Environmental labels were created “to help consumers evaluate the environmental attributes of the products and services they are considering buying.” Based on consumer demand, the number of these labels has grown exponentially. Some labels are comprehensive and address multiple environmental issues; others are very specific, focusing on a single environmental issue or attribute such energy or water consumption. Additionally, a number of consumer products make environmental claims, such as being biodegradable or recyclable. Whatever their intent, when read and understood correctly, understanding the different types of environmental labels can allow consumers to better identify “safer” products, question products that make dubious environmental claims, and evaluate and prioritize the environmental issues that are most important to them.
Many environmental labels are used to inform consumers that a product has been designed to lessen one or more negative environmental impact during one or more of the phases of its life cycle (manufacturing, transportation, use phase, disposal).
Impacts can occur in any of the life cycle stages and include:
1. Air quality impacts (Ozone, greenhouse gases, smog) 2. Human and ecosystem health impacts (Water quality (including drinking water), soil quality, ) 3. Use of resources (Minerals, trees, fossil fuels, water, energy, land)
Environmental labels try to inform consumers of a company's effort to reduce impacts in at least one of these categories
Environmental labels are considered either mandatory or voluntary.
Mandatory labels share the following characteristics: 1. they address the negative attributes of a product, 2. the commonly are administered by government agencies; and 3. they usually are required by law. In general, mandatory labels provide hazard warning information required to be displayed on products. This information can help consumers minimize exposure when using or discarding a product.
Voluntary labels usually only address the positive attributes of a product and can be either first-party certified or third-party certified. First-party certification labels are always positive and are developed internally by companies, typically using Federal Trade Commission guidelines. Third party certification labels certify through the use of a logo (seal of approval), that a product is environmentally preferable to other similar products based on some criteria.
Mandatory labels can be useful to consumers particularly when attempting to minimize exposure but fall outside the scope of this page. For a list of mandatory labels and links to the government programs that implement them please click here.