Eco Labels Not the Point

medium_Laurel_2012.jpegThe weekly Verdigris blog by Laurel Brunner

Ecolabels are a pain. They are generally well-intended, aiming to make life simpler for consumers and provide assurance that a product is environmentally friendly. But really eco labels alone don’t help industry sectors to improve their carbon footprints or environmental impacts. For instance in the US eco labels are required for cars and tumble dryers. They are a pain because they give a false and misleading impression that the impact problem is solved, which of course it isn’t and cannot be just because of a quantification and validation proceedure. The printing industry needs not labels but education and awareness that environmental performance improvement is more important than hollow claims.

Governments of course have been big on labels which they see as a tool for accountability, indicators, for instance of the amount of calories or the fat content in foods. And industry associations and companies are also big on labels, since they can charge for the use of a comforting logo. It’s validity is another matter but this stuff also has a commercial dimension: have you ever wondered how much the likes of the FSC charge for the use of their logo? Let’s just say it ain’t necessarily cheap.

An eco logo is intended to confirm that the product to which it is applied has a quantifiable basis for some sort of informed emissions management. However the quality of the data, the scope of the study and how emissions might be managed to live up to what the label implies are uncertain points of light flickering in a cloud of misinformation. And how accountable are the organisations doing the verifications and awarding the certifications? What is the cost and value equation?

The issue really is that we are still too early in the development of widespread environmental awareness and understanding. Scientists cannot even agree on climate change, let alone how a life cucle analysis of print media should be conducted and the study results communicated. Labels imply a degree of knowledge about the thing to which they are applied. They also imply membership in a specific community, a set of shared values and market position. But they can also be a tool for defining against (think stroppy teenager) so their validity and accountability are extremely important.

Unfortunately when it comes to environmental science and understanding LCAs our industry, as with others, is hopelessly niaive. They are not equipped to understand what environmental labels stand for, or what they mean in the context of environmental impact reduction. The EU’s enthusiasm for its Eco Label is laudable, but the money spent on developing and deploying it would be better spent on initiatives that raise the awareness of the difficulties and helping business to improve their sustainability, both commercial and environmental.

– Laurel Brunner

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