Is It Greenwashing Or Too Many Eco-Labels That Is The Problem?


Greenwashing has become a sufficiently widespread problem that the term now has an entry in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. A more comprehensive definition, however, can be found here in the Dictionary of Sustainable Management – the nub of it being that it’s the practice of attaching a positive environmental association with an unsustainable product of service.

Ramon Arratia of InterfaceFLOR explains that the practice is harmful not only to the environment, but also to sustainable industries themselves.

1) Myriad claims for nebulous attributes such as ‘low carbon’, ‘recyclable’ and ‘natural’ are often either misleading, or meaningless, since those claims are typically unsubstantiated or unquantified.

2) Eco-labeling is often found to be unreliable due to a lack of independent validation by third parties,

3) Manufacturers are often required to make payments to the owner of the eco-label in order to display it on their products, risking low-bar standards for qualification.

4) The overlap and duplication among different eco-labeling bodies forces manufacturers to certify products several times over.

The result is a confused or misled populace, who cannot be assured they are making smart choices, and an industry that runs the risk of compromising its credibility. But while the above factors may give rise to greenwashing, is it that greenwashing itself is bad for industry or simply that the proliferation of (even well-intentioned) eco-labels makes it almost impossible to call out the disingenuous?

If there were fewer labeling standards out there, confusion amongst consumers would likely diminish, since it’s currently impossible for people to get their heads around them all. The Ecolabel Index website currently lists 378 such labels and it’s a useful resource for engaged consumers to research the credentials of each. You will notice things like country specific labeling, company specific labeling, as well as more obvious ones such as industry specific labeling.

But with such a vast array of labels, greenwashing can insidiously take place since its practitioners can operate while embedded amongst those genuinely trading in a sustainable manner. Since so many products are part of global supply chains, it seems that a trend towards fewer global label certifications would be beneficial. This article by Reeve Consulting suggests that there is indeed greater collaboration and consolidation now taking place among those in the sustainable labeling field, which will be beneficial to all.

With any industry,  in the early days there tends to be a proliferation of companies vying for dominance, while over time, competition and merger activity narrows the field to just a few that become household name brands. Perhaps with eco-labeling, this is what is happening now. If consumers can reliably begin to attach credible association with fewer well known and well understood labels, greenwashing companies will cease to have a place to hide out – and industries in the business of sustainable products and services will be the better off for it.

Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.

4 responses

  1. The problem with any unregulated ‘industry’ is that certification becomes competitive and subsequently confusing.

    While many will no doubt scream ‘socialism’ it seems that what is required is effect regulation. In the absence of effective legislation, collaboration between industry leaders seems essential to create a national (preferably global) set of reporting standards and icons in order to provide clear direction to both business and domestic consumers.

    While the Eco Label Index is an admirable undertaking, forcing billions of consumers to be responsible for educating themselves about a non-standardised, ever-changing landscape of synonymous brands is the ultimate representation of the tail wagging the dog.

    Under what circumstances is the average person going to educate themselves and retain information relating to 377 (and growing) brands and ‘standards’ (especially when the sole resource to address a global need is published only in English!).

    As consumers and business leaders I would suggest it is our responsibility to demand more effective structures to make our lives easier … and free up the trillions of collective hours we’re expected to invest into labeling education toward direct engagement with sustainability initiatives in our own communities.

    1. Hi Cameron, thanks for the kind words. Interestingly, we are seeing ecolabels increasingly used at an institutional level, perhaps partly for this reason. Great closing point as well. On the translation question – we agree. If there are foundations or other groups that would like to help us translate Ecolabel Index, we’d love to talk with you about how to do it. Please do get in touch with us directly.

  2. Cameron – couldn’t have said it better myself about the root cause of this: inadequate regulation. Though I should also add inadequate enforcement of existing regulations (as we’ve seen at USDA Organic and EnergyStar, as well as MSC, among many):

    USDA Organic:


    So the flip side of the “effective regulation is the solution” coin is that the effectiveness of regulation changes from administration to administration, depending on the ideology of the party in charge.

    That said, one form of evidence regarding the effectiveness of good regulations is the comparison of levels of toxic chemicals in our bodies to level in peoples’ bodies in countries where the chemical is restricted. For example, according to the Washington Dept of Health: “The highest levels of PBDEs among the general population are found in the U.S. and Canada—10 to 100 times higher than levels reported for Europe and Japan.”

    Here’s a link:

    Hmmm, why might that be..?

    Innocent until proven guilty is be a wonderful model for a criminal justice system. But it is dangerously inadequate for a system for protecting people and our environment from the scary threats posed by harmful chemicals.

    People are scared, they are looking for ways to protect their health, and that’s a big reason behind the proliferation of many of these eco-labels. We need govt to step up and do their job of designing smart, effective, science-based regulations.

    In the absence of this, I share in your prediction of consolidation in the industry – the good certifications will gain consumer trust and the bad will get weeded out. But as the inevitable controversies demonstrate (e.g., MSC last year) we ALWAYS need vigilance from top consumer groups and scientists to help keep the certifying bodies on track.

  3. Very interesting! I am looking for some documentation regarding the flaws and critiques of eco-labeling, for my master thesis. As a last resort i can refer to blogs and forums i guess, but of course more “scientific” sources are preferred. If you have any sources to back up some of those arguments i would appreciate it a lot.

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