by Chris Woodford. Last updated: March 23, 2021.
Which one should I buy? That's the question that probably buzzes through your head every
few seconds as you trail through the grocery store. Lots of people
like to shop with at least one eye on the planet, though
ethical shopping isn't easy. Many products seem to be
"natural" or "eco-friendly"—they might
have labels covered in flowers, fields, animals, or trees—without offering
any real evidence to back up their claims. How, then, can you quickly
and reliably figure out that one product is better for the planet
than another? The solution is to look out for
eco-labels—recognizable, reputable symbols that guarantee a
basic level of environmental friendliness. What are eco-labels and
how do they work? Let's take a closer look!
Photo: Two bottles of eco-friendly washing detergent. Note the use of natural imagery (flowers and leaves on the left; a waterfall on the right). The bottle on the right carries the EU Eco Label—an objective guarantee of its environmental credentials.
What are eco-labels?
An eco label is a trustworthy symbol that manufacturers can put on the things they sell
to demonstrate that they are genuinely better for the environment than comparable products.
Most eco labels are voluntary: canned fish producers might apply for permission to use a
label from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) showing that the
salmon they catch meets its standards of sustainability,
while timber producers might ask for certification by the Forest Stewardship
Council (FSC) to prove that their wood hasn't come from a
tropical rainforest. Other eco labels are mandatory: for
example, in North America, manufacturers of cars and major household
appliances are obliged to label their products to show how energy
efficient they are; in Europe, makers of major electrical appliances
also have to display a label containing an A–G rating (A is good, G is bad) showing its
level of energy efficiency.
Photo: The FSC logo helps you to spot wood and paper products that come from "well-managed, sustainable forests"; choosing products marked this way means you're not contributing to damage in threatened areas such as tropical rainforests.
There are many different eco-labeling schemes in operation around the
world, each covering a different range of environmental criteria.
Some labels are very narrowly defined: for example, a label that
reads "100% recycled" tells you only that a product has been made
from recycled materials; it doesn't guarantee the factory where the
product was made produced no air pollution, used no child labor, paid its
workers fairly, or didn't transport its goods by environmentally
damaging air freight. Other labels seem narrowly defined but
implicitly include broader standards of environmental performance.
For instance, if you buy organic food in the UK that's certified by a
body called the Soil Association, you're guaranteed not just that the
food was grown without pesticides but also that any animals involved
in its production were treated humanely. Some labels, including the
EU Eco Label, certify good environmental performance across a much
wider range of criteria, including the use of raw materials and
energy, the degree of recycling and reuse, whether air,
water, or land pollution was produced during manufacturing, and so on.
For eco-labeling to work, it's essential that labels appear only on
products that meet the standards they advertise. In practice, that
means product manufacturers have to apply to some
independent certification authority for a licence to display a label, which is
granted only if their product meets specific criteria. Often,
manufacturers have to pay a fee to cover the cost of administering
the scheme and are granted permission to use a label under the terms
of a legally binding contract.
Photo: Fish stocks are dwindling in many of the world's seas. The MSC logo is meant to help you find fish from well-managed, sustainable sources, which means threatened stocks get a chance to recover.
Even big, well-known labels like this have their critics.
Advantages and disadvantages of ecolabeling
Ecolabels offer three major benefits. First, for consumers, they're a shortcut
to doing good: they're an easy-to-use, trustworthy guide to products
that help the environment in some way. If you're racing up and down
your supermarket, quickly trying to decide what to buy, looking out
for products that carry an authoritative, recognizable symbol like
the EU Ecolabel is a fairly dependable approach.
Second, for manufacturers, ecolabels offer a potential point of difference and a
competitive advantage. Many consumers take environmental performance
into account so if a product looks eco-friendly and doesn't cost much
more, it's more likely to be lifted off the shelf. For manufacturers, making
eco-friendly products can make commercial sense.
Photo: One of the world's most trustworthy and rigorous eco-labeling schemes, the European Union (EU) Ecolabel is partly designed to stimulate the market for eco-friendly goods.
Chart: Which products are most likely to be registered for an EU
Ecolabel? Just four types of products account for over three quarters of all label registrations:
paints and varnishes (40%), tissue paper and tissue products (16%), hard coverings (11%),
and textiles (10%). Figures from
EU Ecolabel Facts and Figures: September 2020.
Third, labels encourage a general raising of environmental performance, even among
products that aren't labeled. According to the International
Standards Organization (ISO), the body that guarantees worldwide
uniformity in the way we measure things, the objective of ecolabels
"...through communication of verifiable and accurate
information, that is not misleading, on environmental aspects of
products and services, to encourage the demand for and supply of
those products and services that cause less stress on the
environment, thereby stimulating the potential for market-driven
continuous environmental improvement."
In simpler words, if environmentally friendly products sell better, all manufacturers have
an incentive to produce them—and standards rise overall.
The biggest problem with a growing interest in ethical shopping is that manufacturers may
be tempted to make exaggerated or misleading claims, which confuse
consumers into thinking products are better than they really
are. Instead of raising standards, the result
is confusion among consumers and a systematic undermining of
all eco-friendly products (including genuine ones). This, of course, is exactly
the problem that properly certified ecolabels are designed to solve. For the system to work,
eco-labels need to be trustworthy, trusted, simple to understand, and easy-to-recognize.
The bottom line
Trust genuine ecolabels, but try to make sure you understand
what they mean. If you care enough to shop ethically in the first
place, care just a bit more and ensure your money really is making
the difference you want it to make. Do some research online. Find out
where your products actually come from, how they're produced, and
what steps manufacturers have taken to clean up their act. Don't
automatically assume that unlabeled products aren't environmentally
friendly. If you have time, try to make really informed decisions
about what you buy by researching in helpful magazines and websites
such as Ethical Consumer, Ethical Shopping Guide, Mother Jones, and so on.
If you liked this article...
... you might like my books. My latest one is
Breathless: Why Air Pollution Matters and How it Affects You.
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On this website
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Common ecolabeling schemes
From cars to computers and toothpaste to turnips, all kinds of products
now carry ecolabels. Different countries have different schemes and
there are also different labels covering different aspects of
environmental performance—including organic standards, animal
welfare, sustainability of natural resources, and fair trade. Here
(in alphabetical order) are some of the better-known and more
trustworthy labeling schemes:
Photo: Eco labels vary from country to country. Controllo Biologico is a certification/labeling scheme you might see if you buy organic food produced in Italy. Note how specific this label is: it gives the precise certification number of the product.
- Ethical labels not fit for purpose, report warns consumers by Oliver Balch, The Guardian, July 16, 2020.
Could ineffective ecolabels be making matters worse for the environment and social justice?
- Proposed EU ecolabel could confound retail investors by Elena Johansson, Portfolio Advisor, January 23, 2020. Why a new EU label for investments is proving highly controversial.
- We label fridges to show their environmental impact—why not food? by Joseph Poore, The Guardian, October 10, 2018. Should packaged food detail things like how much water and energy it needed to produce?
- Enjoy cod's revival, but the extent of our ruination of the sea remains unknown by Mark Kurlansky. The Guardian, July 23, 2017. The MSC label has helped to restore cod stocks to sustainability.... or has it?
- 'Wild west' of eco-labels: sustainability claims are confusing consumers by Lucy Atkinson. The Guardian. July 4, 2014. Do we really need 455 different eco-labeling schemes?
- F.T.C. Issues Guidelines for 'Eco-Friendly' Labels by Edward Wyatt. The New York Times.
October 1, 2012. The government guidelines for green marketing have been updated for the first time in 14 years.
- Questioning and evolving the eco-label by Patrin Watanatada, The Guardian, March 10, 2011. Do eco-labels work—and how should they change to reflect growing consumer awareness?
- Sustainable fish customers 'duped' by Marine Stewardship Council by Lewis Smith, The Guardian, January 6, 2011. How the MSC has come under fire for certifying fisheries some consider unsustainable.
- The deflowering of the EU's green logo by Fred Pearce, The Guardian, April 15, 2010. How an EU eco-label found its way onto rainforest timber.
- Can eco-friendly fish be big in Japan?, BBC News, February 26, 2010. How MSC certification has attempted to make industrial-scale fishing more sustainable.