What’s behind sustainable labels?

Delusive labeling: Background
Long before I discovered my passion for sustainability, I had to give a presentation in high school on the destruction of rainforest in South America. I still remember how surprised I was to find that even wood products certified by sustainable labels could not be fully trusted as many such labels did not adhere to their own standards. In this case, it was the FSC label (Forest Stewardship Council) which had turned out to be heavily criticized – the critics including former members of the organization – for putting its commercial interests over its official aim to protect the world’s forests. Young and naïve as I was, this was the first time I realized that even those “good” labels could be deceiving and it made me wonder, if any consumer can ever know if the products they consume are sustainable or not.

A jungle emerges: Motivation for the challenge
Now, several years later, I am far more enthusiastic about sustainable consumption. Frankly speaking, it is of course rather sad that any product even needs to be labelled as sustainable. Ideally, it would be a standard practice to produce and to trade consumption goods in a sustainable and ethical manner. Anyhow, a whole jungle of eco-labels has emerged as more and more people are becoming aware of their consumption habits and turn to organic, vegan and fair products.

At the same time, the very question I asked myself after my presentation in high school still seemed unanswered. Since I, myself, consume many of those products that are certified as sustainable without knowing what these labels really stand for, I decided to make it my personal challenge to find out more about some of the labels that I have encountered most frequently.

Organic, fair and vegan: My aims
This challenge does not only serve the purpose of making my own consumption more transparent. It is also aimed at creating an overview of eco-labels for everyone who seeks to make m ore informed consumption choices but does not have the time to look up every label before making a purchase. After all, there is a risk of being fooled by a shiny, promising label which only makes the desired item more expensive, instead of guaranteeing its sustainable production. In order to shed some light in the dark, it is my intention to investigate the following three types of labels:
- Organic
- Ethical trade
- Vegan / “cruelty-free”

The labels: Which ones are there and what do they stand for?
Concerning organic ingredients of food or other goods, there are several different labels in Finland and even more in the whole EU. But how do they differ from each other and what are their criteria? As for ethical trade, there are some front runners like the well-known “fair trade” label. While these are important to review, I am also interested in labels which are less well-known, such as the “ethical tea partnership label”. Lastly, there is a range of products, especially cosmetics, which display labels certifying that they do not contain any animal products and/or have not been tested on animals. They can, however, be as delusive as the FSC label which – is why I will have a closer look at them.

Outlook: How to shed light on the jungle
For the next blog posts, it is my intention to answer a number of questions about the labels I yet have to choose. As I have already indicated, I will look into the requirements for certifications i.e. the standards which the labelled product is expected to adhere to. Whereas I imagine this to be relatively simple, it could be more challenging to research how well the certifying organization actually controls the consistent adherence of certified partners. Having done this, I will hopefully be able to form an opinion on the standards of the label and to judge whether they are adequate or too weak.

What I want to investigate on top of that, is the context in which different labels emerged on the market. This will be interesting to find since sustainable labels may be considered to serve the aim of disrupting market dynamics; yet, they may also be designed to sustain the position of certain market players which misuse them for greenwashing. Lastly, I want to critically look out for any shortcomings connected to the process of certification or other controversial practices employed by the certifying organization.

Tatjana Blum (Feb. 2020)
Read the second part of this challenge here.

Pictures credits (1) rawpixel.com, (2) nikitabuida. Source: www.freepik.com