Some of us are aware of the environmental cost of certain products. For instance, palm oil. Those who follow environmental news know that orangutans are displaced from their forests when trees are cut down to produce this common snack food ingredient. But unfortunately, many of us have no clue of the devastation brought on by goods we use every day. Enter “Eco-labeling,” which brings plights like that of the orangutans to our fingertips and makes consumers cognizant about products’ impacts on the planet.
The world’s first eco-label, Blue Angel, was created in Germany in 1978. Now, there are hundreds of them. The labels may identify the carbon footprint or a number of other environmental factors, allowing us to make more sustainable choices.
Duke University, the World Resource Institute, and Ecolabels.org conducted a survey analyzing the effects of eco-labels, and published a summary of their findings in the Corporate Sustainability Initiative. The study determined that eco-labels benefit companies economically now that many consumers are shopping with environmental conservation in mind. The study also said that the accountability required to earn the label results in more sustainable practices.
Of course, consumer practices make a difference too, and can sometimes even negate the environmental good. For example, a laundry detergent company can utilize a manufacturing process that makes their packaging and production green. However, if the consumer uses hot water the environmental impact is greater (due to the energy used to heat the water) than if they choose cold water.
The most reliable eco-labels are not those created by the manufacturer, but those with third-party or government certifications. These include Global Organic Textile Standard (GOT) for clothing, Fair Trade Certified for apparel and home goods, and the Green Seal for soap, cleansers, and shower products. Ecocert and BDIH review cosmetics (requiring an absence of animal testing and non-organic ingredients); Energy Star evaluates appliances, heating and cooling products, electronics, lighting, and more; and Rainforest Alliance Certified pertains to rainforest fruits, flowers, and ferns.
Ecolabel Index has produced a list of nearly 500 different types of eco-labels.
Each year the condition of the environment worsens and our responsibility to repair it increases. Eco-labels are a tool to help shoppers make more informed decisions. What the labels cannot do, however, is tackle the issue of overconsumption. No matter what a label says, it’s nearly always better for the environment to buy less, not more, products.