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Shop Savvy: Understanding Eco Labels

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We asked a sustainability strategy expert what eco labels on products really mean.

Most of us know that we should reduce, reuse, and recycle. But in reality, we still have to buy new products from stores. Given that reality, the three R’s often begin with what products you choose. The full lifecycle of a product — how it’s manufactured, how it’s used, and how it’s disposed of — has big-picture environmental impacts.

Over the past few decades, consumers have demanded eco-friendly products, and many manufacturers have responded. But the process of distinguishing eco-friendly products from conventional products isn’t clear-cut. It’s far too easy for regular shoppers to get lost among eco labels, certifications, and marketing messages. Weren’t eco labels supposed to help people cut through the noise?

According to Jennifer Woofter, founder and president of Strategic Sustainability Consulting, “There is a lot of confusion in the marketplace about which certifications are credible and which are fluff. Shoppers who do want to choose environmentally friendly products are throwing their hands up and saying ‘How do I choose?’”

And no wonder: there are hundreds of eco labels out there, and there’s little commonality among them on what they evaluate and how. The sheer number and variance make credibility an issue, and dilutes label recognition among consumers.

A major cause for confusion is the scope to which labels speak. Woofter says that labels are applied in roughly three ranges: by product, by company, and by facility. When we see a label on a product, we understandably assume that the label says something about the product, but that’s not always the case. For example, a pint of ice cream might have a B Corps seal, but that doesn’t mean that specific pint of ice cream is sustainable. That’s because a B Corps certification applies to the entire company, not its products. A certified B Corps company has met the threshold for responsible business as defined by B Lab, the 501(c)3 nonprofit that developed and assesses B Corps standards.

With all that being said, there are a few labels that stand out in terms of consumer trust and familiarity. “ENERGYSTAR is one of the most highly recognized and trusted eco-marks available in the U.S.,” says Woofter. She traces its success to its simplicity: ENERGYSTAR labels are applied on a product-by-product basis, and it only looks at energy use. “It doesn’t look at wider issues like social fairness. It’s quite limited, and because it’s limited, people are comfortable with it.” She lists USDA Organic, Green Seal, and FSC certification as other highly trusted, recognized labels, while Cradle to Cradle Certified is “highly respected” but not yet popular enough to be widely recognized.

From a sustainability perspective, Woofter holds up Green Seal as a contrast to ENERGYSTAR because of its top-to-bottom standards. “It’s very broad-based. It looks at a variety of sustainability issues surrounding the product,” she says. Green Seal, which is most commonly seen on cleaning products, cultivates trust by being transparent and independent. It’s nonprofit, and a team of experts regularly reviews and updates the standards, which are freely available for anyone to examine.

This kind of transparency is especially important since green marketing and “greenwashing” have grown in response to consumer interest in sustainably produced products. Many companies contribute to the confusion by branding their products with images that look like third-party eco-certifications, but are actually just marketing images. The Federal Trade Commission addressed this issue in a 2012 revision of its Green Guides, a document of best practices for environmental marketing. The “Certifications and Seals of Approval” section declares such marketing as “deceptive.”

Despite the revisions, it’s still “a Wild-West situation,” says Woofter. “The FTC cautioned companies trying to use eco labels but there’s still quite a bit of wiggle room.” But she adds, “I think we’ll see additional clarity in the next ten years or so.”

In the meantime, we can continue to demand clear, common, and credible labels that make it easy to make sustainable choices. We can also pay close attention when we’re making purchases and educate ourselves on what specific eco labels really mean.


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Ecolabel Index

Which eco labels do you trust? Why? Tell us in the comments below.

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About the Author
Amy Spriggs
Amy Spriggs
From aluminum recycling to xeriscaping, I'm learning as much as I can about living sustainably every day. more