This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture finalized its new BioPreferred product label. This is a voluntary program under which manufacturers and vendors of biobased products can apply to use the label on their products. The ultimate goal of the BioPreferred program is to decrease reliance on petroleum-based products.
Programs like this certainly are commendable and constitute a step in the right direction toward combatting climate change and conserving the world’s natural resources. On the other hand, it is important to take advantage of occasions like this to explore what the concepts of sustainability and conservation really mean.
Many people do not realize that when the now-familiar phrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” was adopted, it was meant to represent a hierarchy of choices—first reduce consumption, then reuse products rather than consuming new ones, and only if the first two choices are impossible, use products that can be recycled. Although using a biobased product is likely preferable to its petroleum-based counterpart, we should always remember that reduction and repurposing often take priority over purchasing something new, no matter how sustainably it may be produced.
Also, a true assessment of any product’s environmental benefits should include the processes underlying the product’s manufacture and the routes by which it reaches the consumer. For example, the machines used to cultivate and harvest corn and soy products use petroleum, and the farther the corn and soy must travel to reach the consumer, the more petroleum is used in the product’s transport.
Although complete avoidance of fossil fuels may be a long way off, an important goal for now is to increase awareness of how the choices we make impact our environment. The BioPreferred label, among others, is one way to increase this awareness. In addition, consumers can consider buying local products over those that have travelled long distances and manufacturers who incorporate sustainability into their production techniques.
No one person or business can make every choice with the environment as their sole consideration. However, we can all be aware of the choices we make and do what is possible under our individual circumstances. Choosing to reduce consumption and reuse existing products, along with looking deeper than labels and considering a product’s entire life cycle are all ways to make these informed decisions. The sooner we all begin making individual decisions in these ways, the sooner we can start working on the large scale changes needed to be a truly sustainable society.