ANALYSIS: USDA BioPreferred Biobased Product Public Forum on Life Cycle Assessments: Part 2

Dispatch from SSC Consultant, Lorre Walker

This series of blog posts looks at the USDA’s proposed voluntary biobased product labeling and the BioPreferred program. In four parts, it summarizes the presentations given at the USDA’s Life Cycle Assessment Public Meeting on January 5, 2010 in Washington, DC.

As SSC gets more involved in product and packaging environmental assessments, life cycle assessments (LCA), etc., I decided to attend the USDA’s public forum on its BioPreferred Program and the proposed voluntary biobased product labeling program. Biopreferred is a Federal program that increases the purchase and use of biobased products made from biological or renewable agricultural materials. The program includes a preferred procurement program for Federal agencies and a voluntary labeling program for the broad scale consumer marketing of biobased products. Biobased products are commercial or industrial products (other than food or feed) that are composed, in whole or in significant part, of biological products.

The agenda for the public forum, which was attended by approximately 30 people onsite and 70 participating online, included four presentations, each one related to the environmental impacts of biobased products, how best to measure them, what implications they will or should have for the labeling program, and the eco-labeling environment. The following is a very brief summary of each presentation and the issues surrounding them.

Issue: What meaning will the BioPreferred label have in a sea of eco-labels? How will the USDA add meaning and value to the label and how will it protect the brand and verify data to avoid greenwashing?

Quantifying sustainability, a summary of active initiatives, Stephan Sylvan, EPA

  • Major challenges to eco-labeling, environmental claims, etc:
    • At last count, there are over 500 eco-labels in the U.S., Europe, and Asia.
    • There is a surge in green advertising.
    • There is also a surge in greenwashing news and blog coverage, e.g.
  • There are three main initiatives trying to sort through the current eco-labeling mess:
    • The Sustainability Consortium – launched a global survey of eco-labeling organizations.
    • The Packard Foundation (with the Walton Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences) – Conducting a workshop on certification of sustainable products and services
    • The Keystone Center’s Green Products Roundtable – a group of business, nonprofit, government, and certifying organizations working to help provide clarity to the landscape of green products.

Conclusion: While this presentation did not provide any conclusions about the BioPreferred label, it did underscore the important that the label will need to be supported by meaningful, measurable, proven data to become one of the more respected eco-labels and to hold up against the scrutiny of greenwashing watchdog organizations. The USDA will definitely be looking at the work of the Sustainability Consortium, the Packard Foundation, and the Keystone Center to guide their use of the BioPreferred certification and labeling program.


All-in-all, this was a fascinating look at the world of eco-labeling, the environmental impacts of biobased products, and a debate between LCAs and carbon footprinting…and how it all affects the decisions surrounding one organization’s proposed labeling program. I was particularly interested in the LCA debate and the different types of LCAs.

To continue the discussion on the SSC Consultant Discussion Board, click here.

SSC is currently helping several of our clients to deal with third-party certifications and product and packaging LCAs as a result of Walmart’s sustainability requirements and other stakeholder pressures. For information about our products and services in this area, click here or contact us at