Monday, August 17, 2015

Crash Course to Eco-Labels

Posted by Amanda Villaruel |
Ever wondered what the eco-labels at the store indicate?

In the jungle of information, it's not easy to know the difference between the various certification schemes and eco-labels. I've spent the last week researching the topic and I do hope that this guide is useful :-)
Crash course to eco-labels (entire life cycle, food and drink, clothing, accessories, shoes, cosmetics, paper products and printing)
Introduction to eco-labels

First of all, what is an eco-label? 

Simply put: An eco-label tells you that the product fulfills a set of environmental and ethical standards, and that the product has been verified by an independent organization or a certification body, whether it's the Soil Association or the EU Commission.

Products sold as organic are subject to regulations in for instance, the EU. Products must meet the requirements in the EU regulations, and then the product must be inspected and certified by a certification body.

When the products are certified, the label of that particular certification body (e.g USDA, Fairtrade) can be used, to ensure that you - the consumer - feel certain about the product being organic, fairtrade and/or environmentally friendly.

Eco-labels which focus on the product's entire life cycle 

The Blue Angel (Germany)

Who and what: As the first environmental label in the world and owned by the federal government in Germany, the Blue Angel eco-label covers a large specter of products (except food), like electrical devices and garden equipment.

How: If you buy a product/service with the Blue Angel label, it indicates that it's more environmental friendly compared to other similar, standard products or services, based on their evaluation of the entire life cycle of the product/service. Learn more about the Blue Angel.

Svanemerket (Norway)

Who and what: Another eco-label that takes the entire life cycle of the product into consideration, is the Norwegian label called Svanemerket. It was established in 1989 by the Nordic Council of Ministers, right after the Brundtland-report was launched.

How: Among the things they evaluate is how the raw materials were acquired, if the company uses lots of harmful chemicals, if product can be recycled, product safety and the energy use of the producer.

Scandinavian readers: click to read more about Svanemerket. 

Bra Miljoval (Sweden)

Who and what: This Swedish eco-label was established about 25 years ago by the Naturskyddsforeningen, an environmental organization. They cover products and services including bio-fuel, chemical products, textiles and even insurances.

How: As an example, for textile products they look at the fiber content and the production process (dyeing, printing etc).

Scandinavian readers: Learn more about Bra Miljoval.

Eco-labels for agriculture (food and drink)

Soil Association (UK)
Who and what: Established in 1973, the Soil Association is the largest certification body in the UK. Foods with their label indicate that at least 95% of the ingredients in a product is organic. According to their site, their standards exceed the minimum requirements in the UK, especially in the areas of environment and animal welfare. They've also developed standards for areas not covered by the UK government or EU regulations, including textiles and health, and beauty products.

How: Their organic standards include production and packaging, animal welfare and more. Like many other certification bodies, they inspect the licensed farms and businesses at least once a year. Learn more about the Soil Association.

EU Organic
Who and what: The organic label in the EU was issued by the European Commission. Rules on how organic agricultural products and foods must be grown is found in the EU-Eco regulation. The label means that at least 95% of the ingredients must meet the standards, and use of the logo is mandatory for all pre-packed organic products (effective from July 1, 2010).2

How: According to their site, the farmers, processors and traders have to comply with EU environmental and animal welfare requirements to be able to use their logo. Read more about the EU Organic.

USDA Organic (US)

Who: The National Organic Program (within the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service) is responsible for the USDA Organic certification.

How: There are three labeling categories:3
1) '100% organic' = products that contain only certified organic ingredients
2) 'Organic' = at least 95% organic ingredients (salt and water is not included). The remaining 5% must be organically produced with a few exceptions.
3) 'Made with organic [specific ingredient]' = at least 70% certified organic ingredients (not salt and water). The remaining 30% can be non-organic ingredients. Products that fall under this category are not allowed to use the USDA Organic seal.4

Read more about the USDA certification on their blog (their website is not particularly user-friendly).

Who and what: The global verification body and company FLO-CERT runs the Fairtrade certification system, according to standards of Fairtrade International. They only certify small-scale farmers and workers.

How: If you buy a product with a Fairtrade label, it indicates that the "ingredients in the product have been produced by small-scale farmer organizations or plantations that meet Fairtrade social, economic and environmental standards". Among other things; the farmers receive the Fairtrade Minimum Price, and an extra Fairtrade Premium (it's kind of a bonus) which allows them to invest the money in community projects.
Read more about Fairtrade here. - Read more about the Minimum Price and Premium Price here.

Eco-labels for clothing, accessories and shoes

How: Cotton as a fiber is widely used in for instance clothing. According to Fairtrade, their environmental standards aims at reducing the amounts of pesticides as much as possible, and the small-scale organizations are required to provide training to the members regarding practices that reduce and/or prevent soil erosion. It's a pretty extensive standard.

Check out the standards for small-scale organizations.

Who and what: GOTS stands for Global Organic Textile Standard, and according to GmbH (the company) that executes the standard, they are recognized as the world's leading processing standard for textiles made from organic natural fibers. GOTS is comprised of four organizations, (the German International Association Natural Textile Industry, the UK Soil Association, the US Organic Trade Association, and Japan Organic Cotton Association).

How: It is required that the entire processing and manufacturing chain is according to their standards, to be able to use their label.

They operate with two types of labels:6
1) 'Organic' = 95-100% organic fibers
2) 'Made with [amount] % organic materials' = 70-94% organic fibers

Read more about GOTS here.

Soil Association

How: The Soil Association certifies textile businesses to the GOTS standard.

The Soil Association certifies organic natural fibers, for instance organic wool. Cruel practices on sheep is prohibited, and are reared on organic feed.7 According to them, their standards ensure that harmful manufacturing chemicals is avoided in the processing and manufacturing. They also provide certification for leather, skins and hides.

Read more about organic textiles at Soil Association.

Eco-labels for cosmetics

Who and what: The French certification body Ecocert was established in 1991, specializing in organic agricultural products. As one of the members that developed the COSMetic Organic Standard (COSMOS), Ecocert promotes the use of organic ingredients and issues organic certification.

How: In 2003 they developed the "Natural and Organic Cosmetics" standard. Ecocert checks whether a product contains GMO, parabenes, nanoparticles, animal-derived ingredients and more.

According to their site, cosmetics must be labeled "Ecocert-certified ecological and/or organic cosmetic". They require that at least 95% natural ingredients in the finished product. At least 10% of all ingredients by weight must come from organic farming. 10% sounds too low? 

Check out their FAQ to read how they calculate the % of organic ingredients.

Soil Association

How: According to Soil Association, there are no legal standards for organic beauty products in the EU, unlike organic food.8 The Soil Association and four other European certification bodies have developed a standard for beauty products, named the COSMOS-standard.

If a company wants to label their product 'organic' according to the COSMOS-standard, it is required that 95% of the ingredients in the beauty product must be organic (water is excluded).

Read more about organic beauty products at Soil Association.

Eco-labels for paper products and printing

FSC (= Forest Stewardship Council)

Who and what: A global, non-profit organization founded in 1993, the FSC International promotes responsible forest management, through their FSC Principles and Criteria. According to their site, their certification ensures that products come from well managed forests that provide environmental, social and economic benefits.

How: There's a whole lot of information on their certifications. What you need to know is how their FSC labels look like because there's a difference between them:
1) FSC 100% = contains only fiber from certified managed forests.

2) FSC Mix = "the timber or the fibre in the product is a mixture of some/all of the following: timber or fibre from an FSC-forest, reclaimed timber or fibre, timber or fibre from other controlled sources." 9

3) FSC Recycled = the product is made from at least 85% post-consumer reclaimed materials. The FSC Recycled label is not a guarantee that the wood originally came from an FSC-certified forest.10

Read more about FSC International here.


Who and what: According to their site, PEFC is the world's largest forest certification system (stands for Programme for Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes). The PEFC is an umbrella organization.

How: If for instance the national certification system in the UK wants to be endorsed by the PEFC (and use their label), they need to meet the standards of PEFC (called Sustainability Benchmarks).

The label "indicate that wood, non-wood or wood-based products originate from PEFC-certified timber". They operate with two product labels:11

1) PEFC certified = at last 70% of the wood originate from PEFC-certified forests and recycled material, and wood from controlled sources. The overall content of recycled material must not be higher than 85%.
2) PEFC recycled = at least 70% PEFC certified material from recycled sources , and wood from controlled sources.

Read more about PEFC here.

Eco-friendly alternatives to notebooks.

So, what are the differences between the FSC and the PEFC labels?

PEFC explains the differences between the FSC and PEFC.

Greenpeace's take on PEFC and FSC as certification schemes - where they write that PEFC doesn't match up to FSC.

Continue to read:
An environmentalist choosing between the lesser of two evils.

Back to school: choose reusable book covers.

Crash course to eco-labels, eco-labels for dummies


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