April 19th, 2013

Eco labelling is dead, long live the eco label

7 minute read

by Simon Hann


Eco labelling: a minefield on the path to sustainability if ever there was one. It should be the bridge between the ivory tower of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and the man on the street, and a way for manufacturers and retailers to show off their green credentials; instead, it is difficult to see them as a source of anything but confusion, contradiction and misinterpretation.

Take a look at the products you buy next time you’re in – insert name of suitably unethical, but convenient supermarket – and you will often find them labelled with basic environmental information such as how each should be recycled. Some may even tell you their carbon footprint, but too few to allow even the most ardent ethical consumer to work out the carbon footprint of their weekly shop.


Own label

Carbon labelling has become increasingly popular in recent years, but there has been no consensus on how a product’s carbon footprint should be measured. Instead we see myriad labels developed by various EU countries, each using different methodologies and system boundaries. A 2011 survey of 428 shoppers found that 72% thought carbon labelling was a good idea; but unsurprisingly, 89% found interpreting the labels confusing and in 2008 a Forum for the Future study drew similar conclusions, finding that consumers approve of the labels but don’t know what to do with the information. One of their final recommendations was that consumers should be encouraged to look at the ‘bigger picture’ and focus on lifestyle changes; what does it matter if you bought a carbon neutral packet of crisps if you drove five miles across town to buy it?

Recycled Plane

It’s not always plane what an eco label means . Image by Simon Hann.

If consumers like to see eco labels, perhaps it is because they assume that a manufacturer that goes to the trouble of calculating the carbon footprint of their product is probably a good egg – the actual figures reported seem to be inconsequential, since few of us are in a position to make meaningful comparisons.

However, despite the green glow that an eco label can give a product, not everyone who has boarded the good ship eco label has stayed the course. Tesco introduced a carbon reduction labelling scheme during 2007 to cries of “a revolution in green consumption”, but last year quietly slipped it overboard. Perhaps they noticed that it was taking a great deal of time and money, and that no other supermarket was following suit.

Phillip Ward has argued on this blog that using eco labels to put environmental decisions in the hands of the consumer is the wrong approach. Instead, he argued, they should use their role as major buyers and focus on the overall impact of their business activities. Supermarkets have intelligent, professional buyers, who if instructed to add environmental considerations to the criteria they use to select lines could heavily influence the market and stimulate more development of low carbon products. This could reduce the carbon footprint of everyone’s shopping basket, rather than just the few customers that stop to add all their carbon grams together.


Important omission

It’s not just at the level of the individual consumer that confusion around carbon footprints reigns. We are being encouraged to use less energy to help the UK meet it emission targets, and consumers may feel they are doing their bit by using carbon footprint labelling to steer them towards low carbon products. But if these products are manufactured overseas, the carbon emitted during their production and transportation will not appear in the UK emissions measurements at all. As Ann Ballinger explained on Isonomia last year, most carbon accounting is done on the basis of what is produced in each country, not what is consumed, allowing rich Western nations to outsource their carbon footprint to the far East – a story George Monbiot caught up with this month! If this issue is poorly understood, it is in large part because of a lack of effort to distinguish between the two ways of calculating or to explain what a critical difference they make.

The issue is further muddied by the fact that any business can design and use an eco label, whether backed by hard facts or the kind of pseudo-science typically found on anti-aging creams. There would appear to be a gap for an eco label that spans Europe (if not the world); one that is easily recognisable and trustworthy.

But, hold on, one already exists – the EU Ecolabel! Over 17,000 products sport the mark, yet it remains little recognised, allowing alternatives to continue to proliferate.  It is also just a simplistic stamp of approval rather than a scaled rating: this is eco, this is not eco. Even though there is life cycle thinking to back up the decisions, no information is supplied to say why one product out-ecos another, and so there is no way for the committed eco consumer to choose between two rival products that both carry the Ecolabel..

So, is our plucky little eco label doomed? A saviour may be coming in the unlikely form of the French Government. They have dashed to the forefront of European eco labelling with a pioneering trial. The Grenelle II national product labelling experiment saw 168 companies with a 1,000 products take part in a voluntary scheme during 2012. Participants were allowed flexibility, subject to a few basic rules, to display environmental information in a way that suited them. This resulted in an effusion of creative approaches, some more intuitive than others (see picture). It was mandatory to include a carbon footprint figure, along with at least one other environmental indicator of the participant’s choosing. However, any figures used had to be backed up with an LCA, and most importantly, the data on which the assessment was based had to be made public. The results of the trial are expected in 2013. If it proves successful the French government, no stranger to imposing eco label requirements on French businesses, may well do for retailers of consumer goods what they have done already with transport sector and are planning to do to the construction sector by the end of this year.

Eco Label Montage

Examples of French eco labels produced under the Grenelle II scheme

The European Commission is also keeping a well trained eye upon such developments to augment its Single Market for Green Products Initiative; an attempt to homogenise the various LCA methodologies used throughout Europe into one. This is a positive step for both the consumer and business as individual countries can retain their labels, but a given company can market its green products across Europe using just one method of assessment. Using its recently developed Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) method as a basis, the commission is looking to develop rules by sector or product category. This will enable consumers to take better informed purchasing decisions by comparing the performance of products in the same product category. EU level testing is due to begin this year and will draw from, amongst others, the Grenelle II experiment.

This model, which combines flexibility, openness and verifiable information, may well be one that can garner support from retailers, consumers and activists, but it is too soon to say whether businesses will embrace this as a new sphere of competition or react against it as an unnecessary burden, but as many larger business are already starting to calculate LCAs for their products behind closed doors it may not be such a huge leap to pass some of the results to consumers.

Ultimately, the real long term benefit of compulsory eco labelling will be to allow reporting on consumption rather than territorial emissions. Although all these schemes are currently voluntary, if every product you bought was required to have its environmental footprint measured then it would be fairly straightforward to calculate the true environmental impact of our consumption of goods. We would no longer be able to export our environmental impacts to countries such as China and India while bemoaning the pointlessness of saving energy in the UK as they build new powers stations to fulfil our demand for goods. Our consumer culture is the elephant in the room, and it is getting bigger. Try as we may to ignore it, once we slap an eco label on it we will have to sit up and take notice.


Simon Hann


Simon Hann

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John Kazer

I take your point about “…consumers should be encouraged to look at the ‘bigger picture’ and focus on lifestyle changes; what does it matter if you bought a carbon neutral packet of crisps if you drove five miles across town to buy it?” However, you can only do this by understanding both the carbon footprint of stuff in the context of your overall lifestyle emissions – how else to tell if the packet of crisps is significant in your bike/bus/car oriented life? The really cunning next step is not to abandon carbon footprinting but to place it in proper context… Read more »

Simon Hann
Simon Hann

I absolutely agree, as contextualizing environmental impacts has always been difficult and something not addressed particularly well and is perhaps why carbon labelling can be confusing for consumers. The wine label in the picture above attempts this by comparing CO2 to car use and I suspect that any new European standard label may have to have a comparison to the ‘average European’ in the same way food nutrition labelling shows your recommended daily intake i.e. percentage of total. Indeed, this has its own issues because if something seems insignificant when put in that context then it may drive consumption rather… Read more »