Have eco-labels had their day?
You get eco-labels on everything these days. You can’t grab a coffee without it being rainforest-certified, fair-trade, organic or all three. This very ubiquity bothers me – are all these products wonderful, or is the bar too low and do labels continue to challenge industry to strive harder?
Even the most successful of the eco-labels – the EU energy label on white goods which drove up energy efficiency dramatically – has a fatal flaw. Instead of cranking up the ratings so it was more difficult to meet them, the EU simply added ratings to the top end – A+, A++ etc. So a fridge that hit A in 2000 will still be ranked A in 2020 – where’s the drive to improve or ditch old and under-performing technologies?
More worrying was a conversation I had with a sustainability manager at a major multinational last week (not one of our clients). He said something along the lines of:
We lobby to make sure the eco-label is something we can achieve, then we meet that target and no more – there’s no pressure to exceed the standard.
In other words, industry tries to dictate what “green” means, makes sure it is easily achievable and then, bingo, achieves it! And sits back, job done.
Such lowest common denominator thinking exasperates me. We need to be creating powerful drivers to make industry strive forwards, not sit on their (modest) laurels. The rankings in all eco-labels should be designed to tighten over time to keep people on their toes. If there is no fear of losing the label, then it is worthless.
An alternative approach is the league table. Industry loves competition and hates to come last – certainly the Greenpeace ranking of electronics firms made even Steve Jobs sit up and listen. A comprehensive set of rankings across sectors would really spice up progress to sustainability.
Whatever is done needs to be done quickly – very soon the public is going to notice that almost everything has a label of some sort. And if they get cynical, the eco-label won’t be worth the product packaging it is printed on.