The 3 ingredients for ecolabels to work

This is the third post of the ecolabels series. In the first post, we saw the history of ecolabels and sustainability standards, and understand how they came to be a force in today’s market. In the second, we looked at the 10 features of an effective sustainability standard.


An ecolabel is a picture on the product’s packaging. Why should its presence indicate sustainability to you?

Ecolabels work when that picture signals to you that the product was produced avoiding environmental and social harm. It must show you what happened as the product was made. This needs three key ingredients.

Today, we will take a look at these ingredients.

The 1st ingredient: An effective sustainability standard

As soon as you see the label, you may picture fair working conditions for happy workers in the field. Or you may imagine a farm with water spraying out of sprinklers, signifying smart water management. Or you may understand that the product, no matter the taste, does not have chemicals that will harm your body.

These features—fair working conditions, environmentally sustainable practices and chemical-free production—are governed by sustainability standards. An ecolabel is the face of these sustainability standards.

To be credible in the market, an ecolabel requires an effective sustainability standard. This is the first ingredient for ecolabels to work.

10 features of an effective sustainability standard

There are 10 features of an effective sustainability standard. The standard must be:

  1. Clearly defined with specific requirements
  2. Transparent
  3. Accessible
  4. Rigorous
  5. Replicable
  6. Comprehensible
  7. Measurable
  8. Verifiable
  9. Traceable
  10. Constantly improving

I’ve illustrated these 10 features in a separate post, which I encourage you can check out here. The sustainability standard determines the ecolabel’s environmental and social impact—and therefore the correctness of the ecolabel’s claims.

This first ingredient establishes a good reputation for your ecolabel. But to make the ecolabel work in a competitive market, we need more.

The 2nd ingredient: Authentic communication

When you see an ecolabel, what invokes the picture of happy workers? The visual of sprinklers? The belief that a forest wasn’t felled? You haven’t interviewed workers. You haven’t physically seen if the producers are using resources efficiently. You haven’t verified if a forest wasn’t clear-cut.

You trust the ecolabel because you were informed about its effectiveness and achievements.

Authentic communication is the second ingredient for ecolabels to work. It isn’t enough to be engaging and emotive. It is crucial for ecolabels to sincerely illustrate their effectiveness and achievements with compelling (verified) data.

The success of a sustainability standard and ecolabel also depends on consumer awareness and consumer acceptance. Only then will they pay for a sustainable product and change their consumption patterns to take sustainability into account.

Monica, a conscious consumer, walks into a coffee shop in London and picks up a packet of Kenyan coffee with the Green Frog ecolabel of Rainforest Alliance (RA). She recognizes the ecolabel! She remembers an animated YouTube video she watched, which described how RA’s standards require waterways to be protected, soil to be healthy and biodiversity to be conserved. She had checked if these claims were true. Convinced, Monica buys this packet of coffee.

Monica remembers the story of the ecolabel—and of producers following the ecolabel’s standard—because it was presented to her in an engaging way. When she was curious, she could access verified data that backed the story.

When consumers are given a coherent and reliable message, they will more often than not choose the product with an ecolabel.

The 3rd ingredient: Information design

While some ecolabels struggle to provide verified data to back their claims, others overcompensate with a mountain of data. Too much information can cripple a consumer.

Too much information cane easily confuse consumers.

Would Monica have remembered anything about RA’s label and its impacts if she saw an Excel Spreadsheet with detailed measurements of water use efficiency in Kenyan coffee farms? Probably not. Monica remembers RA’s ecolabel because of the animated video on YouTube.

Many consumers go into decision paralysis when bombarded with information about similar products and end up choosing the cheapest product—which is often also the least sustainable option.

That is why information designhow complex information is presentedis also important! This is the third ingredient for ecolabels to work.

Consumers must be engaged through videos, infographics and even Virtual Reality. This video from the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is an impressive example.

Fun fact: The success of BEE Star Labels on electronic appliances in India was because of their information design. The ecolabel was simple: made of 5 stars. The standard (energy efficiency) was easy to understand and compare: higher the number of stars, better the energy efficiency. It not only gave consumers the satisfaction of conserving electricity, it gave them the direct benefit of lower electricity bills.

Everything comes down to trust…

An effective sustainability standard, authentic communication of its impacts, and skillful design of this interaction gives the ecolabel meaning. You then trust the ecolabel.

With your trust, the ecolabel works.


Disclaimer: This is not a sponsored/partnered post.

Author: Saurab Babu

Usually found sitting with a good book, nibbling on a piece of dark chocolate. Always ready for a good story.

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