Musicians often resist categorizing their own music into a particular genre, saying that labels are limiting. Indeed, labels can limit sales.

In contrast, manufacturers of products are often eager for a particular kind of label. Labels signaling some type of environmental benefit can help sell products.

Use of some labels, however, according to the Federal Trade Commission, is meaningless. The FTC’s “Green Guides” call terms like “eco-friendly” a “broad, unqualified claim” designed to “suggest the product has specific and far-reaching environmental benefits” without actually guaranteeing any such benefits.

In contrast, the word “organic” carries the weight of a real certification, regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. Similarly, only the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can designate energy-saving appliances with an “Energy Star” label.

Additionally, some labels are owned by private organizations, so the threat of lawsuit keeps their labels meaningful. For example, the Flower Label Program guarantees minimum standards of environmental conditions for crops the organization’s flower traders and producers say normally contain levels of pesticide residue higher than are legally allowed for any food. This seems important for a product that people stick their noses into and inhale. “Oh, what a lovely smell.”

The label “recyclable” is more complicated. FTC guidelines restrict use of that term to products recyclable in the local programs of at least 60 percent of consumers or communities receiving the product. Other labels implying recyclability are less useful to the average person. For example, “Styrofoam” usually includes a molded recycling symbol and the number six. This simply means it is made from polystyrene.

It is not accepted, however, in curbside recycling programs of Ventura County or most other areas.
The term “recycled” may be more important than “recyclable,” provided a label further specifies “post-consumer recycled,” which means it was made from material recycled after its useful former life as a product. Buying recycled products creates the market demand necessary for a viable recycling system.

Usually, the only alternative that is environmentally better than recycled content is reused material, which carries no label at all.

Looking at a practical example, suppose you want to replace a deck made of pressure treated wood. You could use recycled plastic composite lumber instead of wood. Many brands of composites are made from post-consumer recycled plastic and “can last a lifetime if installed correctly,” according to Joe Czachowski, a regional representative with Trex Company Inc., who cites the 25-year warranty provided by his company as reassurance.

You would create even less waste if you did the work of maintenance, rather than replacement. Cutting and sanding require precautions to avoid breathing the sawdust, but the simplest aesthetic repair is power washing and wood staining. The easiest structural repair is replacing loose nails with outdoor-rated screws, thicker than the weather-expanded nail hole. Tightening the screw will pull boards downward, also fixing minor warping, cupping or curving.

So can we say a treated wood deck becomes “eco-friendly” after it is old and has been repaired many times? Even if you do not accept the FTC edict on the matter, you might want to avoid the term “Eco-Friendly” just from a grammatical standpoint. People can be friendly. Objects and environments are simply not “friends,” even if they are compatible.

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