In recent times, public interest in protecting the environment, sustainability and positive climate action is higher than it has ever been. From politics and fashion to energy and manufacturing, climate change and the environment has become the central consideration in what we buy, who we vote for, where we travel even. It is undeniable that eco-awareness matters a great deal in our daily choices but it is predictably most popular with our purchasing decisions. If you are anything like me, you too would find that with an ocean of products to navigate, it can be difficult to know what brand to trust.
As consumers who want to patronize businesses with good environmental standards, the most convenient way for us to make these purchasing decisions is to rely on a product’s branding. We are not privy to the supply chains or aware of any unethical practices in the companies whose product we buy; and unless we step foot in the factories ourselves, we cannot be 100% certain. However to provide us with more certainty, there are numerous certifications and eco labels we can rely on to help us make informed ‘eco’ decisions.
Eco-labeling is –or ought to be– a very effective way of informing customers about the environmental impacts of selected products, to better inform the choices they can make. It empowers us to disregard products that are harmful to the environment in favor of those more compatible with environmental objectives – and our personal values.
Put differently, the general idea here is for eco-certified businesses to win consumers with labels showing positive environmental values in their products or services. And for this to happen, these businesses would have to ensure that their products meet certain standards necessary to qualify for the use of eco labels in their industry. Now these labels are mostly managed and issued by third party organizations, say some government institutions or credible non-profit organizations, and they are often issued to businesses across a plethora of industries. Which is to be expected, I guess.
An unintended consequence of this though is that most times, the focus of the third party issuer is solely to bring the existence of the relevant eco-labels to the target businesses while the consumer’s actual understanding of the labels issued take the back seat. This can be a problem because few of these labels give people meaningful guidance in choosing environmentally superior products. Too many labels offer weak or unsubstantiated claims and many amount to little more than self-declarations made by individual companies.
There should be more effort made in this regard because contrary to certain beliefs on the matter, consumers actually care about the label on a product they want to buy. They care about the quality of information it contains because, detailed labels that contain information about the eco-claims being made are preferable to simple icons or graphics that suggest eco-friendly qualities.
For instance, a label that the eggs for sale are free-range or wool that was harvested in a sustainable way are credence claims at best because they are impossible for individual consumers to verify. This means that consumers cannot realistically visit the stated chicken farm or the forest to verify these things. So to evaluate the truthfulness of these claims, a consumer prefers to rely on more detailed information rather than an eco-endorsement that lacks substance.
A bigger issue here though is the sheer number of eco labels in existence. Put simply, a myriad of organizations and certifications exist. The Eco Label Index lists over 450 eco labels, green stamps and environmental certifications across different industries and even a lot more within one industry. For example, in the building industry, LEED, WELL, and EDGE are just some of the eco-certifications in existence. As far as the average consumer knows, all three certifications may show good ethical standards but it remains uncertain which is to be preferred of all three. And it gets worse. In food for instance, there are eco-labels showing which product is organic, which is palm oil free, which is gluten free, and so on.
So standing in front of a food shelf at a supermarket, the typical consumer might be forgiven for being confused. Cage-free or free-range? Free-roaming or free-farmed? Grass-fed, vegetarian-fed or whole grain-fed? Antibiotic-free, biodynamic, hormone-free, irradiated, natural, organic or pasteurized? All these conspire to make an already difficult purchasing decision even more tasking and really, consumers would rather have these things made a bit easier on them. I understand the concept of competition amongst brands but if we want average consumers to truly consider the ethical or sustainable component of companies and their products, we will need to break things down a bit; who has the time to research, learn and understand the nuances of eco-labelling?
Besides, everyone loves convenience; it is practically the pillar on which online shopping, fast food and Netflix is built. So, if we are truly committed to nudging consumers away from purchases that hurt our environment, we have to offer them a degree of convenience as well.
An example here could be something as simple as the Michelin rating. The Michelin rating has become a singular all-round rating on dining experiences because it’s synonymous with impressive standards for chefs and restaurants. You don’t have to be a part of the food industry to know this. As a matter of fact, anyone who has gone out dining has most likely considered the Michelin rating of the establishment. And it’s incredibly easy to find out this information. A simple Google search of a restaurant will provide this to you pronto.
Consumers out there already want to make healthier choices for themselves and for our environment. A good number of them already make impressive inquiries as it relates to positive climate action before they decide on what products to buy. And if eco-labels and green certifications are meant to achieve any lasting positive change, the labels should be designed and issued to actually help consumers along– not make money by adding to the confusion.
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