What do eco-labels really mean, and what labels do you know and trust? How much better are they than products without the labels? Can you compare the materials, processes, transportation, energy, and water use of the products you're waffling between? Not today. But you could, if the facts were on the label, like nutrition facts on food.
A quantitative and comprehensive eco-label like this may look overly technical and off-putting at first, but it's not. It has all three of the benefits of nutrition labels on food. First, the nutrition label makes us feel safer because even if we don't understand the information, it reassures us that there's a level of honest disclosure between us and the producer. Secondly, if we do know and care about certain things (like sodium, calories, or fat), we can use the labels as a decision-making tool. Thirdly, even if we know nothing, reading the label helps educate us as to what is important nutritionally, just by seeing what is listed. We can then self-educate by comparing products side-by-side and seeing which is better; after a while we know what a "good" amount of calories are, without having to compare. Nutrition labels have not only been a boon to consumer decision-making, but also a boon to the nutritional awareness of the general public.
A Nutrition Label for Product Sustainability?
Shown here is a theoretical "Environmental Facts" label I mocked up. The label's text gives quantitative details of production and a full list of ingredients--it is effectively a life-cycle analysis of the product, written in a compact summarized form. The optional graphic above the text is the product's eco-friendliness at a glance, summarizing the categories whose data is written out below in a nutrition-label-like format.
The data listed in the text would include resources, energy, water, toxins, and social impacts. The Resources section would list product & packaging mass and include all ingredients and waste products, perhaps flagged as renewable where applicable. This section would also list the disposal method for the product & packaging (recycling, compost, takeback, etc.) Toxics in the product and in the production process would be called out in a separate section. Energy would be at the top, listing not only the amount of embodied energy, and how it was generated, but projected energy during product usage (a useful number for the consumer); it would also list average transportation distances or simply list countries of origin for major subassemblies. Water use and pollution would be listed in its own section. Finally, labor practices, fair trade, and transparency (organizational accountability and openness) would be listed in the Social section.
The graphic is optional, but would greatly aid user comprehension. Ideally, an eco-label would be useful to everyone from a six-year-old to an educated expert. This graphic has a four-point color scale that would be relative by product type, so that cars could be measured on a different scale from sweaters. The colors could also be renormalized every few years to grade on a curve, so that as industries improve the best products still stand out. The center of the graphic could give a single overall score like "silver" or "gold" (reflecting a numeric value in the text below, just as the category-colors do.) The graphic would be an important educative component, giving anyone who reads the label an immediate value judgment for the numbers listed in the text.
Making a label like this for a real product is not a simple task, certainly. The value judgments required to create the graphic would be contentious, and if the labels were required on all products, a good deal of bureaucratic overhead would be required to set the standards for them. In the text, some items do not inherently have numbers (like labor practices), and would be assigned a score based on either internal company metrics (which Nike, Starbucks, and many other companies already have) or a third-party standard (such as the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index). The ingredients, waste, and other numbers would require an agreed-upon standard for depth of life-cycle measurement--do you measure the product's assembly stage, or include vendors' subassemblies, and their vendors' sub-subassemblies, or go all the way back to mining the raw materials? Data gets progressively harder to gather, and ingredients lists get progressively longer, at every step. However, it is not difficult to get a decent estimate of a product's impacts using life cycle analysis. LCA software tools already exist, and many major companies use them already (such as HP, 3M, and Toyota). Alternatively, a government organization (probably in the EU) may create standards that product companies must comply with, just like food nutrition labels. The EU's REACH directive is already pushing companies to investigate and report the materials they use throughout their entire supply chain. In the US, the Federal Trade Commission already has guidelines for what may legally claimed as biodegradable, compostable, recyclable, etc. in a product label. Factors such as embodied energy and toxin load disclosure may not be far behind.
Most marketers will balk at a label like this. "Numbers are scary! Consumers won't understand the data anyway!" (For a cell phone, is 50kg of CO2 emission good? Or bad?) But again, think about the "Nutrition Facts" labels on food. Those are full of numbers, and the ingredients lists are full of chemical names no one can pronounce, but we're glad to have them. First of all, it makes us feel safer because even if we don't understand the information, it reassures us that there's honest disclosure, so we could find out whether it's good or bad if we wanted to. Secondly, if we do know enough to understand the label's facts and what good values are, we can use the labels as a decision-making tool. Thirdly, reading the label helps educate us as to what is important for sustainability, just by seeing what is listed, and comparing products side-by-side allows us to self-educate about what a "good" amount of each variable is. The ubiquitous "Nutrition Facts" labels have not only been a boon to consumer decision-making, but also a boon to the nutritional awareness of the general public. You could argue that no one buying a hair dryer cares about the numbers--it's too much information--but bags of potato chips have nutrition labels on them, and although they're mostly ignored, a few percent of shoppers will use the label to inform their choice of chips. (Indeed, every once in a blue moon a shopper will look at the nutrition label, sigh, and decide to buy something other than junk food.)
Energy labels are already making a difference. Many state and federal agencies require office equipment purchases to be Energy Star certified; given the enormous size of those markets (it is estimated that the US federal government is 20% of the country's economy), it pushes industry towards better efficiency as a whole. The EPA says "In 2004 alone, Americans, with the help of ENERGY STAR, saved enough energy to power 24 million homes and avoid greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those from 20 million cars - all while saving $10 billion."
(See also my articles on this in Worldchanging and Package Design Magazine.)