Purpose of labels

  • They list the ingredients of a products
  • Provide us with information and warnings about health risks the products might cause, such as allergies, poison and hazardous ingredients.
  • Often display instructions on how to clean a product or how to use the product, medicine or cosmetics
  • Labels help products stand out from others, either through their unique identification or through the information they provide. Therefore, labels have also a promotional and marketing

The purpose of labels is clear: they convey information, be it about the ingredients of the product and the associated health risks or instructions on how to use and care for the product. However, the information that labels provide has become increasingly important and complex. It includes insights into the production process, product life cycle and socio-economic and environmental impacts. How can customers keep an overview of which labels to trust and what kind of information to rely on?

Labels hold great power over the purchasing decision of consumers as they are the first thing a consumer sees when looking at a product. A distinction is made between prime labels and secondary labels. The prime labels are the flagship of the product, mainly colourful, pleasing to the eye and give the product a unique identity in order to attract consumers’ attention. Secondary labels provide further information on the product’s composition, production, use, etc. and are generally found on the back of the product.

Many new labels have entered the market, especially since the environmental performance of goods, services and companies plays a crucial role in our shift towards a more sustainable future and humanities approach to adapt to the climate change. Over 230 sustainability labels and 100 green energy labels have been identified in the EU. Labels make it easier for consumers to recognise, for example, whether a product has been manufactured in a safe, environmentally-friendly and resource-saving way. A label thus also influences consumer trust and loyalty in a product or brand, since it embodies certain values and benefits. Many companies have created their own labels to keep their products attractive to their customers, who are receptive to environmental claims. However, non-sustainable products and services are often advertised with sustainable claims. A 2020 study found that 53.3% of environmental claims in the EU are either misleading or vague. This practice is known as greenwashing.

Yet, greenwashing also includes the awarding of labels without the product/service having gone through a certification process. To earn a label, defined criteria, such as product characteristics, manufacturing processes and the life cycle of the product are tested in a transparent process by a licensor and a manufacturer-independent institute. It is considered very trustworthy if the test results can be viewed publicly or are made available upon request. Labels are only awarded for a certain period of time and only for the product or service tested. After the period of validity has expired, a new test is necessary. Labels that take action against abuse, by punishing and imposing sanction when someone uses this label without the product meeting the requirements of the label itself, are considered particularly trustworthy.

The European Commission published a proposal for a Directive on Green Claims in March 2023 in order to control the flood of environmental claims and green labels, and to better protect consumers. In this way, the Commission seeks to counteract green claims, such as ‘packaging made of 30% recycled plastic’ or ‘100% eco’. Traders making environmental claims about the performance of a product, service or themselves would have to justify these claims to the consumer and show that an independent and accredited verifier has certified them. Furthermore, the claims need to be communicated clearly. With this proposal, the Commission sets new rules for the management of eco-labelling schemes to ensure that they are reliable, verifiable and transparent. Excluded from the proposal are claims that are covered by existing EU rules. For example the EU Ecolabel and the organic food logo guarantee that these claims are trustworthy.

To be able to recognise sustainable and environmentally-friendly products, however, it is also necessary for consumers to familiarise themselves with green labels. The numerous labels often stand for different environmentally friendly characteristics. One example is the EU Ecolabel, managed by the European Commission, which is awarded to products and services that are more environmentally friendly than comparable goods. The requirements cover the entire product life cycle, from raw material extraction to production and disposal. A second example is the GOTS standard, which ensures that the entire textile supply chain is traceable and certifies that at least 70% consists of ecologically produced natural fibres. In order to receive the GOTS “organic” and “kbA/kbT” labels, the proportion must be at least 95%.

So which labels to trust? Consumers can look to the European Commission for guidance. In addition to the EU Ecolabel mentioned above, the EU also has an official environmental management and audit scheme called EMAS. EMAS-registered organisations contribute effectively to environmental protection, save costs and demonstrate social responsibility. EMAS ensures that all environmental aspects, from energy consumption to waste and emissions, are implemented in a legally secure and transparent manner. Also labels run by governmental bodies can be trusted, such as the Nordic Swan Ecolabel in Nordic countries or the Blue Angel in Germany.

The easiest method to find more information on an ecolabel while you are in a shop is to use a scanning app. Label scanning apps such as the Label BioHero from the AllThings.BioPRO project help users to identify bio-based or bio-degradable products certified by different EU certification schemes.