Categorizing products as environmentally-friendly by sticking a symbol-type label on its packaging, insults consumers' intelligence.


Steve Clemens | United Business Institutes

Categorizing products as environ
Categorizing products as environmentally-friendly by sticking a symbol-type label on its packaging, insults consumers’ intelligence.
Tell them what you got, Straight.
Steve Clemens, Professor Environmental Economics
United Business Institutes

European companies are not exactly standing in line to go through the (quite lengthy) procedure towards obtaining the green eco-label, symbolized by a Flower.

The European Commission’s own Eco-Label Catalogue states: the eco-label award scheme has been in operation since 1992 and has currently twenty-three different product groups, and already more than 250 licences have been awarded for several hundred products.

250 licenses in 14 years?

The initiative was and is certainly commendable, and we all understand the mechanics behind it:

  1. manufacturers do the necessary efforts with regards to resources, waste, transport, packaging and marketing, to obtain the eco-label;
  2. their products get to carry the coveted Flower on the packaging; and
  3. consumers know what the symbol of the Flower stands for and readily demonstrate their preference by buying the product with the Flower, rather than a comparable product without.

Probably, the rub lies in steps 1 and 3. Manufacturers ( should & ) do of course limit their enviro-footprint, but how much energy can they afford to spend on the administrative actions to be undertaken before they get the reward glued to their products’ packaging? Or is it the public ignorance towards the Flower that discourages manufacturers to apply for the reward?

The whole idea stands or falls on the condition of consumers’ appreciation of the symbol. What does this Flower mean? Everybody can come up with a nice logo and print it on its packaging, right? Do I trust the manufacturer to have gone through the procedures correctly and truthfully? In other words: is the enforcement adequate to discourage non-compliant manufacturers to simply carry the Flower as well. Are the compliance conditions relevant and tough? Or were they established to please manufacturers’ lobbyists and appease consumers’ worries. And what is the difference between this EC Flower and the other, local labelling efforts? Local labels such as:

Der Blaue Engel, Germany
Milieukeur, Netherlands
El Distintiu, Catalonia
Nordic Swan, Scandinavia

Looks like a certification quagmire to me.

Here’s what you should do as a manufacturer. Do not invent other new logos or labels that add to the above confusion. Give some credit to consumers’ intelligence and power to make choices.

Just put the relevant information itself on the packaging, list-of-ingredients-style. A 10 by 5cm table should be enough to list main pollutants, or absence of, in some sort of order, using standard units.

A straightforward eco-label could look like this for e.g. a bloc of printing paper.

This product’s enviro-footprint is measured according to the international labelling agreement Regulation (EC) No 1980/2000:
4 kg CO2eq, 12 L water, 0,5 kg exhaustible timber, 1kg recycled paper pulp, 0,01mg dioxins, biodegradable in 3 weeks, 0mg
furans, 0mg absorbable organic halogens, 5mg sodium hydroxide, 2mg sodium sulphide, 0g of nuclear waste.

The difference with all symbol-based certification schemes lies mainly in the way consumers are regarded. A symbol such as the EC’s Flower basically says:

 ‘you don’t understand the mechanics behind manufacturing eco-friendly products, so we will decide for you. Please don’t worry about all the different effects of pollutants on the environment, that is too complex for you. Please do not look for the product that pollutes the least, if a manufacturer makes enough efforts towards our standards, that should be enough for you too’.

Trusting consumers’ intelligence indeed.

And where is the incentive for manufacturers to go beyond the minimum level of compliance? As always with this type of policies, it would be at a cost to the company. The cost being competitive advantage, or straight from the bottom line.

By giving it straight to the consumer, as I propose here, manufacturers can choose how to play out their competitive strengths and weaknesses on a level playing field with the consumers.

And as public opinion about the relative importance of pollutants change over time, no new labelling efforts need to be initiated, worked out and re-branded. The invisible hand of the market will give the manufacturer with the ‘best’ enviro-footprint the reward it deserves, and in a competitive business environment, other manufacturers will follow suit.

Who wins?

Manufacturers win because

  • they do not have to go through lengthy procedures,
  • they will benefit from reduced consumer confusion, because they do not need to invest in the branding of the eco-label symbol,
  • their efforts will be rewarded directly by consumers,
  • their correct reading of consumers’ wishes will immediately result in higher sales.

Consumers win because :

  • they do not have to remember which label symbols mean what exactly,
  • they get treated as intelligent beings, capable of choosing according to their preferences, because they get the opportunity to see what exactly goes into what products,
  • they get the power to directly express their preferences based on data instead of image, rewarding or punishing manufacturers where it counts most and fastest: in their revenues.

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