Green Products: Decoding ecolabels

Everybody knows what an ecolabel is and most people are inclined to trust them. As an ethical consumer you should know that labels are usually voluntary and they fall under three broad categories according to ISO:

- Type I- a voluntary, multiple-criteria based, third party program that awards a license that authorizes use of environmental labels on products indicating overall environmental preferability

- Type II - informative environmental self-declaration claims

- Type III - voluntary programs that provide quantified environmental data of a product, under pre-set categories of parameters set by a qualified third party and based on life cycle assessment, and verified by that or another qualified third party.

Currently there is no overall governing agency that monitors ecolabels, certifications or green product labels. Therefore, the best way to determine whether an ecolabel is stringent enough or not is to look into the criteria to obtain the label in the first place. The US alone has more than 300 ecolabels so where do you start?

Some of the most common labels that you come across are USDA Organic, Fairtrade, EnergyStar, FSC etc. Other than this there is Rainforest Alliance, Cradle to Cradle, LEED, MSC and a whole bunch of other ecolabels each with their own corresponding logo.

As an ethical consumer, it is essential to learn to recognize some of the often used labels and understand what they mean, so this is what this post is about.

Energy Star: The program was started in 1992. The EPA and the DOE develop standards for energy use and award Energy Star qualification to products based on data from the manufacturer, which is not independently verified. So it is not the best measure of electronic performance, but at least you know that you should reject any product that does not meet Energy Star ratings.

USDA Organic: Standards are consistent and independently verified, and strict rules about conflicts of interest are enforced. So so you can trust a product that carries this label to to be organic, GMO and antibiotic-free.

FSC: Sets standards for wood and timber products. Standards for wood include: no genetic engineering, no harvesting in conservation areas, and no harvesting from conversion of natural forests. One of the most widely recognized logos of sustainable, well-managed forestry products.

LEED: Primarily used for green building ratings. The LEED standards are tough and their legitimacy is well-established. The program definitely encourages green design, especially the provision that awards credits for innovation.

Cradle to Cradle: To obtain this label, manufacturers have to go through a vigorous life cycle assessment.

Fairtrade: Is it one of the most commonly spotted labels on food products and this ensures that the product is grown with support for growers as well as the environment.

Rainforest Alliance: Found most commonly on agricultural and timber products which ensures that the product was grown with the strictest measures towards forest protection.

MSC: Certifies sustainable fisheries to ensure that seafood products are harvested sustainably.

The ones mentioned here are probably the most commonly used labels. However, I'm not one for blindly trusting labels and prefer to do my own research into companies. To me, this is what environmental awareness and ethical consumerism means.