Making sense of environmental and ethical labels Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Making sense of environmental and ethical labels

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Organic, green, fair trade, does not damage the ozone layer... As we wander round the supermarket, a host of environmental, ethical and social claims are set out on labels and shelves. But what do they all mean? And how often do we think about what lies behind the labels?

Certified eco-labels

Many countries or regional organisations have chosen to set up a certified eco-label. You can find a list of all the ones available in Europe here. For the EU Flower, a label that covers the whole of the EU, you can find information at this link. For outside Europe, try the Global Ecolabelling Network.

A label from any of the major public certified eco-labels signifies that that product is significantly 'greener' than most other products in the range. You can trust the value of the label because the criteria on which the award of the label is based are developed in an independent multi-stakeholder process, and compliance with the criteria is checked. The product will consume less energy, pollute less, or create less waste when it is disposed of. Purchasing these products can help change the behaviour of producers and retailers, as they see that there is added value in the green euro, pound or dollar.

Most of these labels cover a range of environmental and fitness for use criteria. However, there are also labels like the US Energy Star which simply tell the consumer that the product has reached a fixed high level of energy efficiency.

Unfortunately, some of the private labels do not meet such high standards and are essentially misleading. The US Consumers Union has a handy site which enables consumers to check the value of a label. How much of this is realistic with two toddlers in tow on a Saturday morning shop is another question.

Comparative labels

Comparative labels take a given product, like a car or a fridge, and show how efficient that product is in comparison with other similar products. That way you can see whether your washing machine is going to bulk out your electricity bill, and whether your new car will put out enough CO2 to sink a small Pacific island. Normally A or A* is the most efficient level of the scale and G is the worst. These labels are obligatory for many energy using products in the EU.

Wood labels

One of the major causes of rainforest destruction and biodiversity loss in tropical zones is the illegal logging of hardwoods such as teak. You can play your part in discouraging illegal and unsustainable logging by looking out for the logo of a certified forestry management system when purchasing items such as garden furniture.

The best standard currently available is the FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council) scheme. Also good is the PEFC (Pan-European Forestry Certification) 1. There are a number of other schemes, some of them of little value. If you have the time to check, the very minimum is a chain of custody system (otherwise how do they know that the wood they are putting the logo on comes from a certified forestry) and the banning of destructive practices such as clear-cutting. The good schemes also have a social element to them, regarding both worker safety and not harming indigenous forest peoples.

Organic and other food labels

Organic labels or statements are a bit different from the other labels mentioned so far in that they are legally protected. In the EU, Directive 77/2001 means that it is illegal to claim that your product is organic unless it has been certified by an accredited body. These could be government bodies, or private organisations such as the Soil Association (UK). The US Department of Agriculture has a similar system.

Organic food has to do with how the food has been produced. The amount and type of pesticides used, the way that livestock is treated all comes into play. You may also see what are known as 'products from integrated agriculture.' This is not as high a standard as organic food, but still represents an effort by the farmer to use less pesticides in particular. It is not legally protected in the way that organic is.

Most organic labels exclude the products of genetically modified crops. For the moment many labels set a zero tolerance level, but in countries where GM agriculture is taking off, that is likely to become difficult to guarantee - pollination doesn't respect field boundaries. It appears that the USDA would like to set a sort of minimum contamination level. This is not popular with many small organic farmers and with some consumers. Organisations such as the Soil Association are likely to maintain a zero tolerance approach, in order to put political pressure on GM field trials and any eventual commercial exploitation of GM crops in the UK.

This link gives more information on organic coffee.

Food miles

You won't see these on a packet, but some organic movements are promoting the issue of food miles. Essentially this aims at combating the current situation where much of our food is flown miles around the world in a kerosene guzzling cargo jet, and in order to survive this process is picked too early and/or stuffed full of preservatives. Taking action on this as a consumer is not easy, however. The country of origin will often be indicated, but there is not always much choice in terms of distance. Buying organic might reduce your food miles a little, but this is not guaranteed as organic food is becoming a global industry. Buying from a farmer's market is more likely to guarantee that you are getting local food.

Essentially, if this is an issue that bothers you a lot, you will probably need to modify what you are buying, rather than looking for a label. You could try to eat more seasonally - if you eat strawberries in the winter, they will have to come from a long way away, whether they are organic or not, because strawberries don't grow in the winter.

This issue is only really applicable to basic food products and perhaps to some construction products2. Trying to buy a 'local' computer or car is completely ridiculous in a globalised world, and for processed food, the ingredients could come from so many different places, it is doubtful that where the frozen pizza or similar product is put together actually makes much difference.

Some might argue that this issue invalidates a lot of green and organic claims. How can it be green if it has been flown halfway round the planet? However, it is worth bearing in mind that environmentally friendly and organic products do not have to be perfect, they should simply be significantly better than most of what is available on the market. Also, it is doubtful whether taking this notion to its logical extreme and avoiding products from other countries or continents, whether developing or developed, in favour of local produce is really helpful in creating a better world.

Fair Trade labels

Coffee was again the first product to be widely covered by fair trade labels, but they are beginning to spread out to other agricultural products and now even to manufactured products - the first one being footballs. If you want to purchase a fair trade product you should look for the logo of the FLO (Fair Trade Labelling Organisations International) as this sets minimum standards and organises certification.

Fair trade is mostly concerned with two issues - the behaviour of traders (offering a fair price and payment conditions for the product) and the behaviour of producers (minimum standards for the treatment of workers, for example. For more on why buying fair trade is a good idea, see A592706, but be aware that the logo has changed since this was written.

Is fair trade green and is green fair trade? And are the companies that make these products all 'good'?

Increasingly, fair trade labelling organisations are starting to set minimum environmental standards and some types of eco-labels are setting social standards. Even where this is not explicit, given that these products are being aimed at the concerned consumer, niche manufacturers are unlikely to want to risk a scandal by being worse than standard products on either social or environmental issues.

However, some eco-labelled and organic products are starting to be be made or taken over by mainstream manufacturers. This can be a good thing in that it can bring prices down and improve the variety and availability of products. The downside, though, is that the consumer can no longer be sure that an eco-labelled or organic product is made by an 'ethical' company. For multi-nationals, the fact that they produce some green products doesn't mean that they will necessarily stop their involvement in mistreating prisoners, the arms trade or whatever ethical issues you may be concerned about. In addition, the social regime for the people producing the green product is likely to be as good or bad as for the rest of their products. For example, the success of organic agriculture has attracted big farming companies, who use cheap (not to say exploited) labour in exactly the same way as they do on their conventional farms...

If you are interested in ethical issues other than those covered by the concept of fair trade, you are going to have to do some research as there are no labels available. A good place to start would be this ethical consumer site.

Green claims and own brand eco-labels

These are the type of claims that should be treated with the most suspicion. Writing on the product in big green letters "environmentally friendly" means absolutely nothing. There are a few more specific examples. 'Does not contain CFCs' on a deodorant is similarly misleading. No aerosol can in the developed world has been allowed to contain CFCs since they were banned under the Montreal Protocol in 19953.

The UK Government has a Green Claims Code which is well worth a read. It states that claims should be relevant, clear, explicit and in plain language. It is based on the international standard ISO14021.

Fair trade claims don't appear to be widespread on products - more the sort of information that one might find on a corporate website - but any that do should be treated with the same degree of scepticism.

Occasionally a supermarket or producer will put its own green label on a range of products. Consumers have virtually no way of knowing what this represents. It could be good, it might be rubbish. Sometimes information will be available on a corporate website.

Environmental Management Systems

You're unlikely to see these on your box of cornflakes, and indeed users of certified or registered management schemes are not supposed to use them on the product. You may, however, see a reference to a management system on the headed notepaper of the company, the sign in front of their factory,4 their website or their lorries.

One of the main reasons why putting these on labels is discouraged, is that unlike an Eco-label, having an environmental management system does not guarantee that the product meets a given standard. It merely guarantees that the company has a system in place to tackle their environmental impacts. There are two main systems worldwide: the ISO 14001 certification, and the EMAS scheme in the EU. EMAS is a higher standard but (perhaps because of this) ISO 14001 is more popular.

And the cost and benefits of all this?

Organic products are typically 20 to 30% more expensive than conventional products, with meat being more expensive and organic retailer own-brand lines often less so. Organic products that are branded as trendy or deep green5 are often more expensive for little additional environmental benefit. Eco-labelled products and low energy products sometimes have higher up-front costs that are cheaper in whole life costs over the lifetime of the product. Use less energy, require less maintenance...

Mostly what you're getting is peace of mind, knowing that the football you are kicking around has not been sewed by a child working long hours in terrible conditions, knowing that your money has not gone towards chopping down the rainforest or polluting the sea, etc. You might also be buying a tastier product - taste is subjective but there are possible examples. Industrial fresh foods are often bulky and watery which inevitably takes away from the taste. Certainly the only way to get bananas that taste of anything in this Researcher's supermarket is to buy organic. The health benefits to the individual consumer are largely unproven.

What is clear is that this kind of consumer activism is starting to have an impact. Market share has been rising steadily, prices are coming down and it is starting to have an effect on the numbers of organic farmers and the practices of tropical timber merchants. It is too soon to say what the positive environmental and social outcomes will be.

Still can't see the trees for the forest?

Well, buying products that have an organic label, a major eco-label or a creditable forestry or fair trade label on them is a positive use of your consumer power that can help moves towards a more sustainable society. It's up to you to decide whether the benefit is worth the money, but benefit there will be. For all other green claims, dodgy schemes and so on, you might as well just ignore them. If you buy the product for its green credentials, you might be throwing your money away.

1Despite its name, now operating outside of Europe2Although more for business and government purchasers than individual consumers3They are still not 100% banned in developing countries.4In Asia in particular you can sometimes see two-metre-high letters spelling out ISO 14001 proudly emblazoned on the factory wall.5'Only nettles that fell over on their own are used in this product' and the like.

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