Understanding Eco Labels

Taking the decision to become a responsible consumer is a big deal. To do this, you have to start step by step, by understanding the way you can avoid products that cause harm to the environment. Maybe one of the easiest steps to start doing so is to understand Eco Labels. And that’s what we’ll try to sort out through this article!

Last week we talked about the importance of Fashion Revolution and sustainable fashion in How to Tell If a Fashion Brand Is Sustainable article. We continue bringing you some practical tips on how to tell if the brand is sustainable. Today we will talk about the multiple meanings behind the eco labels.


What are Eco Labels?

To understand how to read Eco Labels, we must first know what they are. That’s why we have gathered a few reliable sources that can walk us through their definition and benefits. For starters, Global Eco Labelling defines the process of Eco Labelling as a voluntary method of environmental performance certification and labelling that is practised around the world, through which you can identify products or services proven to be environmentally preferable within a specific category.

Woman reading a product label at the supermarket
Woman reading a product label at the supermarket

In other words, Eco-labels point out the qualities of the everyday goods we use, with the aim of encouraging consumers to choose more environmentally friendly products. They tend to help us reduce overall energy consumption and other ecological impacts while shopping, through setting a sustainability standard that production companies have to meet. This verification of standards is usually followed by a certification process, with the highest form of certification provided by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

The certification process will help a company prove that its function complies with a standard and has the right to sell its products as certified through the supply chain, often resulting in a consumer-facing eco label. There has been an evident rise in eco-labelling programs in recent years, as it is considered that consumer awareness has reached a higher level, meaning that people want to know the environmental specifics of the products they’re buying / consuming.

What we ought to know is that not all environmental labels are called Eco Labels. Eco Labels are based upon a very narrowed-down sub-group of rules that set special criteria of reliability, which we will list along the way. Only “independent and reliable labels that consider the life-cycle impact of products and services” are called “Eco Labels”.  The other declarations and labels of environmental performance belong to a larger, more general group of labels.


What type of Eco Labels can we find?

Handing over the planet between generations
Handing over the planet between generations

As Greenspec lists them, there are three types of Eco Labels.

  1. Public, multi-criteria Eco Labels (Type I, ISO 14024) – ISO defines “Type I environmental labelling” as: “a voluntary, multiple-criteria-based, third party programme that awards a license which authorises the use of environmental labels on products indicating the overall environmental preferability of a product within a particular product category based on life cycle considerations.”
  2. Type II labels: Informative environmental self-declaration claims – These are environmental claims made about goods by their manufacturers, importers, or distributors. They are not independently verified, do not use pre-determined and accepted criteria for reference, and are arguably the least informative of the three types of environmental labels. All this is according to Ecospecifier’s guide on Eco Labels which also applies to the definition of Type III labels.
  3. Type III labels: Quantified product information labels based upon independent verification using pre-set indices – Type III environmental declarations present quantified environmental information on the life cycle of a product to enable comparisons between products fulfilling the same function. Type III environmental declarations as described in ISO 14025 are primarily intended for use in business-to-business communication, but their use in business-to-consumer communication is not precluded.

Other types of labels are Single Issue labels, which do not deal with the whole life cycle of the product but with a single issue, Independent or Private Eco Labels, Nationals or International, and Certification Marks.


How does one distinguish real “Green Claims” from fake ones?

How not to get confused
How not to get confused

Given the high demand for corporate social responsibility, there are many green claims regarding features of products, often asserting a fake “environmental friendly” profile. Sometimes we read the terms like “animal cruelty free” and we think that should do the job, when looking for sustainability in products. However, we must be very careful to differentiate “green washed” declarations from truthful ones.

The UNOPS guide for environmental labels lists these elements as the ones we should look for when trying to recognize real Green claims:

  1. General terms such as “green”, “earth-friendly”, “non-polluting”, “all natural”, “good for the environment”, “sustainable” do not have any meaning; also pictures of globes, butterflies, flowers and trees, unless they have a direct connection to the product, can give the misleading impression that the product has particular environmental benefits
  2. The claim should make clear which parts of the product or environmental issues it covers; a “recycled” label that could refer to either the packaging or the product (or both) is misleading.
  3. The claim should not use exaggerated language. Beware of claims displaying “50% increase of recycled content”, without specifying the exact quantity. If the initial content was very low, the improvement could be minimal.
  4. You should look for specific terms as “organic” which, on the contrary, are often regulated by national legislation and in that case can only be used on certified products that meet the country’s legal requirements.

The bottom line is that getting to understand Eco Labels may be a little bit tricky, but it can bring long-term improvement to positive market developments, economic efficiency, and most of all, to the need to inform the consumer about the choice he’s making.

Photos: Shutterstock / Photomontages: Martina Advaney

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