What’s behind sustainabel labels? (3/3)

Organic logos and ecolabels

Maybe some of you have wondered why there are so many different labels declaring foods, cosmetics and other product “organic” or “eco”. Why not have a single Finnish scheme - or even EU-wide label - to certify everything that is sustainably produced and sold in Finnish shops?

For organic labels which are commonly found on foods, one part of the answer is that there is more than one meaning attached to the term “organic” – more precisely, there are several levels of organic production and different organic labels may stand for different levels.

Other ecolabels like those on detergents or paper products might similarly differ in their conditions for certification. For both, organic logos and ecolabels, there are national and transnational labels to be found which also may follow different standards.

So let’s have a look at some of the most frequently spotted ecolabels in Finland – notably, the EU organic logo and the Nordic Swan Ecolabel.

The EU organic logo

The reason why you are most likely to have come across the EU organic label – the so-called Euroleaf - is that according to EU regulations, it is compulsory for all pre-packaged EU food products which are produced and sold as organic in EU Member States. By itself, the logo certifies that a product contains at least 95% of organic ingredients whereas the remaining 5% of ingredients must adhere to further conditions. However, it may be complemented by other organic labels, e.g. national ones or labels with stricter standards, which is why you will often find products with more than one organic logo.*

(Initial) Market situation

Turning 10 this year, the EU organic logo was introduced in 2010 with the official aims of 1) making it easier for consumers to identify organic products and 2) facilitating the marketing of organic products for farmers across the entire EU. Throughout the years, the EU’s organic food market has grown constantly which can be identified as another reason for the EU to create its own coherent organic label. Fun fact: the growth in organic food sales exceeds the increase in organic farmland in the EU by far!

Standards

According to EU sources, all products with the EU organic logo are certified by an authorised control agency or body and must fulfill certain conditions for production, processing, transportation and storage. The exact conditions can be found in the 2007 Council Regulation on organic production. (This website lists even more legal standards and updated norms that apply for organic farming in the EU.) As of recently, there are measures to improve the traceability of organic products imported from outside the EU. In relation to this, the EU Commission also stressed that the certifying control bodies are assessed annually.

Most importantly, though, the EU organic logo stands for the following four principles (see the poster above): 1) No chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilisers are used in crop production, 2) the use of antibiotics in livestock farming is restricted, 3) organic food products are GMO-free** and 4) crop rotation takes place in agricultural cultivation.

Criticism

As with most trustworthy ecolabels, the certification of food products as ‘EU organic’ comes at a price. While the EU has certain offers for financial aid and advice on best-practice to incentivise organic farming, I know from personal conversations that small-scale farmers often lack the funds for the certification of their products. Admittedly, though, this is also the case for many other ecolabels. The EU’s overall Common Agricultural Policy has been criticised a lot for its lacking focus on small and medium-sized farm businesses (as in this report) – but that’s a different story.

It is also worth mentioning that the EU organic logo only certifies a minimum standard for those preferring ‘full organic’. In comparison with much stricter organic labels, such as biodynamic label Demeter, the EU organic standards are situated between so-called conventional agricultural standards and strict (100%) organic standards. In animal husbandry, for example, Demeter allows a maximum of 3,000 hens in a single building, whereas the EU organic label allows for a maximum of 20,000; conventional livestock farming has no binding maximum of hens per building. (Unfortunately, I could not find this graphic source in English ☹.)

The Nordic Swan Ecolabel

The Nordic Swan (Joutsenmerkki in Finnish) is considered the official ecolabel of the Nordic Countries (Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland). It may be found on items of 60 different product groups ranging from cleaning products and food packaging to furniture and electronics. While even hotels and restaurants can have their services certified with the ecolabel, you will not find the label on agricultural products.

(Initial) Market Situation

The label was established in 1989 by the Nordic Council of Ministers. During the 1980s interest in environmental issues had been increasing – not least due to the UN report “Our Common Future” which first defined the term Sustainable Development. Hence, “The Swan” was meant as a common, official label to help consumers in the Nordic countries make environmentally-sound purchasing decisions. Nowadays, however, the Nordic Ecolabel enjoys recognition beyond the Nordics as businesses worldwide use the license for their products and services.

Interesting to know: the Nordic Ecolabel entered the market three years before the EU Ecolabel was launched by the European Commission.***

Standards

Although the criteria for certification differ depending on product groups and types (you can check them out here), the Nordic Swan stands for tough environmental requirements with regard to the use of chemicals as well as energy and resources. With a holistic view, the Nordic Ecolabel assesses sustainability in the entire life cycle of a product or service.

The criteria may be revised every 4 - 5 years and businesses must document that their products meet the new requirements to keep the Nordic Ecolabel (this graphic shows the process of criteria development). Although the Nordic Countries have the Nordic Ecolabel in common, each country has its own eco-label secretariat, handling license applications, inspection visits and marketing. Businesses which apply for a license must pay an application fee and later an annual usage fee.

Criticism

As for critical voices, I must say that they were hard to find. An official German consumer guide which ranks all sorts of ecolabels recommends Nordic Swan detergents as a ‘very good choice’. However, the very same website also notes that for this very product group, the Nordic Ecolabel does not require compliance with ILO (International Labour Organization) norms. Another German portal for sustainable living picks up on this point and criticises that for some product groups, standards and conditions for certification are much stricter than for others (e.g. when computer manufacturers are required to provide recycling options for their products and to use majorly recyclable materials - but toy manufacturers are not). Apart from this and the fact that certification with the label is very expensive (see argument above), the Nordic Ecolabel seems to enjoy an excellent reputation.

Organic in Tampere

If you want to learn more about eating organic in Tampere, make sure to read Chapter 3: Going organic in Tampere of the Sustainable Students Handbook. There are also many web links there for other sources around the topic of organic food production and consumption in Finland, e.g. Pro Luomu!
What is more: did you know that there is a student association at TUNI whose aim it is to make local and organic food accessible to students?! Check out Tampiiri’s website to find out how you can order organic food to the university campus and what other activities Tampiiri ry organises.

I hope this blog post helped shed some more light on the jungle of eco-labels!
- And who knows, maybe I’ll find some time to cover vegan and cruelty-free labels in another entry in the future!

Tatjana Blum (July 2020)

***Like the Nordic Ecolabel (and unlike the EU organic logo), the EU Ecolabel is a voluntary scheme which producers and retailers choose to apply for (or not). It is also known for its product-life-cycle assessment and tough environmental criteria and can be found on thousands of products across the EU.

**Note: there is conflicting information available when it comes to whether EU organic agriculture is GMO-free or not. This source says that the allowed use of GMO in organic products may be up to 5%.

* The most common Finnish label for organic products complementing the EU organic logo is probably the Luomu sun logo or Aurinkomerkki. Its certification requirements are equal to those of the EU organic logo. The label which is owned by the Finnish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry indicates that a product is monitored by Finnish authorities. It can be found on imported products which adhere to the Aurinkomerkki’s standards as well - thus, it does not stand for exclusively domestic raw materials and production.

Picture 1 (Euroleaf): http://www.eu-organic-food.eu/wp-content/uploads/unijne-logo-produktow-ekologicznych.jpg

Picture 2 (“What is organic farming?”): https://www.europarl.europa.eu/resources/library/images/20180405PHT01015/20180405PHT01015_original.jpg

Picture 3 (Demeter label): https://lebilletdd.files.wordpress.com/2018/02/demeterlogo.jpg?w=604

Picture 4 (Nordic Swan Ecolabel): https://external-content.duckduckgo.com/iu/?u=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.abena.nl%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2Fnordic-ecolabel.png&f=1&nofb=1

Picture 5 (EU Ecolabel): https://tse1.mm.bing.net/th?id=OIP.2JLWd_IY7n0vcQF92w5FzwHaDt&pid=Api

Picture 6 (Nordic Swan - life cycle): https://www.nordic-ecolabel.org/contentassets/bcd96ad0b32b4e0d89413ba186be0ddc/mmd-cyklus_svane_uk_rgb.jpg?width=333&height=335&quality=60

Picture 7 (Aurinkomerkki): https://www.ruokavirasto.fi/globalassets/yritykset/elintarvikeala/luomu/markkinointi-ja-merkinnat/aurinkomerkki_iso.jpg