Food Eco Labels vs Legislation

When is choice good? Do labels do enough to help us make good choices? When is legislation required? Should legislation facilitate good decisions, or force them?

See this story, by Harry Wallop, for the Daily Telegraph: Food eco labels not robust enough, study finds

Labels on food, drinks, electrical gadgets, furniture and paper that boast about their environmentally-friendly credentials are frequently confusing or misleading, according to a study undertaken on behalf of the [U.K.] Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Too many of the labels, which range from food assurance schemes such as Red Tractor to campaigning groups such as the Marine Stewardship Council and Soil Association, do not guarantee that the farmer or the retailer, has mitigated any harmful effects on the environment.

Instead, they merely insist that the producer has “followed best practice”….

The Report’s solution? Legislation.

Its conclusions…suggest that labels, nearly all of which are voluntary schemes, are less effective than legislation.

A spokesperson for the Food Ethics Council (a co-sponsor of the Report) is quoted as pointing out that legislation can (and, in her view, should) narrow the range of choices open to consumers:

“Labels can help consumers make a choice, but they are only part of a package of measures, including regulation and ‘choice editing’. After all, nobody buying clothes on the high street expects them to have been made by a child – so why should consumers have to make a decision about whether the prawns in their trolley have helped destroy the marine environment?”

This is actually a useful way of describing a whole range of issues: governments (and other institutions) narrow the range of options open to us, and we individuals choose from within that range. But the spokesperson’s latter question (why make choose?) is one that bears a lot of unpacking. First, it’s interesting that she makes her point in terms of “making” consumers choose (rather than in terms of “letting” them choose). More neutrally, then, why give consumers choice? Well, generally choice (i.e., freedom) is good. That’s not to say that we should allow people unlimited opportunities to choose to do bad things. But if we’re going to narrow, by legislation, the range of options available to people, we do need at least to be sure about the basis for doing so. And that means two things. First, we need some clear set of facts (about, e.g., the environmental impact of various food-production processes). And second, we need a fair bit of moral consensus regarding how bad those impacts are, as well as about the tradeoffs involved in reducing them by means of limiting consumer choice.

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
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