Next to the Euro crisis and the emergence of new social movements worldwide, one topic stood out during the open space at last week’s Zukunftspiloten reunion: Understanding ecolabels.

Many of the assembled environmentalists and campaigners had mentioned their reliance on organic, fairtrade and other certified products in their attempts to live a responsible lifestyle – and were glad when Sönke and I offered to answer some questions.

Which labels are good, which ones should I avoid?

I like to look at two aspects of a certification scheme:

  1. Who is behind the label? Is it endorsed both by renowned nonprofits and by business representatives? Industry-only labels often set a very low bar for entry. Governments sometimes do good work, but not always.
  2. How is the label verified? Ideally, the standard setter appoints independent verification bodies to avoid bias. Self-declarations and peer reviews only give a low level of guarantee.

The ISEAL Alliance is an association of ecolabels with ambitious entry criteria on the above two aspects (and some more). Their list of full members only contains the very best labels. A good source for overview information for all kinds of ecolabels is The Ecolabel Index.

At the same time, no label is perfect. All certification schemes rely on indicators that need to be both practical and meaningful at the same time. They mainly work with spot checks, i.e. regular audits.

In today’s globalized and complex supply chains, that alone is a lot better than in most (non-certified) situations. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that every gardener now needs to apply for organic certification: In small, local markets she can provide information and build trust directly with her customers.

How can I get more information about a labeled product?

Most standards systems require two levels of certification: When the product is made (to verify whether the production criteria are met), and finally when it is packaged (to verify whether it is still the same product). The label on the packaging usually contains a small code identifying the responsible certification body (see picture). If you are suspicious that something could be wrong with the product, you can always contact the certification body for confirmation. Standard setters also increasingly provide information on their certificate holders on their websites – have a look at the FSC database for example.

What are your questions about ecolabels?

Standards, labels, certification, oh my!

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