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California Supreme Court Stands Up For Consumer Rights

The California Supreme Court last week sided with consumers and their ability to rely on product labels, allowing a case to go forward against the makers of products falsely labeled “Made in the U.S.A.”

Defense lawyers, supported by self-styled “tort reformers”, had sought to dismiss the case by arguing that consumers are not injured by false labeling claims—and thus can’t sue over them—unless the product is defective or the company also charges a premium for the product.

But the court, in a 5-2 opinion, correctly rejected that argument and reaffirmed the importance that labels have to consumers.

Simply stated: labels matter. The marketing industry is based on the premise that labels matter, that consumers will choose one product over another similar product based on its label and various tangible and intangible qualities they may come to associate with a particular source. An entire body of law, trademark law, exists to protect commercial and consumer interests in accurate label representations as to source, because consumers rely on the accuracy of those representations in making their buying decisions.

To some consumers, processes and places of origin matter. Whether a particular food is kosher or halal may be of enormous consequence to an observant Jew or Muslim. Whether a wine is from a particular locale may matter to the oenophile who values subtle regional differences. Whether a diamond is conflict free may matter to the fiancée who wishes not to think of supporting bloodshed and human rights violations each time she looks at the ring on her finger. And whether food was harvested or a product manufactured by union workers may matter to still others.

This is hardly a controversial point, though it's an important one for those of us concerned about the environmental impacts of our purchases. Green consumers know that when marketers make false claims about the environmental impacts of their products, individual consumers are not the only ones who are hurt. If food advertised as organic turns out to have been treated with chemicals, we all suffer from the added water and air pollution. If appliances use more energy than their labels claim, the side effects of the extra energy production have health consequences for all of us.

With this in mind, Earthjustice has been working to improve standards for labels so that consumers can trust them and everyone else can enjoy the benefits. For example, in the last few months alone, Earthjustice has:

This list will grow longer in the coming months, as we expand our push for stronger labeling rules and increased compliance. And we’re pleased that the California Supreme Court recognizes just how crucial accurate labeling is for the rights of consumers.