Monday, January 14, 2013

eco 101 : labeling green

What's in a Label? Not necessarily sustainability.

As consumers increasingly vote with their wallets for sustainable goods and groceries, producers are  doing more to signal the eco-friendliness of their wares. But amid the many different certification logos, package designs, and environmental claims, experts warn that all that glitters is not green.  So how do we know if something is truly environmentally friendly or sustainable?

The glut of sustainability claims presents challenges both for consumers looking to “buy green” and green companies trying to stand out from the fray.  One of the problems with certification systems is that there is simply too many of them.  Wood, cotton, appliances, buildings, and restaurants are just a few of the areas with their own labels or rating schemes.

 “Once you have too many different logos and certifications hinting at the same thing, it waters down the method,” said Fleur Gadd of Big Picture UK, a marketing firm that is conducting a study of consumer response to sustainability claims.

Another issue is that many certification claims are not sufficiently transparent.  There are thousands of labels and certifications for consumer products, ranging from the spurious to those that attest to the toughest standards. Eco labels are meant to distinguish green products and brands, but you practically have carry a pocket dictionary in order to decipher it all -- and the task of identifying bright green products is only getting more daunting as large retailers, like Wal-Mart, create their own systems of labeling. Right now there are over 400 green certificationsystems around the world vying for the attention of earth-conscious consumers, so if you have trouble remembering what each little pictogram stands for, you are not alone.

Of course, the label does not certify that a product is made in a sustainable way, though it does attest that the product or produce is more equitably fashioned. CFC-free products, for example, were a hot topic in the 1980s as chlorofluorocarbons’ contribution was linked to ozone layer depletion; today they practically liter the shelves at your local grocer.  The problem with this claim — and therefore the colorful label that producers stick onto their products — is not its veracity, but the fact that CFC has been banned for decades already.

It is notoriously difficult to measure how many consumers buy green goods, in part because “sustainability” or “eco-friendly” is difficult to define, since many products do not adhere to a singular definition of the afore mentioned. In addition, consumers rarely read packaging, and thus when shopping in autopilot, many are unlikely to interrogate a brand’s credentials. In that sense, if the packaging signals ‘sustainability’, this may well be the consumer’s lasting impression of the brand.

A few questions to think about when considering “green” labels:
  • When buying eco-friendly products, do you insist on eco-certification?
  • Do you think you are ever swayed by packaging design?
  • How do you find the sustainable products and producers you can trust?
  • Which labels or certifications do you find reliable and why?

1 comment:

  1. I feel the same way when buying similar products. There are so many certifications that each one is hard to define, respectively. Food is also relevant in terms of what is better for you and your health. Many foods are labeled as organic, natural, or even farm-raised. Natural actually means that it did not have any additives after being cut. Who knows what unnaturally processing was done to it before. Consumers should look towards more organic, farm-raised, or even naturally-fed products.