Environmental product labelling is a way to promote consumer behaviour and sustainable development, as identified by Agenda 21 of Rio Earth Summit in 1992. This has not only led to internalization of environmental impacts and the issues associated with products and their manufacturing processes but also influenced consumption behaviour of the people. As a result, rapid development has been seen in the method, data and protocols for the assessment of product sustainability over the past one and half decades. Now consumers are able to distinguish between more or less sustainable options available in the market.
Environmental product labels act as guide for consumers on environmental sound products and help in drawing attention of less informed consumers on environmental issues due to a product or service. It also condense complex information to make appropriate purchasing choice as many consumers don’t understand complex environmental issues. In addition, environmental product labels create a ‘virtuous cycle’ – consumers create market for eco-friendly products and manufacturers are encouraged to adapt products/ processes to obtain eco-labels
Classification of Environmental Labels
The strength of labels across the classification in contributing to sustainable consumption is based on four main themes, which are relating to principles of sustainable development. They are:
- Coverage (range of environmental issues covered, carrying capacity, range of label products covered of relevant issues);
- Inclusion of stakeholder needs (participative democracy);
- Uptake, independence and acceptance (evidence of influence of the label and participative democracy);
- Measured environmental/sustainable consumption outcomes (demonstrating conservation of natural capital and intergenerational equity).
Environmental product labels usually cover a wide range of environmental impacts, across the lifetime of the product starting from raw materials extraction, production to use and disposal. Although, these can be classified and characterised in various ways, there are two main points of differentiation, i.e. whether a particular scheme is mandatory or voluntary and whether it is carried out independently or issued by a third party.
In case of voluntary labelling, the International Standards Organization (ISO) uses three categories. They are Type-1, Type II and Type III. Type I labels are commonly known as eco-labels. These are third-party certified product environmental labels which provide a logo associated with certified products. Type II labels are based on self-declarations of the manufacturers, importers, distributors, retailers whereas type III environmental product declarations (EPDs) that are based on quantitative life cycle environmental data such as life cycle assessment (LCA).
Some examples of each category are as below.
ISO 14024 Type I Labels
The Type-I eco-labelling systems are positive, market driven, voluntary schemes, which are standardized by ISO 14024. These are based on multi-product groups/ criteria and are issued by independent third parties to best environmental performers in various product categories. The specific goal of this labelling is to identify overall environmental performance of a product or service within a particular product or service category based on lifecycle considerations.
Typically, all Type I labels involve three steps- developing a product, getting the label and losing the label.
Developing product criteria
In order to develop product criteria, initially a jury defines the product category based on environmental relevance, competition, credibility and cost. Then evaluation is using LCA followed by development of qualitative and quantitative criteria. The criteria are drafted, publicly discussed and approved.
Getting the label
In order to get a label, the producer submits an application. The labels conformance with criteria is evaluated and the product is awarded a label for a set time period. During the set period, ongoing auditing are carried out to verify compliance.
Losing the label
A label can be lost in the following situations
- The producer provided false data
- The producer abused the rights related to the eco-label
- The product stops conforming to the criteria (e.g. change in practices, review of criteria)
- A new information is acquired regarding the adverse environmental effects of the product
ISO 14021 Type II Labels
These are mostly self-declared labels, used by manufacturers to indicate the environmental aspects of a product or service through statements, symbols, product literature, and advertising. Some example, CFC-free, Recycled content, Pre-consumer material, reduced water consumption, made from plant-based ingredients, design for disassembly, compostable, Dolphin friendly, Mobius loop etc.
ISO 14025 Type III Labels
This type label is otherwise called as Environmental product declaration (EPD), which is a verified document that reports environmental data of products based on life cycle assessment and other relevant information in accordance with ISO 14025. EPDs are licensed by independent organisations. They provide information and let consumer to decide which product is the best. Hence, EPDs are considered as the most transparent tool to communicate the environmental impacts of any types of goods and services. The major advantages of Type III labels over the Type I and Type II are; they are more transparent, the impact categories are selected by experts based on LCAs.
EPDs are produced in quantitative report card format, which helps manufacturers to measure the development of his products. The EPDs include environmental data for a number of environmental impact categories such as global warming, acidification of land and water sources, depletion of natural habitat, eutrophication, photochemical tropospheric ozone formation, stratospheric ozone layer depletion, human toxicity and injuries. They provide information on product or system’s raw material extraction, energy use, chemical makeup, waste generation, and emission to air, water, and soil. Worldwide, about 450 EPDs from 150 countries are published and freely available in the International EPD System for a broad range of product categories.
EPDs have the following key features
- They contain detailed information in report form
- There is no pass/fail criteria
- They open to all products except food other than process food, beverages and pharmaceutical products.
- EPDs are generally based on LCA
- They directs consumer to more information on internet
- Mostly aimed to be used for public sector and business purchasing
- The validity of the EPDs is for 3 years and after that period they must be revisited and reissued.
Some of the key disadvantages of having Type III EPDs are:
- They are hard to be interpreted by non-experts
- It is expensive to establish product specific requirements for new product areas
- The data collection process is very comprehensive and time consuming
- It may be difficult to achieve quantitative data from suppliers which are required to determine the criteria for eco-label.
There is another type of non-ISO environmental label which is called Type I-like. These are based on single products or criteria. Some examples are Forest Stewardship Certification (FSC), MSC, GreenSTAR (AU), LEED (USA), EnergySTAR (International), Green Globe (International), Greenhouse Friendly (AU). These do not label a variety of product categories but focus on a single product category.
Environmental labels can play a role of a catalyst in sustainable development. They can help guiding consumers to favour a product or service that is least damaging to the environment. Though environmental labels are voluntary schemes, by including those as important component of public policy, strategy and goal setting can meaningfully contribute to sustainable development.
Ralph E. Horne (2009) Limits to labels: The role of eco-labels in the assessment of product sustainability and routes to sustainable consumption, International Journal of Consumer Studies 175–182.
Lavall, S. and Plouffe, S. (2004) The Eco-label and Sustainable Development, International Journal of LCA 9 (6), 349-354.
Gulbrandsen, L.H. (2006) creating markets for eco-labelling: are consumers insignificant? International Journal of Consumer Studies, 30, 477–489.