Do you trust the “eco” or “green product” labels? Lately, they seem to have become a trend and like any trend, at one point, it becomes too much– consumers are starting to doubt these goods and perceive the loud proclamations of producers as mere marketing ploys. This harms the ones who truly strive to make their product sustainable. The situation has even reached a point where the European Commission has stepped in for regulations.
Of course, there are unethical practices. According to a Commission study in 2020, 53% of eco-labels (over 230 were evaluated) were vague, misleading or unfounded, and 40% were completely unjustified. It is no surprise that, since half of the labels have a discrepancy between the label and the content, consumers are increasingly skeptical. Nevertheless, a Eurobarometer survey shows that 94% of Europeans rate environmental protection as important to them and choosing sustainable goods can be one of the levers.
How will Europe fight the greenwashing that can reach the store shelves? A few days ago, a new Directive was introduced with included rules and general criteria to ensure that the products we choose really meet the promises of environmental friendliness. The goal is to put an end to misleading claims of environmental benefits and vague eco-labelling schemes. While the document is currently in proposal form, we know it is likely to become law very soon.
In fact, there are currently numerous ways for consumers to be protected and assured of what they are buying and for producers to guarantee the quality of their products. They are called eco-labels – these are usually the labels and certificates that provide evidence to the claims behind the label. This can be done with auditing by a third, independent external party. It’s a matter of how informed we are, or how much time and effort we are willing to put in research. But it’s good to be familiar at least with the main and most widely used ones, such as FSC for sustainable wood and paper products, Blue Angel and EU Ecolabel for a range of products and services from cleaning products to accommodations, MSC and ASC for sustainable fish products, Fairtrade and UTZ for fair labor conditions (mostly for products like cocoa and coffee) and others.
What do these certificates tell us? Some of them address fair trade, i.e., they have a social focus and prove that, for example, the labor conditions for workers in the extraction of a crop or the production of a commodity were good enough and their pay was fair. This is especially true for crops such as coffee, bananas, and cocoa. On the other hand, there are organic certificates – did you know, for a product to be advertised as “organic”, the farm from which it originates must have been in a transition phase for at least two years, i.e. no pesticides have been used, only organic-based preparations. Certificates are backed with checks and tests, including soil or product sampling by an external auditor.
No, misleading claims are not a problem just for consumers. In fact, the rules being set by Europe are going to seriously affect the business. Up until now, producers have been able to make environmental claims on a voluntary basis with little or no evidence and justification to support those claims. The new requirements put a stop to these practices – labels such as “eco” and “clean product” will only be used if there is a relevant certification backed up by scientific evidence.
There is a loophole that the European Commission leaves for the new rules – they will not affect the smallest businesses with less than 10 employees and a turnover of less than 2 million euros. This is done to ensure a balance with the big sharks in the economy, where devoting resources to track the impacts of activity is much easier and will not be a burden for their business. However, the rules are tightened not only for firms within the EU but also for those outside it who sell into member states and claim to be “green” and “eco”.
Of course, eco-labels are not an absolute guarantee that everything is in order. Over the years there have been more than one or two scandals, involving omissions and falsifications. But this helped companies be more reliant today. Some large chain stores even help their customers navigate eco-labels by publishing all types of certificates and special labels available on their network and providing detailed explanations of what they mean.
Whether you are on the consumer or producer side, the topic is of equal importance. As consumers, if we pay more attention to the claims behind the labels, it will force producers to be more honest with us. Otherwise, their products will lose appeal. If we as business people take advantage of the opportunities that eco-labels and certificates provide, it will make us stand out among competitors and increase our credibility. Some companies are already doing that successfully. For others, it may soon be too late when the new rules become mandatory and they find themselves falling behind, with vague claims that fall outside the framework.