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Buyer beware: Why eco-labels are sticky

Which one of these labels ensures sustainability for you? Evidence is mounting that there are too many eco-labels - too many of which have been watered down or co-opted by private industry for marketing purposes.

Which one of these labels ensures sustainability for you? Evidence is mounting that there are too many eco-labels - too many of which have been watered down or co-opted by private industry for marketing purposes.

Oh, dear. This High Country News piece on eco-labels is not a fun read, but it is well done. Joseph Taylor makes the case that there is no easy way for consumers to know for sure that their food has been harvested sustainably – even with all the eco-labels out there.

Certified ‘green’ labels are not only a mark of sustainable practices, he notes. They’re also a marketing tool. And he pulls together several reports on how some of the leading eco-labels have been watered down or co-opted by industry for marketing purposes. He puts two noteworthy examples in the limelight: the Marine Stewardship Council and the Forest Stewardship Council.

The MSC is too cozy with the fishing industry and has gotten ‘sloppy’ in giving out sustainable labels to undeserving fisheries, he argues. And the FSC has lowered its standards for what kind of logging practices qualify for certification in order to meet the demands of the marketplace.

Eco-labels are designed to elevate products with higher environmental protection standards than than the government requires for the status quo. They look to the marketplace to determine how much people are willing to pay for environmental protection.

But a lack of transparency in how eco-labels are created and awarded devalues them, Taylor writes, and it fuels distrust among the consumers they’re targeting. Would one national eco-label be more effective? At least then everyone could fight over sustainable product standards on the same playing field…

Here’s a quick list of the problems he and others have noted with private-sector eco-labels:

  1. Too many labels: Each label has different criteria for qualifying products, some of which are contradictory. Consumers get overwhelmed and exhausted and revert to familiar brands.
  2. Too much greenwashing: Many consumers are willing to pay more for green products. But peek under the label at the certification standards, and you may find the bar for qualifying is pretty low. The label alone may not help consumers figure out why a certain product is worth the higher price – particularly if it’s being over used as a marketing tool.
  3. Lack of enforcement: Certifying bodies set conditions for maintaining sustainable products and don’t check back very often to make sure companies are upholding their end of the deal. That leaves consumers with less guarantee of sustainable practices after the label has been awarded.
  4. Profits drive approval: The standards for achieving the label may be watered down to fill the market demand for “green” products. Similarly, businesses that have sprung up around certifying products as sustainable have a financial incentive to keep putting new products in the pipeline.
  5. Labels don’t replace regulation: Because only some consumers are willing to pay a higher price for eco-label products, environmental regulation is still needed to ensure a standard level of sustainability.

A few years ago, I wrote a paper on how the Forest Stewardship Council can’t get enough certified wood to fill the orders from industries that want to shrink their environmental footprints. The problem? Essentially, buyers aren’t willing to pay enough for the product to cover the full cost of certification – particularly for smaller forestland owners.

Creating truly sustainable products can require a lot of science – and that gets expensive. Who’s going to pick up the tab? In seafood industry, the cost of counting the fish is a major constraint on figuring out how many fish can be caught sustainably. Several of Taylor’s complaints about the Marine Stewardship Council certification process stem from the high cost of figuring out how many fish are actually in the sea. I’m getting the sense that the same problems that plague governments trying to regulate natural resource industries are gnawing away at the effectiveness of eco-labels.

Eco-labels Forest Stewardship Council Marine Stewardship Council

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