful of grind

potential to swap for wheat and oat if it suites the recipe

not grain-free

Corn Starch

starch from ground corn

primarily used as a thickening agent; can be swapped with arrowroot powder

not grain-free

Flaxmeal

ground flaxseeds; chock full of healthy omega-3 and fiber

swap in portions (i.e. 1/4 flour for flaxmeal) for most recipes; others may tolerate 1:1 swaps

paleo / grain-free

Oat

just ground oats; most wheat-like flavor

can swap for wheat, chickpea, and  flours

not grain-free

Potato Starch

different than potato flour; less dense

possibel to sub for arrowroot in certain recipes

paleo / grain-free

Quinoa

medium-density flour with a distinct flavor

swaps well for wheat, oat, and chickpea flours

not grain-free

Tapioca

also made from the cassava root, but bleached and processed

possible to sub for arrowroot and cassava

grain-free

White Rice

gritty texture – be sure to get finely ground; different than sweet rice flour

beneficial for fluffiness in baked goods; use in conjunction with oat, chickpea, or quinoa

not grain-free

Guide: Build a Grocery Budget

You clicked over to this site for a reason. And making it past the first couple sentences of this article means you’re somewhat motivated. So, what is your motivation?

Are you ready to adopt a more economically sustainable lifestyle? Do you want to reduce food expenses and stick to a budget? Looking to be more organized? Are you just a budget nerd who likes to read my finance rambles for fun? All of the above?

Great. You’re on the right track.

Now whenever budgeting seems tedious, remember your WHY and you’ll stick to your WHAT.

It’ll help you stick to your HOW MUCH.

I’m guessing most of you probably have some semblance of a budget to start out. Fabulous.

If you need a quick refresher, just remember the basics:

INCOME – (FIXED COSTS + VARIABLE COSTS) = SAVINGS

Using that simple equation, we’re going to flesh out your unique food budget. Let’s call this your foodie formula.

AVAILABLE INCOME

(FIXED COSTS: membership costs, subscriptions, etc.

+

VARIABLE COSTS: non-perishables / online, grocery, dining out, miscellaneous extras)

= SAVINGS

Here’s an example of what a fleshed-out foodie formula could look like:

I’ve created a blank Foodie Formula Template to help you lay out your expenses and determine a bottom line.

The first step is understanding your available income. This would most likely be your remaining income balance after “life costs” like rent, insurance, etc. are removed. Calculate this total and then spread into weekly allowances.

To determine a specific food budget, we need to start by outlining your food-related fixed costs.

What are your reoccurring expenses related to food? Is it a Thrive Market membership? A Misfits Market delivery? Maybe you like curated boxes of tea from Sips By to show up at your doorstep?

Write them down. Divide by 4 to amortize the costs across the weeks of the month.

Moving on to variable costs. As the name suggests, these are variable. They can (and will) change. In order to get the most accurate estimate, check out your historical expenses for the past month. Bucket them into the following categories:

  1. Non-Perishables / Online Purchases
  2. Grocery Store Visits
  3. Coffee / Beverages
  4. Dining Out
  5. Miscellaneous

Add the totals from the above categories and divide by 4. This will approximate your weekly variable budget.

You have an income allowance, measured fixed costs, and approximated variable expenses. Take a minute to fill out the foodie formula template.

What’s left in the bottom box?

  1. Negative Number: Whoops. You’re overspending. Revisit your subscriptions. Are they all absolutely necessary? What about that large latte budget. Does it really need that much buffer? Tweak and reconfigure until that negative balance disappears.
  2. Positive Number: Congrats! You have a sustainable, balanced foodie formula. You can now use these values as measurable check points when tracking your budget.

Wow. Don’t you feel organized? Energized by investing time into your financial health? I hope so.

Always feel free to reach out to me with questions, comments, concerns, etc. Shoot me an email or message me over on Instagram!