Sunday, March 10, 2013

eco 101: a new metric

A, B, C is as easy as...

An eco-label is a logo that identifies a product or company that has met an environmentally preferable standard. It is not always obvious what an eco-label means and there are lots of different standards with varying levels of quality control around the world. Having standards makes it easier for governments and companies to build policies around how to buy and sell green.

Typically, a company applies to an eco-labeling organisation for the right to use its label on their products and in order to gain that certification, the company and product must continually conform to the required standards of the organisation. Sometimes companies just decide to award themselves a label - certainly faster, but perhaps less credible.

The International Standards Organization (ISO) ensures that products and services are safe, reliable and of good quality. For business, they are strategic tools that reduce costs by minimizing waste and errors and increasing productivity. They help companies to access new markets, level the playing field for developing countries and facilitate free and fair global trade. In regards to eco-labeling ISO has classified the existing environmental labels into three typologies – Type I, II and III*- and has specified the preferential principles and procedures for each one of them (ISO 2013).

Type I Eco-label
Provide a 'seal of approval' where a license is given to use the eco-label logo on products which have met the specification, been independently audited and consider life-cycle environmental impacts over the whole life-cycle. Type I eco-labels, such as the Nordic Eco-label, are thus an indicator of overall environmental preference in that product category.

This group is the most useful from the point of view of a procurement practitioner. Eco-labels are based on ambitious criteria of environmental quality, and they guarantee that the awarded products respect the highest environmental standard in that market segment. The criteria are usually developed through the involvement of a large number of stakeholders and awarded after an independent process of verification.

Type II Eco-Label
The labels belonging to this group do not share some of the usual characteristics of environmental labels, the main difference being that they are not awarded by an independent authority. These labels are developed internally by companies, and they can take the form of a declaration, a logo, or a commercial referring to one of the company products (e.g. the 'recyclable/recycled' Mobius loop symbol).

This kind of producer declaration can provide useful information for procurers, but not always are green claims as accurate and true as they should be. If the information conveyed in claims is vague, misleading or inaccurate, the consequence can be loss of trust in claims and labels in general.

Type III Eco-Label 
Type III eco-labels are operated by third parties and involve independent audits which includes information about the environmental impacts associated with a product or service, such as raw material acquisition, energy use and efficiency, content of materials and chemical substances, emissions to air, soil and water and waste generation. It also includes product and company information.

Type III labels do not assess or weight the environmental performance of the products they describe. This type of environmental labels only shows the data, and their evaluation is left to the buyer. Type III labels are found in nine countries only and require exhaustive life-cycle data sheets called “environmental product declarations” (EPD) (UNOPS 2009). The international EPD system is a member of the Global Type III Environmental Product Declarations Network and is a standardized (ISO 14025/TR) and Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) based tool to communicate the environmental performance of a product or system.


*ISO also recognizes a fourth category that is very similar to Type I eco-labels, and they are called  “Type I-like”.  These labels have a verification and certification process similar to that of eco-labels but focuses on single issues (e.g. energy consumption,sustainable forestry, etc.)


  1. Really good post on ecolabels, Alison! I liked the graphics and your information was thorough. I suggest adding that it is the ISO 14000 series of standards that provide the international guidance for creating an ecolabel.

  2. Standardization is a confusing issue to me. I think having numerous standard labels complicate knowing about all of them. For example, a customer of a product that is not a professional may be affected by the number of the standard labels of a product not the value of them.
    This is a very helpful post about Eco-Labeling. The thing that I don’t understand is how to distinguish Eco-Label type I, II, and III just by just looking at their labels.

    1. The abilities of consumers to understand the differances between these types of labels is one of the major problem with eco-labeling, which is rather unfortunate. There are a number of companies that are making sustainably minded decisions in terms of their products and carbon footprints, but you wouldn't know it based on their labels. In Europe, especially Germany, label standardization and criteria is more readily supported by the goverment and consumers. In part, this is because of EU environmental policy and a more sustainabily focused society. Within the United States there are a number of programs that are supported by the government in terms of labels but the environmental policy rigor, while improving, is not really comporable to that of the EU.