Bad eco-labels are just another form of greenwashing…

I really enjoy GoodGuide and the GoodGuide blog, to which I have long subscribed and read.

I just posted a comment to GoodGuide’s blog on a post about how they are using eco-labels (sustainability standards) to help GoodGuide users differentiate real sustainability claims from greenwashing. This is a great development and could be really helpful, except that there are just too many eco-labels and they are too hard to tell apart!

I’ve reposted my comment here, or you can skip to the GoodGuide Blog post to read it there.

Bad eco-labels are just another form of greenwashing…

GoodGuide’s focus on eco-labels is an outstanding development. Congratulations on the move!

What’s missing for most consumers is a simple and systematic way of differentiating between labels, which is where I hope GoodGuide can someday soon fill a gap. As an example, take FSC and SFI, two of North America’s largest forestry certification schemes. Studies consistently point out that FSC has better impacts on the ground. FSC’s strengths in auditing, stakeholder engagement, and –often crucially — chain-of-custody management (how certified product is kept track of), make it a different class of standard entirely. SFI is often described as simply “turnkey” certification for the forestry industry: ie, greenwashing by another name.

This inability of the average consumer to differentiate between standards is compounded by the proliferation of eco-labels. Take a look at the http://www.ecolabelindex.com/ and you’ll see just how many eco-labels are out there and how hard it is to tell the differences. Hundreds of standards compete for consumers’ eyes.

To my mind, knowing who worked set the standard, and how the standard was set, are two of the most important differentators of sustainability standards. Are the standards set by multiple stakeholders or largely by corporations? By governments? By nonprofits? How transparent is the process? The ISEAL Alliance Code of Good Practice for Standard Setting has become the gold standard to which sustainability standard setting is usually benchmarked. (ISEAL is the global association of sustainability standards). The ISEAL Code requires rigorous global stakeholder engagement done in a transparent way so that all stakeholder voices can be recognized and integrated into the standard–from producers to consumers to corporations to government regulators to buyers and sellers of products. This system is the most rigorous and useful for ensuring that a label really is achieving what it claims.

Another differentiator is how sustainability standards measure their impacts with their target groups. Again, the ISEAL Alliance has something called the Impact Code that requires its member standards systems to devise a narrative for their impact, set indicators, and measure change on the ground over time. This way you can be assured that, for example, Fair Trade really is making a difference to farmers, etc.

I look forward to seeing GoodGuide’s take on differentiating sustainability standards so GoodGuide users can have a trusted and scientific view of the differences. In the meantime, your efforts to create radical transparency for consumers by listing products’ certification systems is commendable.

Full disclosure: I have collaborated and continue to collaborate with the ISEAL Alliance and its members because I see these standards as the best blend of transparency, reliability, rigor, multi-stakeholder engagement, and practicality. Even though these standards are most often high and best in class, they are set in such a way that they should be achievable by the vast majority of companies and producers where the will is there to do so. Part of spurring companies to do more is to consumer power, which GoodGuide is going far to promote.

1 Response to “Bad eco-labels are just another form of greenwashing…”


  1. 1JJW

    The squeaky wheel gets the grease. Thanks to GoodGuide for responding to my concerns about how they factor in sustainability standards into their ratings http://blog.goodguide.com/2011/08/30/a-good-approach-to-deciphering-eco-labels/

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