Ecolabels provide consumers and businesses with reassurance that purchases meet a robust, agreed environmental standard, but buyers and sellers must ensure the claims are legitimate.
Francesca Lipscombe explains.
We live in a world of packaged consumer and business products – hundreds of thousands of them. And as consumers or business buyers we face choices for just about everything we want to buy. We make that decision for a range of reasons: price, quality, availability, or safety, for example.
But increasingly, we’re bringing an ethical dimension to the process. We seek assurances that the making and delivery of the product hasn’t come at the expense of communities or environments. To give us that reassurance, environmental labelling (ecolabeling for short) was developed, and there are a range of labels around that attest to the environmental or sustainability credentials of the products we buy.
Making environmental claims is fine; the issue arises when the claim is bogus or misleading. This is more commonly seen in a milder form – ‘greenwash’, where the product is clothed in environmental terminology, suggesting – hinting perhaps – that it has passed the ‘environmentally friendly’ test when no such proof exists.
Sometimes, the processes don’t work. A classic recent example was the controversy over purportedly ‘free-range’ eggs which turned out to be from a caged-hen farm. The egg middleman supplying the supermarkets got his product from a supplier who usually sourced the eggs from free-range providers, but at times of high demand got them from caged-hen farms – without apparently telling the middleman. Cue: media and public outrage.
At the other end of the scale, the motoring world was stunned recently by the actions of Volkswagen who owned up eventually to corrupt practices around the deliberate production of false emissions test results for their diesel cars. They claimed cleanness, but the cars were actually polluting – and the fines are in the billions of dollars.
Common to both issues was clearly a lack of independent verification. No one was policing the claim that the eggs were all free-range, or that the VW diesel engine emissions-testing was bona fide. The ads and the packaging said one thing, but the public had no way of knowing if it was true.
A claim has to be verifiable; and it needs to be independent verification. And it’s too risky to put the fox in charge of the henhouse, if you’ll forgive the metaphor.
Verification also pays big dividends for the company with the products, by removing or reducing the sorts of risks – both reputational and financial – that were revealed in the eggs and VW cases. While the scale of the respective fines is likely to be a mile apart (the egg case has yet to go to court) it was still a major ‘hit’ for both the eggman and the carmaker.
Not all ecolabels are created equal
Most of the major ecolabels do provide a strong element of verification; their assessments are independent, robust and regularly repeated to ensure there’s no slippage in standards.
Not all tell the whole story, however; labels may only cover certain aspects of a product, such as its manufacture. Environmental impacts can occur throughout the life cycle of a product, from the ethical sourcing of raw materials through production and distribution, to final disposal at the end of the product’s life.
Each stage raises environmental questions; the best products answer them positively.
Environmental Choice New Zealand – our label – is a Type 1 ecolabel, which means it does cover the life cycle of the products we certify. Our auditing is independent, regularly repeated and stringent. But it’s fair to say the environment for ecolabels in New Zealand is a relatively relaxed one compared with our sister organisations in many jurisdictions overseas. It’s often a “nice-to”, rather than a “need-to”.
Ecolabels are thriving where governments take a lead in terms of mandating sustainable practices and standards in the purchasing done by the public sector. As yet, there is a reluctance by our Government to take a strong stance and lead by example in that area.
The public mood here and overseas is increasingly around seeking better reassurances that products aren’t harming the environment. Concerns over global warming and issues like polluted waterways in this country continue to fuel calls (particularly from the new generation coming into the workforce, contemplating home ownership and starting a family) for better environmental protection and behaviours.
The ‘100% green’ image of New Zealand has taken a battering globally in recent times – the BBC, for example, citing Massey University evidence showing 90 percent of New Zealand’s lowland rivers were polluted.
Valuing sustainable choices
The shift in public sentiment was strongly borne out in the 2016 Colmar Brunton “Better Futures” Report, which showed more people are putting value on sustainable choices. Sustainability is increasingly influencing buying behaviour across all categories.
The fastest mover in the past 12 months was the cosmetics and personal-care industry, showing we are starting to care more about what goes onto our skin, the body’s largest organ.
Other findings from the report included:
- 71% of Kiwis are willing to pay a bit more to get the best organic, sustainable and ethically produced products available;
- 83% of New Zealanders would stop buying a company’s products if they heard about the company being irresponsible or unethical; while
- 72% of employees said it was important to them to work for a company that was socially and environmentally responsible.
It’s no surprise to us here in the Environmental Choice office that our licensee Ecostore was found to be the country’s top sustainable brand leader in the same survey. Having independent proof that you’re responsibly managing your environmental impacts during the making of your products earns you brownie points with consumers.
We don’t have to take the brand’s word for it. The distinctive white tick on black logo on a bottle of laundry cleaner creates peace of mind that the brand has passed stringent benchmarks.
Ecolabels can provide consumers and businesses with reassurance that what they have purchased meets a robust, agreed environmental standard, but buyers – and sellers – need to ensure the claims are legitimate, and not get left with egg on their face.