We’ve all seen them. Logos, stickers and labels advertising consumer products as green, biodegradable, environmentally friendly, free range, carbon-neutral, recycled and more. Eco-labels have become increasingly popular, growing from a handful in the 1980s to several hundred today. They have been promoted as one way to encourage more environmentally friendly buying decisions, but they have also received criticism for being misleading or exaggerated.
Science, Technology and Society professor and Fulbright Scholar Patrick Feng, who is studying the impact of eco-labels related to energy, says the true environmental impact of certification programs has seldom been assessed. This is partly because most eco-labeling schemes are unregulated. Complicating things, says Feng, is that “sustainability” has so many facets.
“When people argue over the environmental impact of something, they may be using different measurement standards, and these so-called standards can vary dramatically,” says Feng. “In the area of food, a ‘green’ eco-label on an apple could mean pesticides were not used, or the apple was grown locally (thereby minimizing transport) or was produced on a small farm using traditional farming techniques. People may not agree on which sustainability measures are the most important.”
Feng’s research is addressing how sustainability measures in the energy sector are developed and how these measurements impact environmental certification and regulation. The goal is to gain greater insight into how certification programs work, how they might be leveraged to promote sustainability, and how they can be used to better educate consumers.
Feng says there are a few key questions consumers can ask: Is there an eco-label on the product? Does the label or certification program require third-party verification? Does the label have a good rating from an environmental organization you trust? If a claim is made about renewable energy use, where does that energy come from and is it “additional,” (i.e., a renewable energy project that is helping to shift use away from non-renewable sources)?
“With more knowledge, consumers can make choices that push the marketplace towards producing more green products and companies can earn a competitive advantage by demonstrating they are taking sustainability seriously.”