What Makes An Eco Label “Meaningful?”

by Owner on August 22, 2009

A few weeks ago I wrapped up a greenwashing series that talked about the many ways product makers try to deceive or misinform individuals about the “green-ness” of their products. One of the main bits of advice I gave was to look for “meaningful” eco labels to guide your purchase decisions. But what does “meaningful” mean?

I took the “meaningful” language from Consumer Reports’ greenerchoices.org website, which serves as a “watchdog” of sorts on the many green claims being made out there. Here’s my paraphrased version of what Consumer Reports believes to be a good, meaningful eco label: 

1) It must be verifiable. The eco label should have environmentally meaningful standards that can be verified by the certifier or a third party organization.

2) It must be consistent and clear. The eco label should mean the same thing across the products certified by it, and its meaning should be apparent through the use of clearly stated standards.

3) It must be transparent. The certifying organization should be open with the public about its structure, function, management, and certification standards. Otherwise it is impossible to gauge the worth of the certification.

4) It must be independent and free from conflicts of interest. A good eco label can’t come from an organization that somehow benefits from the sale of products being certified (either directly, or through other funding.) Employees of the certifying organization should not be involved in any way with companies of products being certified.

5) There must be opportunity for public comment. All of the eco label’s standards should be subject to a period of open comment and recommendations by consumers, environmentalists, policy makers, and even the industry whose products are to be certified (so long as there are no inappropriate financial or decision-making ties.)

These criteria are pretty strict, and most eco labels out there fail them in one or more ways. Yet they make fundamental common sense.

In the absence of government enforcement of these eco label standards, it falls on us to be swayed only by eco labels that “make the cut.” In future installments I’ll highlight some of the best, most meaningful eco labels out there we should look for as we go about our eco friendly shopping.

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