對美國公民而言，個人的選擇代表了我們是怎樣的人，不論是投票給代表我們的政治人物；或是在更常見的場景 -- 超級市場裡，面對一排又一排的商品，我們以選擇與購買行為來定義彼此的為人。
這個說法的真實性，目前有兩個相關的環境運動支持 -- 社區食品系統，以及生態認證標準，它們有著共同的核心點：消費者。
所以不用訝異各界要角在「俄勒岡永續論壇」（Oregon Sustainability Forum）中都說，對消費者的教育是最最重要的，唯有如此才能讓消費者做出明智的決定，並充分了解他們的選擇所帶來的衝擊有多大。
「海洋管理委員會」（Marine Stewardship Council）的吉姆‧韓福里說：「消費者在海鮮市場的消費行為很複雜，可能比其他領域都還要複雜。所以你必須提供消費者簡化的選擇題：甚至簡單到以 『好/壞錯』把海鮮分成兩種就好。…人們在超級市場裡沒時間慢慢做研究和靈魂探索的工作。」海洋管理委員會是一個非營利團體，專責替全世界符合永續發展的 漁場認證。
韓福里指出，因為海產是從公共財資源「海洋」中捕獲的，所以其評量標準與地面物產有些不一樣，主要是強調「監管鏈」（chain of custody）的承諾。
「認證森林產品委員會」（Certified Forest Products Council）的傑夫‧華特爾表示，上述關切也適用於其它的認證計劃，甚至超越食物的範疇；該組織目前發出近 24 張林業認證書。
農民們又怎麼說呢？一位資深農民兼國王郡的農業委員會成員鮑伯‧葛瑞森說，我們損失了一個極大的機會，罪魁禍首則是 西北部的食品輸出中心。這個『機會』是該區的食品消耗量，估計光是華盛頓一州就達120億美元，而依照美國農業部的計算，平均每人每年花2,700美金在 食物上頭。
依照波特蘭當地食品聯盟 (Food Alliance) 的史考特‧艾克索所言，社區型食品系統的運作，就是在社區層面。然而，食品工業和其市場分配的現象，使得一個更廣大的地區模式難以推行。
農業與貿易政策研究所（Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy）的馬克‧瑞奇說，「假冒的生態標籤不斷演進，會引起政府介入，結果因為官僚體系增加，導致最終產品價格提昇。…唯一有用的機制是社會反應。 這需要每個人都去傾聽、嘗試理清每個人都適用的解決辦法。這並不簡單，畢竟在這個過程中我們都還只是生手，絕對還有很長的路要走。」 (2001.09.21)
PORTLAND -- For citizens in America, individual choices define who we are collectively as a people. Whether it be in the voting booth, choosing our representatives in government, or more often, in the maketplace, where we're constantly presented with a vast array of consumer goods, we identify ourselves and each other based on our choices and purchases.
It's been said that when it comes to the environmental, the most important choice we can make is with our food -- what we eat, how we eat, and where that food comes from.
The truth of that statement is borne out when examining two related environmental movements -- community food systems and eco-certification standards -- that share a similar nexus point: the consumer.
Community food systems, which emphasize the growth, distribution, and consumption of locally produced foods, and eco-certification, which attempts to put a stamp of approval on products to signify they're environmentally friendly, both depend on the crucial decisions made by the individual consumer for their success.
Whether a shopper purchases a salmon filet that comes from a sustainable fishery or picks locally grown produce at the supermarket over imported, and often cheaper, produce -- all these choices come down to decisions made by individuals.
So it's no surprise to hear some of the key players in each arena -- speaking during the Oregon Sustainability Forum -- say that education of consumers is of paramount importance, in order to make sure that consumers make informed decisions and know full well the impacts of their choices.
"Consumers in the seafood arena make a complicated consumer purchase -- perhaps more than in other areas. So you need to provide them with simplistic choices, even something as simple as a 'good/bad' card that labels what type of seafood is OK and what isn't," said Jim Humphries of the Marine Stewardship Council, a non-profit group that works to certify fisheries around the world as sustainable. "People just don't have time to do research and soul searching while in the supermarket."
The Council's certification program took two full years to develop, with the emphasis on making the standards flexible enough to be applicable to any fishery in the world, big or small. The organization's five-year certifications -- applied to six fisheries so far -- are carried out by independent, third-party certifiers.
Humphries noted that because seafood is harvested from a common property resource -- the ocean -- it requires a little different approach than land-based programs, with a focus shifted toward what's called 'chain of custody' compliance.
"Our biggest challenge for the marine arena is to maintain a viable chain of custody system -- one that can track the product from the catch to consumption -- that won't become too overburdened or overcomplex for those involved," he said. "It's important to get a level of viability for that program otherwise it'll get blown out of the water."
But similar concerns hold true for other certification programs as well, even those that don't deal with food, according to Jeff Wartelle of the Certified Forest Products Council, developer of one of the nearly 24 forestry certifications currently being crafted.
"Chain of custody is absolutely essential," he said. "If you can't track the product, then how can you make a claim about the forest conditions from where it came?"
Wartelle was also quick to point out that eco-certification programs shouldn't immediately be labeled as 'sustainable.' Instead, they are part of an incremental change away from the status quo, driven by an increase in business accountability coupled by a rise in environmental awareness among consumers.
"The really big questions facing the forest certification movement are who is going to have the highest standard, and who will the customers believe. It's going to come down to a battle on who's going to win on credibility," he said. "Ultimately, it's going to fall on the customers: will they be willing to share the load, and is there a willingness to change their purchases?"
For Brian Rohter, president of New Seasons Markets, which will have four stores operating in the Portland area by year's end, he's banking that as customers learn more, they will only become more aware and thoughtful about their purchases, at least when it comes to food.
"We've been successful because people have a thirst for locally grown, organic produce," he said. "But you have to make an effort to reach out to the 'potential' customers, beyond the 'true believers.' And marketing is key to that outreach. We're in effect creating demand for locally grown foods by educating our customers about the advantages of choosing local."
Rohter's stores regularly run full-page newspaper ads touting the environmental advantages to buying locally grown foods, but also carry products found in mainstream grocery stores, with comparative pricing, to encourage consumers to make the transition toward local and more healthy foods.
But New Seasons faces an increasingly competitive market, and one that is consolidating at an unprecedented rate. Rohter noted that supermarket ownership is falling into the hands of fewer companies nationwide, and that ten cents out of each dollar spent on food in the US goes to one company -- cigarette-maker Phillip Morris, which also owns a host of food companies.
Greg Higgins, a Portland restaurateur and member of Chef's Collaborative, a nationwide network of chefs and restaurateurs who promote sustainable cuisine, points out that the marketing forces marshaled by such powerful companies has made Americans believe they should be able to have any type of food they want at any time during the season.
"We really need to come to grips with the over-marketing that's out there," he said. "We should celebrate the foods that are there during the seasons, instead of what isn't there. If it's out of season, the demand shouldn't be there."
Both Rohter and Higgins contend that the real victims of this unprecedented consolidation in food production and distribution are small farmers, whose share of the food retail dollar ends up below their costs of production. These farmers -- forced to opt for going out of business -- has larger effects -- the fabric of small, rural farming communities is negatively impacted.
From the farmer's perspective, Bob Gregson, a longtime farmer and member of the King County Agriculture Commission, said a staggeringly large opportunity is being lost, and the culprit is the export-centric nature of food production in the Northwest region. The 'opportunity' is food consumption in the region, tallied at $12 billion for Washington alone, and based on US Department of Agriculture figures that the average person spends $2,700 per year on food.
"We have a monster market sitting all around us, and no one is addressing it," he said. "Why fight the international market and export our foods? We need to bring local agriculture into the economic development outlook."
According to Scott Exo of the Portland-based Food Alliance, community-based food systems work on exactly that, a community level. However, the reality of the food industry and its distribution makes expanding to a broader regional approach difficult.
"We're trying to deal with the agriculture industry as it presently exists. And in that context, we can't emphasize a local or regional food system," Exo said. "The industry just isn't set up that way and it won't work that way. For example, one grower in Hood Country can grow enough pears for the whole state of Oregon, and that's just one grower."
Exo and the Food Alliance concentrate on growers showing continual improvement in meeting specific environmental standards, as well as social and labor standards. Such a broad view also means that only about one-quarter of the nearly 50 farms approved by the organization are organic, which raises the concerns of some in the organic grower community.
"Organic is acknowledged as a good system for pesticide control," he said. "But we endorse a broader view than just organic. Improvement in the environment is our final goal."
The Food Alliance focuses on the marketing side, with a collection of 35 stores signed on to carry produce with the organization's label. But the confusion that may arise in consumers who see the Food Alliance label -- as well as the myriad of other food labels, including organic -- may be confused about what substance is behind the label. And that's where Exo believes the eco-labeling movement has failed.
"Getting consumers the message clearly and easily has broken down in many respects," he said.
And when it gets down to it, that's the conundrum facing eco-certification labels. With a growing demand among consumers for 'environmentally friendly' goods and an increasingly desire by business to appear 'green,' it's going to be up to the customer to sort through the maze of eco-labels, do the research, and make the informed choice.
"The evolution of fraud in eco-labeling, which can in turn spawn more government involvement, can raise the cost of the end product because of increased levels of bureaucracy," said Mark Ritchie, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. "The only mechanism that we have is social response. It's going to take everyone listening and trying to figure out solutions that will work for everyone. It's not going to be easy -- after all, we're all still infants in the process, and we've got a ways to go."