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Published: 2010

What’s in a label

Rachel Sullivan

Product certification and labelling is one way retailers can influence consumers to make more sustainable purchases, and the signs are that it is gaining traction, reports Rachel Sullivan.

ALDI was the first Australian supermarket to stock the Ocean Rise brand of Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)-certified seafoods.
Credit: ALDI

A recent forensic analysis revealed that fish sold with the Marine Stewardship Council’s tick of approval in the US, UK, Japan and Germany all came from sustainable fisheries, giving consumers added confidence that they are buying seafood sustainably.1 But, are consumers keeping up with the proliferation of eco-labels and other trust marks?

The Australian market for healthier, more sustainable products and services is worth AU$19 billion, according to the Living LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) 3 Survey, compiled by market research company, Mobium Group.

Studies overseas have found that consumers are willing to pay a premium for ethically sourced goods. A 2008 survey conducted by Professor Michael Hiscox – Clarence Dillon Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University – found that New York consumers were willing to pay more for items labelled as being made under good labour standards. Demand for such products actually increased when prices increased.2

The Australian Food and Grocery Council’s ‘Green Shopper’ survey found that while 36 per cent of Australian shoppers are prepared to pay more for green products, only 13 per cent actually buy environmentally sustainable food and groceries from the supermarket.3 Free-range eggs, dolphin-safe tuna, environmentally friendly toilet paper and laundry powder, and certified organic fresh fruit and vegetables are among the most common green purchases.

The survey suggested that one reason for the so-called ‘green gap’ between community concern and taking action through making greener purchases is cost, but another may simply be confusion.

More than 50 different eco-labelling programs operate in Australia, from energy and water savings ratings to Forest Stewardship Council, Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade trust marks, all aimed at helping consumers make the right choice.

‘At the consumer level, environmental labelling is potentially a very effective way of distinguishing between products with good and bad credibility,’ says Mobium Group co-founder, Mr Andrew Baker.

‘Eco-labels are seen as very helpful about making informed choices, but the recent Living LOHAS survey found that many people are unaware such labels exist, or they have low levels of awareness of specific labels and what they want to achieve,’ he says.

‘While 10 per cent look for detail and want information, a much larger group finds it more difficult to absorb, even though they want better information about environmentally sustainable products.

‘When Planet Ark or WWF endorse a product, consumers at least recognise the organisation and can link the product with an environmental cause. However, we found that consumer awareness is lower than 20 per cent for non-major NGO [non-government organisation] labels.’

Credibility is a concern for companies and products in the green marketplace. One OECD study found that marketing language and competing claims on what makes a product green have caused low market penetration for some eco-labels.

In response, the World Resources Institute and Big Room Inc. recently released the 2010 Global Ecolabel Monitor, a report and online database aimed at helping companies and individuals sort through the green claims of different environmental certifications and labels.

One of the best-known labels is Fairtrade, which certifies products that support farmers, their families and communities in receiving more stable and secure incomes and better working conditions; and that enhance investment in product quality and local environmental sustainability.

Mobium reported a five per cent increase in awareness of the Fairtrade label compared with the same time last year, which means it is now recognised by almost a quarter of the Australian population. Among LOHAS ‘leaders’ – defined as consumers proactively engaged in sustainable behaviours – recognition of the Fairtrade label was up to almost 75 per cent.

Retail sales of Fairtrade-certified products in Australia and New Zealand increased by more than 50 per cent between 2008 and 2009 to more than AU$50 million, as mainstream retailers and suppliers such as ALDI, Starbucks, Jamaica Blue, Jetstar, Virgin, and Woolworths/Safeway began stocking Fairtrade products.

Coffee continues to be the most frequently purchased Fairtrade product in Australia and New Zealand. It makes up 74 per cent of total Fairtrade retail sales, a figure that was boosted when 170 Wild Bean cafes switched to 100 per cent Fairtrade-certified coffee beans in both countries in 2008.

Australian consumers now have another label to look out for; ALDI and Planet Ark recently announced that ALDI would be the first Australian supermarket to feature carbon reduction labelling on its house-brand olive oil range.

The Carbon Reduction Label originates from the UK-based Carbon Trust, and advises consumers of the total carbon footprint of a product: from raw materials and manufacturing right through to disposal or recycling of packaging.

The Carbon Trust has endorsed more than 5700 products since launching the label in 2007, and has worked with many big international brands such as PepsiCo, Tesco, Coca Cola, Danone, and Kimberly-Clark.4

Fairtrade coffee is becoming a familiar sight in cafes and on supermarket shelves.
Credit: Coles

At this stage, ALDI is focusing only on olive oil. Other products may follow if consumer demand is high enough.

‘We are focused on leading the introduction of the concept in Australia with our everyday olive oil range and will be guided by consumers’ response to the initiative,’ says Mr Benjamin Ward, Group Buying Director, ALDI.

‘Independent research conducted for Planet Ark found 60 per cent of Australians would be more likely to purchase a product displaying the Carbon Reduction Label, so it’s certainly something we believe consumers will value,’ he says.

Woolworths’ Group Manager, Corporate Responsibility, Ms Armineh Mardirossian, believes that carbon labelling is not meaningful unless everything is labelled in the same way. She says that in response to customer requests, Woolworths is concentrating on palm oil labelling.

‘Woolworths currently features on-pack labelling of palm oil and derivatives in all of its private label products, and we will be moving to RSPO [Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil]-certified sustainable palm oil by 2015 for all Woolworths’ private label products.’

Ms Mardirossian adds that while the consumer goods market is very competitive, ‘first-movers’ are typically able to influence the market to change.

Mr Baker agrees. ‘In particular industries, there is no doubt the eco-label provides a market advantage. Some, like the building industry, are re-tooling to create cleaner processes, especially where a certain green star rating is required as part of a tender process. There is a clear mandate that better products are the price of entry to the market,’ he says.

However, Ms Mardirossian is concerned about confusion in the market as a result of too many labels and logos.

‘Consumers are becoming sceptical about the integrity of eco-labels,’ she comments.

Choice’s Mr Christopher Zinn is also concerned about this problem.

‘There has been a lot of greenwash when it comes to labels, especially around cleaning products. Lots of products have globes or helping hands in their logos, without the environmental credentials to back them up,’ he says.

‘The plethora of eco-labels and trust marks only serves to increase confusion,’ says Mr Zinn, adding that the UK has done much more in this space.

‘There is far more scope for clearer labelling promoting organic food or otherwise sustainably produced goods. This has helped stimulate demand, and means that the premium for sustainable products is not too different.

‘Good labelling is key to helping consumers make sustainable choices, because when they are at the point of sale they are bombarded by information. The labels we currently have help, but we still have some way to go.’

Published: 14 September 2010

Australian bamboo takes a stand

Michele Sabto

Edible shoots and timber are just two of the most recognised uses of bamboo, a plant of economic, social and cultural significance throughout Asia. However, this fast-growing perennial member of the grass family also has a wide range of environmental applications, including carbon sequestration, wastewater reuse, and soil and water erosion control. Australian scientists and environmental engineers are beginning to take another look at this prolific perennial.

In South-East Asia, where bamboo is used primarily as a building material for low-cost structures, it is mostly harvested from wild stands. In other parts of the world, the area under plantation has been increasing at a fast rate; India and China dominate, with approximately 9 million and 5 million hectares respectively.1 In China, the growth in bamboo plantations has been partly driven by fast-growing domestic demand for wood: the country’s need for wood is expected to reach 260 million cubic metres in 2020, with an expected domestic production of only 139 million cubic metres.2 But, demand has also arisen for bamboo construction products from outside China.

<i>Bambusa arnhemica</i> in flower, Northern Territory. This species is native to Australia.
Bambusa arnhemica in flower, Northern Territory. This species is native to Australia.
Credit: Donald Franklin.

Professor David Midmore, of Central Queensland University, has been involved in an Australian government-funded aid project that investigated silvicultural management of bamboo for shoots and timber in the Philippines and Australia.

Says Professor Midmore, ‘Bamboo growth rates are significantly faster than most woody species soon after planting and for this reason bamboo can be harvested much earlier than forest species. It can produce harvestable culms within 4–7 years of planting, which can subsequently be harvested annually for timber.’

In Australia, initial interest in bamboo in the 80s and 90s as a commercial crop had resulted in 200 hectares under plantation by 2002. However, Mr Bob Gretton, President of the Bamboo Society of Australia, explains that development of an Australian industry has struggled to compete with competitively priced imports, mostly from China.

<i>Bambusa arnhemica</i> seedlings (at bottom of photo), Otto Creek, Northern Territory.
Bambusa arnhemica seedlings (at bottom of photo), Otto Creek, Northern Territory.
Credit: Donald Franklin

‘In the late 1990s Australian bamboo growers planted commercial areas of Dendrocalmus asper, Bambusa oldhamii, Dendrocalamus latiflorus and a couple of other species for shoots,’ he says. ‘However, shoots are being imported at about anything between $2.50 and $4.50 a kilo and it is hard for Australian producers to compete.’

A small number of growers have found niche markets in the supply of fresh shoots to the restaurant market. Hans Erken, who runs a business called Earthcare, is an example. He sends the fresh shoots in the early season straight down to restaurants in Sydney.

Competitively priced imports have also hampered Australian growers interested in supplying bamboo for timber. Other barriers to commercialisation include high labour costs.

<i>Bambusa arnhemica</i>, shoot.
Bambusa arnhemica, shoot.
Credit: Donald Franklin

‘There are some aspects of bamboo growing that are less like a plantation and more like a horticulture project, so that increases the cost, as against a tree plantation’, says Mr Gretton.

Bamboos require summer water, and (edible) shoot production has a high water demand. This poses problems when water supply is affected by dry conditions. Professor Midmore and Mr Mark Traynor, of the Northern Territory Department of Primary Industries, investigated the ability of bamboo to continue to produce biomass under dry conditions, trialling practices designed to capitalise on this feature.3 They identified management strategies with the potential to allow for both shoot and culm production under seasonally dry conditions, including strategic irrigation and thinning regimes. Factors found to affect shoot and culm yields included the number of culms of different ages in each stand and the age of culms at harvesting.

Professor Midmore and other scientists, such as Dr Jeff Parr of Southern Cross University, point out that in addition to the wide range of human uses, bamboo may also provide a variety of potential ecosystem services, including erosion control. Bamboo has an extensive fibrous root system, and new culms are produced from underground rhizomes. This means that harvesting can occur without significant disturbance to the ground or even the dense leaf litter, which also contributes to protecting the soil from wind and rain events. The thick leaf litter produced by bamboo also collects and conserves moisture. Bamboo has been extensively used in South America, China and India for remediation and protection of degraded landscapes.

Dr Parr has been investigating the potential for soil organic carbon sequestration by bamboo leaf litter in collaboration with researchers from the Fujian Academy of Forestry Sciences in south-east China.

‘All bamboo leaves a prolific amount of leaf litter on the ground, and we’ve been looking at the leaf litter because the rest is often harvested,’ says Dr Parr. He explains that the Chinese are interested in this research.

Bamboo phytoliths (under magnification).
Bamboo phytoliths (under magnification).
Credit: Jeff Parr

‘A lot of bamboo in China is economic bamboo that is used for the production of lots of things, from flooring to clothing. They are interested in the sustainable harvest and use of bamboo, and at the same time are interested in what it’s doing in the way of locking up carbon. They’re interested in carbon trading,’ he says.

According to Dr Parr, leaf litter is often overlooked in carbon inventories. This is significant, because he says that it is mainly the phytoliths, or plantstones, produced in the epidermal cells of a plant’s leaf, sheath and stem that are good at occluding carbon. Phytoliths form as microscopic silica grains in the leaves and stems of many plant species (see Ecos Issue 145). They are particularly prolific in grasses such as bamboo species, and become incorporated into the soil matrix during decomposition of leaf matter. In a paper published in Global Change Biology, Parr and his co-researchers state that ‘relative to the other soil organic carbon fractions that decompose over a much shorter time scale, the carbon occluded in phytoliths is highly resistant against decomposition’.4

Bamboo flowering wave remains a basic biological mystery

Australia has three native species of bamboo, all of which grow in northern Australia. One of these is Bambusa arnhemica, which is found in the top end of the Northern Territory. Its edible shoots are harvested in the wild under a permit system.

Between 1996 and 2002, an event occurred that was of intense interest to botanists and bamboo afficionados. A wave of synchronous flowering occurred, with a succession of stands flowering in successive years. Although some bamboo species flower annually, many do not flower at all until the end of their lives. Some of these ‘semelparous’ species flower and die synchronously, and in spatio-temporal waves, such as happened with Bambusa arnhemica. How this works remains a biological mystery.

More information

Franklin DC (2004). Synchrony and asynchrony: observations and hypotheses for the flowering wave in a long-lived semelparous bamboo. Journal of Biogeography 31, 773–786.

Bamboos for effluent reuse

Bangalow effluent reuse plant.
Credit: Byron Shire Council

Bamboo has the ability to take up more water and nitrogen than it needs for optimal growth, and 80% of its dense, shallow root system can be found at a depth of 0–40 cm. An effluent reuse scheme in Bangalow in northern NSW is designed to take advantage of these features.

A 4.5 hectare site adjacent to the Bangalow sewage treatment Plant has been planted with a number of different species of non-invasive clumping-style bamboos, and is being irrigated with treated effluent from the plant.

‘The primary function of the bamboo is to uptake the effluent so we don’t have to discharge it into the local creek,’ explains Michael Bingham of Byron Shire Council. The scheme has been a success in those terms, but the secondary objective of finding a market for the bamboo has not been met, with the council unable to find anyone to harvest and sell the bamboo.

More information

Midmore DJ (2009). Bamboo in the global and Australian contexts. Proceedings of a workshop held in Los Banos, the Philippines, 22–23 November 2006. Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.
Meyer D (2009). Demand for bamboo grows as wood substitute and food, China Daily,
Traynor M and Midmore D (2009). Cultivated bamboo in the Northern Territory of Australia. Proceedings of a workshop held in Los Banos, the Philippines, 22–23 November 2006. Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.
Parr J, Leigh S, Chen B, Yew G and Zheng W (2009). Carbon bio-sequestration within the phytoliths of economic bamboo species. Global Change Biology,

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