This is the fourth post of the ecolabels series.
Today, there are more than 400 ecolabels and associated sustainability standards in the world.
Over 400 different organizations pushing producers to ethically and sustainably grow and manufacture goods. These organizations also support consumers to make sustainable purchases.
If you went back to the 1980s and told this to the pioneers of the ecolabel movement, they would have been thrilled.
More ecolabels means more sustainability, right?
Having too many ecolabels threatens to derail the Sustainable Production and Consumption Movement. Today, we see how.
Problem 1: “Pick me!”
If you want to buy anything from a street market in India, you’ll need an amazing skill: bargaining. I’ve never got the hang of it, but my parents excel at it. Once, my dad walked up to two vendors selling belts. He asked the first vendor how much one of the black belts cost. “200”, the vendor replied. Dad brought on a look of deep dissatisfaction and said, “Can you do any better?”
Sensing an opportunity to one-up his rival, the second vendor chimed in holding a black belt in his hand, “190 sir! You can even try the belt on before you buy it!”
This went on for a while until one vendor gave a deal that dad was happy with—the belt for 100 bucks and a buckle for free.
(Before you judge, that belt was probably only worth 80 bucks. Vendors quote an exorbitantly inflated first price because they expect customers to bargain.)
Ecolabel organizations are in a similar position to those belt vendors. They depend on producers to adopt their sustainability standards and pay to display the ecolabel on products. But with too many ecolabels, producers are spoiled for choice. If an ecolabel has a difficult or stringent sustainability standard, producers can just go to another ecolabel whose standards are easier to implement.
This has created competition among ecolabels. To win over producers and defeat “competitors”, many new ecolabels have diluted standards so that producers could easily adopt them*. Weak standards have made life easier for producers, but it doesn’t really help the environment or the society, because the standards aren’t effective enough to create significant improvements.
(*Sometimes, standards are diluted because producers don’t have the technical and financial resources to adopt stringent versions. That’s okay if ecolabel organisations work with producers over time and build capacities. As producers’ skills improve, the standards must progressively become stringent.)
Problem 2: What do I choose?
When you are shopping for a laptop online, you are met with a long list of suggestions. All the laptops look almost the same, they just have slightly different specifications. The last time I wanted to buy a laptop, I was so overwhelmed! I called my friend Ashish and asked him for a recommendation. Then I just bought what he suggested.
Too many options can be confusing. Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper demonstrate this in their famous choice experiment. They offered two sets of jams to customers to taste and choose from: the first with 6 different flavors and the second with 24 flavors. 12% of the customers who tasted jams from the first set ended up buying a jar, while only 2% of customers who tried jams from the second set bought a jar.
You might decide not to buy any ecolabeled product, just like 98% percent of the customers who had to choose from 24 flavors of jam!
Problem 3: Greenwashing
You could look at this “too many options” problem from another perspective. Isn’t it great that there are so many sustainably produced products? Assuming all of your choices were produced under a rigorous and effective sustainability standard, any purchase you make is positive for the world!
Ecolabels also compete for consumers. Enough consumers must recognize the ecolabel, trust it and buy products marked with it.
So, ecolabels have to work hard to differentiate themselves in a crowded market. They must win your trust by demonstrating their effectiveness in achieving social and environmental sustainability. But some ecolabels—especially those with weak sustainability standards—resort to unethical practices like misdirection, or outright lies.
Adam Carlson describes an interesting example of misdirection. Carlson was trying to understand how consumer preferences changed after coffee products became certified under Fair Trade. During the study, he noticed that there were many companies who weren’t Fair Trade Certified, but had a label that claimed they were “Fairly Traded”. What does that mean? Clearly, the companies were claiming that they trade fairly with coffee farmers. But without a reliable certification to back this claim, you would be right to wonder if this was true.
If James, a less-informed consumer, sees one coffee packet marked “Fair Trade” and another marked “Fairly Traded”, what do you think he would do?
James might assume both these products to be the same! Then, he would compare the price of the two products. It is most likely that the “Fair Trade” product would be more expensive, as Fair Trade is an established ecolabel with third-party certification. James would, understandably, choose the questionable “Fairly Traded” product and feel content about making a sustainable purchase.
When ecolabels make exaggerated claims about the benefits of their standards (100% natural, chemical-free!), or misdirect consumers into thinking they are positively impacting the environment when they may really be harming it, we call it greenwashing.
Unfortunately, greenwashing is rampant in the market today, because ecolabels and companies have realized that “sustainability” is a huge market. Everyone wants to cash in without doing the work.
Does this mean you should stop relying on ecolabels?
No, it doesn’t. Ecolabels and sustainability standards are still a valuable tool to promote sustainable production and consumption. We desperately need to use our resources judiciously to prevent an ecological calamity. Producers who share these values need our support. The premium attached to certified products is a valuable incentive for these producers.
Instead of shunning ecolabels…
…here’s how you overcome these three problems
First, remember that some competition among ecolabels is a good thing. It forces them to demonstrate effectiveness, which is a key feature against which consumers judge the ecolabel. As consumers, we need to do our part by researching the claims of an ecolabel/product. Ask yourself three questions:
- Is there a website that you can go to for more information? If yes, go explore.
- Does the website prove their claims with data?
- Does the website describe the ecolabel/product’s sustainability standards? If yes, do those standards match with the features of an effective sustainability standard?
If you are satisfied with answers to these questions, you can rely on that ecolabel/product!
Second, you can avoid decision paralysis with ecolabels like I avoided mine while buying a laptop. Ask friends who purchases sustainable goods. They would have done their own research and have a trusted brand. You may doubt the claims on the packaging (greenwashing!) but you can safely rely on a friend’s recommendation.
Third, be vigilant about greenwashing. Waste-FreePhD has a simple guide that you can start with. The guide also narrow your choices, which will help you overcome decision paralysis.
If we can stay informed and push for accountability, more ecolabels can really be better for sustainability!
This is the fourth 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. And in the third, we explored the 3 ingredients that make this concept work.