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How to navigate the field of ecolabels to improve your ethical and sustainable purchasing practices

March 9, 2011

With close to 400 ecolabels available in the marketplace, selecting the ones that fit your sustainable purchasing program (or simply a weekend trip to the grocery store) can often seem confusing, frustrating or even risky. And since ecolabels aren’t created equal when it comes to environmental claims and third party verification, corporate purchasers and consumers often fall victim to “analysis paralysis”; potentially giving up altogether on their intentions to buy green due to their confusion and uncertainty of real benefit.

In Reeve Consulting’s first “how to” post, we’ll be examining how this sometimes confusing world of ecolabels can be broken down into smaller, more ‘bite-sized’ pieces to help you make your procurements green and at the same time feel confident you understand the environmental benefits you’re receiving. We’ll also provide links to a number of useful resources to further assist with your environmental and sustainable purchasing.

A quick introduction to ecolabels

Ecolabels provide information about the environmental and social impacts associated with the production or use of a product or service. They’re a helpful tool for individual consumers, but also for corporate purchasing staff as they reduce the onus of creating environmental or sustainability product specifications. They can also offer credible third-party verification of environmental claims.

Types of ecolabels

While the bad news is that there are hundreds of ecolabels to choose from, the good news is that the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has developed a system whereby the universe of ecolables can be broken down into three more manageable categories. These are:

  • Type I Ecolabels: ISO 14024 – Ecolabels in this category are based on environmental criteria selected by an independent third party entity. Criteria are typically developed for a specific product type (for example, personal computers or monitors). Products must be certified to these criteria through a third party entity to be allowed to display the ecolabel.
  • Type II Ecolabels: ISO 14021 – Type II Ecolabels include any kind of sustainable declaration made by manufacturers, importers, distributors or anyone else who is likely to benefit from the product’s environmental claims. Also referred to as “self-declarations”, ecolabels in this category are usually not independently verified by a third party entity. They should however meet ‘truth-in-advertising’ or other product claim standards.
  • Type III Ecolabels: ISO 14025 –These ecolabels include comprehensive data lists that give environmental and social information on a product throughout its life-cycle (similar to nutrition labels on food).  Type III independent bodies set the categories of information and verify the data given, but no specific criteria have to be satisfied in order to qualify for certification. This category of ecolabels is also referred to as “Environmental Product Declarations” (EPD).

While all three types of ecolabels provide relevant information and are worth considering, Type I ecolabels are most widely available, easy to identify and certified by a third party entity. Type II ecolabels are viewed as less credible since they’re not independently verified and aren’t required to meet specific standards. For example, popular terms like “natural” found on product labels are wide open to interpretation. Type III labels on the other hand often involve thorough lifecycle assessment of product materials and third-party verification. The challenge with Type III ecolabels is that they’re not widely available in North America.

Segmentation by product category, industry and geography

Beyond these categories, ecolabels can be further segmented by product category, industry and geography. Put another way, when purchasing a given product one doesn’t actually choose from 400 ecolabels, but a smaller subset that applies to the product in question.

Ecolabelindex.com

A useful tool for determining the ecoloable type and category as outlined above is ecoloabelindex.com, an online database that offers the largest global directory of ecolabels. The site offers a free search tool that anyone can use to look up a specific ecolabel and find out the range of product it covers, verification process (e.g. third party verified) and region where it’s available.

Recently ecolabelindex.com started offering an additional paid subscription service that provides users with access to over 60 data points on each ecolabel, including life cycle coverage, standard development, conformity assessment and more. Pro users also have access to improved search functionality including the ability to filter ecolabels by sector, region and audience, compare ecoloabel attributes side-by-side and integrate the Index data with one’s own tools and platforms through the Ecolabel Index API. Subscription tiers are available for small and large teams, all include a free 7-day trial run. We suggest you check out the full details on the Eco Label Index website.

Read more

Who set the standards for ecolabels? Reeve Consulting Blog

Are there too many ecolabels? Reeve Consulting Blog

Sustainable purchasing and ecolabels Product with Purpose Fairware Blog

The Sins of Greenwashing: home and family edition 2010 TerraChoice & Underwriters Laboratories (UL)

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 12, 2011 7:46 pm

    Great post and tips for navigating the ecolabel landscape! We added a link in our Resource Center at http://www.ecoDistributionGroup.com. Thanks for all of your green purchasing advice!

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