Wouldn't it be helpful when shopping for clothes or footwear to know which products contain problematic materials, utilize renewable energy in manufacturing, or enrich their local communities? In theory, eco-labels can provide relevant environmental or social information about a given product to consumers to encourage an environmental goal or objective by shaping purchasing choices. At first glance, eco-labels seem like they could provide such useful information to shoppers, but opinions on their effectiveness have been mixed.
Confusion surrounding eco-labels
What is there not to love about eco-labels? "Eco-labels can shape consumer behavior, and they can also confuse consumers," says Lewis Perkins, Senior VP of Development and Textiles for the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute in an interview with Triple Pundit. "Depending on who you ask, there are over 300 eco-labels! That’s a lot. There is a lack of consistency among eco-labels: There is not a consistent criteria, measurement, and usage of words. There is too much room for consumers to become confused. Without a lot of education, they will not know which eco-label is inherently good."
Perkins has a vision beyond the current hodgepodge of eco-labels that shoppers encounter, so products can be compared on specific qualities. The Cradle to Cradle Certified Products Standard evaluates products and manufacturers on material health, material utilization, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness criteria.
"As an industry, we should invest in consistent messaging, transparency and consistent criteria," he urges. "Otherwise, we’ll continue to invest in confusion."
The organic eco-label is perhaps an exception to the concern that Perkins raises. The term 'organic' is widely used and understood globally; it has a specific criteria, plus availability of organically grown products has increased significantly over the last 10 years.
Eco-labels and the product lifecycle
From cottonseed to landfill, Levi Strauss & Co. commissioned its first lifecycle analysis for a pair of Levi's 501 jeans back in 2007. Utilizing the gained knowledge, the company says, designers can then make choices to mitigate their environmental impact and provide greater transparency to customers regarding environmental performance. The company uses a few eco-labels -- Water<Less™, Care to Air and Organic -- each associated with different initiatives throughout the lifecycle of the product.
Additionally, Levi Strauss & Co. partnered with Goodwill back in 2009 to create the Care Tag for Our Planet, an eco-label that encourages products to be donated after use to extend the product lifecycle and reduce landfill waste. The tag also reminds consumers to wash in cold water and air dry to reduce resource consumption -- reflecting lifecycle analysis data that revealed 45 percent of water use in the lifecycle of a pair of jeans comes from consumer care.
The Water<Less™ eco-label informs consumers about a new technique to reduce water use by up to 96 percent during manufacturing, and the organic eco-label features clothes made from organic cotton and natural dyes.
Innovations in recycling and upcycling
The cradle-to-cradle approaches seeks to learn from nature and create no waste. "The requirement for manufacturers to produce endlessly renewable materials in products is the key," Perkins explains. " Rather than put the onus on consumers, we must first create the system for recollection and reuse. We need the technology and systems in place to make recycling and upcycling apparel both easy and cost effective for all stakeholders. This is the biggest opportunity for the apparel and footwear industry."
With this concept, Patagonia comes to mind with the Common Threads Partnership, which aims to reduce, repair, reuse and finally recycle. This initiative is reducing the quantity of virgin materials in Patagonia products. The company's website states: "Today, you can return any Patagonia product to us and we will reuse it, recycle it into new fabric or make it into a new product." Since 2005, the company has recycled 56.6 tons of worn-out clothing and accessories -- thanks in part to the face-time the program receives via the Common Thread Partnership label and signs in stores.
Unfortunately, Patagonia is lightyears ahead of most clothing companies, and the Common Threads Partnership is a very tangible initiative, which can serve as a model. "Our goal is to not to have more 'eco-labels,' but to create the continuous improvement pathway for companies to design and manufacture products that prioritize safe resources and nutrients that can keep cycling around, continuously with clean water and renewable energy benefiting the companies, people and communities that create them," explains Perkins.
Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.