Hypothetically, you walk into a store and there are four of the same type of product. One is 100% natural, one is 100% sustainably sourced, one 100% biodegradable, and one 100% chemical free. What is the best product to buy? Does it matter? Are some labels better than others?
—Angela, in Ventura, California
You’re opening a big can of ugly green worms here, because so many products have such a complicated history, and green marketing claims have multiplied with blinding speed. All those 100% claims are darn squirrely, because they can be 100% of very little or nothing, and whether they’re 100% natural, sustainably sourced, biodegradable, or chemical-free depends on how you define the terms. "Biodegradable" is probably the most useless and irrelevant description, for the simple reason that not all things biodegrade equally in different settings, plus biodegradable plastics can contaminate other recycled plastics, rendering them useless. On top of this, biodegrading is not necessarily a good thing, because it can release carbon dioxide and methane.
"Natural" is the most deceptive of the terms. For example, I’m looking at a package from Trader Joe’s, which says “Natural Pork* Boneless Loin Chops. The big asterisk leads us to tiny print below that whispers “Minimally processed, no artificial ingredients.” Well duh. Most pork chops are minimally processed and don’t contain artificial ingredients. But the pigs themselves could well have been raised in polluting factories, fed chemically farmed grain, and shot up with antibiotics. (By the way, you can petition this company to stop carrying such meat, and also petition your congressional reps to enact a ban on unnecessary use of antibiotics on livestock at Food and Water Watch’s site.)