The USDA BioPreferred Program: Consumer Empowerment… or Confusion?

usda biopreferred logo

Got a particular label you look for when buying certain kinds of products? FSC for wood and paper products? Green Seal for other household products? USDA Organic for food? A labeling system based on solid, well-researched and monitored standards makes for very effective “shorthand” for consumers concerned about the social and environmental impacts of their purchases.

Of course, industries and manufacturers can also use that shorthand effect as a tool for greenwashing: we’ve seen green labeling schemes mushroom over the past decade, and while some of these new criteria work well to convey specific environmental attributes, others cast a greenish haze over products that don’t deserve it. Consumer Reports has done an excellent job separating out some of the wheat from the chaff with its GreenerChoices.org eco-labels database, but it only covers a few categories of products… and I’d guess finding the resources to keep up would be just about impossible.

Now, however, there’s a new addition to the labeling/certification mix that’s got a lot of us saying “Huh?”… mainly because it doesn’t really fit neatly into our parameters of reliable/greenwashed standards. The USDA’s biobased label and Federal procurement program BioPreferred, released in January after nine years of work, and designates products with certain amounts of biobased materials.

Biobased? Yep, that’s a new one (at least for popular usage): the term, according to the program, means

commercial or industrial products (other than food or feed) that are composed in whole, or in significant part, of biological products, renewable agricultural materials (including plant, animal, and marine materials), or forestry materials.

OK, got that? Now add to it “biobased intermediate ingredients or feedstocks”… apparently the definition expanded between the 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills.

On the surface, this probably seems like a good thing… especially after taking a look at some of the product categories included for consideration for the consumer label and preferred Federal procurement. A variety of mechanical fluids, for instance, were among the first product categories examined for the certification; since these products typically contain nothing but petrochemicals and other artificial compounds, it’s pretty easy to jump to the conclusion that Biopreferred standards requiring certain amounts of biobased materials are a good thing. Don’t we want to get as much oil,Β derivativesΒ of it, and other chemical compounds not found in nature out of these products?Β The same goes for the various categories of household products included in the program: aren’t cleaning products with a significant percentage of plant-based materials a good thing?

So, What Does the BioPreferred Program Tell Us?

It’s the shorthand we see here that makes BioPreferred, and the biobased labeling scheme, problematic. Yes, we want to get various unnatural, and often unhealthy, chemical compounds out of products for both consumer and commercial use. But to go no further than noting that a product has biobased materials can create yet another situation in which that greenish haze comes into play: giving a product a thumbs up for containing a certain percentage of biobased materials (which may be as low as 25%) creates a perception of “good” that may not be warranted.

biopreferred products
First round of certified biobased products

In fairness, the BioPreferred program is not designed to serve as an “eco label.” But I have no doubt that many consumers will view it as such. No, we’re not all linguists, but I’d guess that most people do have a sense that the prefix “bio” refers to living things… and that, in most cases, we associate the prefix with “good” and “green.” If BioPreferred certified based on sustainable agricultural practices, or took into account other issues with the use of biobased materials in products, consumers could make that assumption; unfortunately, it doesn’t. For instance,

  • There is no lifecycle assessment of biobased products… or any standards for materials: The biobased label only certifies that the product contains a certain percentage of biobased materials. It does not indicate, or examine, whether those materials came from sustainably managed farms, forests, or ranches. It does not examine inputs used to grow these materials, the use of genetically modified organisms, or energy and water use. The only real distinction made for materials involves “mature markets“: “products that had a significant market share in 1972” are not eligible for BioPreferred program… so you won’t see the biobased label on cotton t-shirts or paper, for instance. It’s certainly possible for products containing biobased materials grown by some of the worst practices to receive certification (as far as I can tell).
  • There’s no distinction made between food and non-food materials: As Lester Brown has noted repeatedly, the “food vs. fuel” competition has contributed to rising food prices, and, by extension, various forms of political instability — recent riots in Algeria are a prime example. Giving preference to products made from food-based materials would seem to add to this conundrum.
  • There are no guarantees that the materials in these products come from American farmers, nor is there any guarantee the products themselves are American made: In the press release announcing the program’s launch, Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan claims that “[Biobased] products have enormous potential to create green jobs in rural communities, [and] add value to agricultural commodities.” That’s likely true… but if products certified use ingredients and materials from trade partners (which the could), or if the products themselves come from overseas, one has to wonder where those jobs and that added value will be created.

Clearly, this is a program designed to help farmers and spur innovation… and I think both of those are laudable goals. To do that in a manner that doesn’t create the perception of greenwashing, or a variety of unintended consequences, USDA’s going to have communicate the nature and limitations of this program… or they can rest assured others will do so (likely in less than flattering terms). As it stands, it seems to me that this new program has the potential to create either a lot of head-scratching among consumers, or the sense that they’re buying something that they’re not. Ultimately, despite the years of work (no doubt by good, smart people), I have to wonder if “Biopreferred” and “Biobased” won’t end up functioning a bit like the term “natural”: feel-good terms that don’t really tell a buyer what s/he thinks they do.

I’m basing my analysis mainly on my multiple digs into the program’s website over the past few days, as well as information sent to me by good friend and colleague Simran Sethi (who’s also been digging into this program, and encouraging her students at the University of Kansas to do so). If I’m missed or misunderstood something, I’d love to hear about it. I’d also love to hear about what you think about this concept. Does it create confusion (while attempting to create clarity)? Have I overstated my case? Let me know what you think… and check out the first round of biobased labeled products that was released last week.

Looking for safe, green cleaning products? Check out our current selection, featuring brands such as Beaumont Products, Sun & Earth, and Earth Friendly Products.

Image credits: USDA

  1. Verity Manumit

    I don’t think you’re overstating anything. I strongly suspect this is little more than a marketing gimmick created to remarket existing products as being more eco-friendly. Of course it will likely be confusing to the consumer.

  2. Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

    Verity– I actually think one of the strengths of this program is that it undercuts that remarketing effort somewhat with the “mature markets” exclusion. My first thought upon hearing about the basic program concept was “Wouldn’t any paper be ‘biobased?” It is, but wouldn’t qualify for the designation because of that exclusion (they use the example of a cotton t-shirt). I think confusion comes from BioPreferred’s implication that “biobased” = “good”… without any consideration of a product’s lifecycle, point of origin, etc.

  3. Melissa McGuire

    Great theory on the surface… but in order to back up your claim, you’ll need to cite the companies/manufactures that actually are sourcing their products from other countries or are using foods that are grown for human consumption. I don’t know of any company using this certification as a “greenwashing” tactic. Those in the US flooring industry that have products certified by the USDA biopreferred program are utilizing American farmers growing non-edible products like soybeans and corn, have a minimum of 75% biobased materials in their product, and have 3rd party LCAs attached to them. Do a little research on the part of the manufacturer. More times than not, the company does understand the importance of stepping up and doing the right thing!

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