Many of us have gone through quite a few changes this year. Among them is people’s accelerated take-up of more climate-friendly habits. Bike sales have skyrocketed, demand for organic food has risen, and many among us chose to travel closer to home over summer. This is good news on the climate front, but this is not enough to avert a climate disaster, and no one has a crystal ball to predict if the trend is set to last.
Climate change is all over the news cycle: if we continue with current production and consumption patterns, by 2050 we would need almost three planets to sustain our lifestyles. More sustainable living is a no brainer. We can all strive to apply the ‘5R’ mantra (refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle). But when we need to buy new products, it is difficult to know which ones have the lowest environmental impact.
While some claims and labels are reliable, others mislead consumers by attributing environmentally friendly characteristics to unsustainable products or services. This malpractice, called ‘greenwashing’, is nothing new. But the increased general ardour to go green is a fertile ground for greenwashing to flourish.
Greenwashing exists because consumers are sensitive to green messages, but they do not have the cognitive and behavioural tools to distinguish between what is true and what is not. According to an EU study, 57% of EU consumers are receptive to environmental claims when making their purchase decisions.1 However, a recent study from Spanish consumer group OCU found that nearly half of consumers (43%) do not trust environmental claims on products.
So, what labels can we trust in shops?
Green labels have proliferated, with over 450 labels in use worldwide today. On average one third of Europeans take ecolabels into account when shopping.2 This figure is even higher in countries like Sweden (70%) and Denmark (57%). Here are some reliable labels to look for:
The EU Ecolabel, managed by the European Commission and Member States, is one such labels that we at BEUC and EEB consider trustworthy. Companies operating in the EU have been voluntarily using the flower-shaped logo on their best-in-class products for nearly 30 years. This has a positive effect on the market.
You can find it on more than 70,000 non-food products from shampoos, washing liquid, paper tissues, or paints to textiles, floor coverings, nappies, or electronic displays. The label has also expanded to cover services such as hotels or cleaning companies and we are currently participating in the development of a label for financial services − such as saving accounts or investment products.
The EU Ecolabel is a reliable signpost for consumers to shop more sustainably. Consumers who know it, trust it. But there is room for improvement. Just looking at awareness, less than one consumer in three know the label.3 Let’s hope the EU Commission and Member States will soon fix those shortcomings4 and walk their talk by buying and using themselves ecolabelled products.
Some equivalent national and regional labels, run by governmental bodies, are equally trustworthy. The Blue Angel in Germany (created in 1978), the Nordic Swan Ecolabel in Nordic countries (1989) and the Austrian Ecolabel (1990) are among the most popular ones:
All four labels share a robust set of criteria to promote products which are more climate friendly and healthier for consumers. The requirements look at the product’s entire life cycle to reduce its footprint all the way from design, manufacturing, use, recycling and disposal.5
Unlike non-certified green claims, these ecolabels are thoroughly checked. Manufacturers can only use them after a national authority has verified that the product fulfils strict requirements. Such criteria are public, developed and regularly updated, in a process involving governments, industry, retailers, consumer organisations and environmental NGOs.
More broadly, what does the EU do against greenwashing?
Even before the pandemic hit us, the EU had understood it was high time for a green wave. In December 2019, the EU Commission put forward its European Green Deal, a flagship strategy aiming to green pretty much every aspect of our daily lives: mobility, food, housing, money, etc.
Against this backdrop, the EU is working to not only make products more sustainable, but to make green claims and labels more reliable. But it will take time before greenwashing is properly regulated. In the meantime, the labels we described are the ones you can safely buy to keep going on the pathway to a more sustainable lifestyle. And the good news is there are more reliable labels in Europe and beyond. See for yourself.6
Blanca Morales is Ecolabel Coordinator for BEUC and the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).
 DG JUST, Consumer market study on environmental claims for non-food products, 2014.
 The EU Commission is due to update the EU Ecolabel Work Plan shortly. We mainly hope to see boosted marketing efforts and more types of goods and services covered.
 For instance, products must generate less CO2 and waste when they are made and used; goods must last longer, be easier to repair or recycle; manufacturers have to substitute hazardous substances with safer alternatives, whenever technically possible.
 The Global Ecolabelling Network (GEN) is an international association of ecolabels developed according to the ISO Type 1 14024 standard. All address criteria over the life cycle of a product group or service, are public and transparent and are awarded using independent third-party verification. Moreover, in Europe, there are other national ISO Type 1 Ecolabels which are not members of GEN, such as in the Netherlands, Hungary, Poland, Check Republic, Spain, and Slovakia.