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Question: Can one label adequately compare products’ sustainability?

avatar Mark Buckley
Staples

“In my humble opinion, not yet. Labels represent a quick “seal of approval” that a product meets standard for quality, labor or environmental integrity. Until recently they have tended to focus on only one or two attributes. A product may contain recycled material, but the process to recycle may produce a highly toxic pollutant. Consumers are conflicted and confused…the good news is that there is a movement here at Staples and other companies toward full life cycle accounting where all of the most material impacts are tracked and measured. We look forward to the day when that product labeling will easily convey comparative scores for consumers to compare cradle to cradle impacts.”

avatar Rhonda Evans
Good Guide

“Consumers need information that is scientifically rigorous, but still easy-to-understand and actionable in the marketplace. GoodGuide draws from more than 1500 data points to create ratings on the environment, health and social impacts of products and companies. Without a comprehensive approach, consumers are left to sort through a bewildering array of competing product claims on their own. Credible, streamlined solutions are essential to empowering consumers to make healthy, safe and socially responsible choices.”

avatar Marc Gunther
Fortune

“This, unfortunately, is a ridiculously complicated question! I wish it weren’t so. Having said that, it would be great if companies should aim for a one-size-fits-all label for their products, ideally certified by an independent third party. It should take into account the overall responsibility of the company (a CSR rating) and a science-based lifecycle assessment of the product (carbon footprint, water usage, use of recycled material, etc.). It would seem to be to be possible, if not easy, to reduce all this to a couple of letter grades, A through E, with one for the company and the other for the product. Fortunately, smart people are already at work on this. I’m thinking of the sustainability consortium convened by Wal-Mart and the folks at UL Environment, among others. Let’s all wish them luck.”

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  1. The potential exists, but there’s still a long way to go. The outdoor industry made the collective decision early on in the Eco Index development process to focus the initial efforts on developing internal-facing tools that can be used by companies to make more environmentally beneficial decisions throughout the life cycle of a product – driving improvement from the manufacturing side first before overlaying a consumer-facing labeling system. This was an incredibly important decision that has fostered a level of information-sharing and willingness to collaborate that would have been difficult to achieve if all players were competing for the best scores from the get-go knowing they would be shared externally.

    Even after four years of work by nearly 200 companies globally – via the outdoor industry as well as now the Sustainable Apparel Coalition – there is still much work to be done before the Index can or should have a consumer label in place around it. The supply chains of apparel, footwear, and gear are enormously complex and the first step is to collaboratively establish industry best practices and provide a framework for internal improvement, which is happening now via the Eco Index / Apparel Coalition work. That said, a consumer-facing designation is certainly a future goal, and at the right time, the best approach should be thoughtfully considered. Representing the complexity of supply chain sustainability in a simple label is a huge challenge, but existing robust, credible models like Timberland’s Green Index can help serve as guidance for that work.

  2. avatar Fernando Soares - Graduate Student @ Florida Institute of Technology,

    From the eyes of a regular customer, I have a dream….
    I see those food products labeling quantities of carbs, proteins, saturated fat, vitamins…

    Wouldn’t it be just beautiful to have that kind of concept applied to the environmental impact associated with each product? Think of some 5 or 6 categories like ecological footprint, carbon emissions, socioeconomic impact, biodiversity index, and others stated in the same way as nutritional values are. That’s the label I want to see it.

    Now IMAGINE this data available in the bar-code of the products and plugged into the final receipt every time you do shopping. You not only get how much you pay for, but how the environment is impacted by that jacked, pair of shoes, or canned chili beans.

    Eventually one would think of their monthly “environmental” impact and use a software to keep track of that impact, just like they do today with Quicken!! It doesn’t have to be in currency units though, because it is obviously to complex to value that way.

    Yup, we need that, desperately. Who is doing R&D towards this dream?

    Thank you for the opportunity to share,

    F.

  3. I agree with Marc. The complexity behind such a seemingly simple question is staggering.

    To see a company such as Timberland aim towards such an uncertain target, with such energy is testament to the leadership position it truly deserves. A single sustainability label is a wonderful almost utopian ideal, and I’m still unsure whether it is practically attainable, and it is at best a long and testing journey.

    As mentioned by David on the call, the ‘customers are the weak link’ in the goal for such a label, potentially further increasing resistance to investment justification as ‘we’ cannot rely on demand only to drive progress.

    Labeling will have to be an unfortunately slow incremental process staying slightly ahead of mainstream consumer awareness and demand to avoid those at the vanguard alienating themselves from their own markets. This does coincidentally allow for the development of technical issues and the inevitable politics of such a process to evolve at a similar rate. The key is to gauge and manage the independent rates of both information demand / awareness and labeling development.

    A label only has value if it is understood and can effect behaviour.

  4. avatar Chris Gassman - Vice President Environmental Initiatives @ Net Impact,

    In the Stakeholder Call with Jeff Swartz and David Labistour that preceded this particular thread, Jeff & David asked a question wrapped in an analogy: “how do we tell the kids we’re mixing in broccoli to the pasta sauce, because the guy down the street isn’t doing it and has lower costs?”

    Is this the wrong question to be asking? Shouldn’t we be asking “how do we mix broccoli into the pasta sauce in a way that holds the same (or better) cost structure as the guy down the street, and tell the kids about it?”

  5. One label is a truly ambitious goal but we have a much better chance of achieving this if we can achieve widespread testing and adoption of a tool such as the Eco Index. If we can collaborate around the building of the Eco Index and establish the credibility of an industry wide assessment tool, we can learn from one other and drive real sustainable change in our supply chains.

  6. The Leather Working Group (http://www.leatherworkinggroup.com) provides an interesting model for how we could get to a simple communication about a very complex set of indicators and metrics. Through the Leather Working Group tanneries have extremely detailed third-party assessments performed of their facilities. They’re asked hundreds of questions about their environmental impact and they are benchmarked against their peers. If they meet strict requirements over a broad range of environmental impact categories they can achieve “bronze”, “silver” or “gold” certification. This gives our company a simple way to source environmentally preferred leather.

    The Outdoor Industry Association’s Eco-Index (http://www.ecoindexbeta.org) is building from this model with the launch of a very detailed set of environmental guidelines, indicators, and metrics for the entire range of outdoor industry products. For those of you who have checked out the beta tool I would be curious if you think we could take it to the same level of simple communication as the Leather Working Group.

  7. In my humble opinion, not yet. Labels represent a quick “seal of approval” that a product meets standard for quality, labor or environmental integrity. Until recently they have tended to focus on only one or two attributes. A product may contain recycled material, but the process to recycle may produce a highly toxic pollutant. Consumers are conflicted and confused…the good news is that there is a movement here at Staples and other companies toward full life cycle accounting where all of the most material impacts are tracked and measured. We look forward to the day when that product labeling will easily convey comparative scores for consumers to compare cradle to cradle impacts.

  8. Consumers need information that is scientifically rigorous, but still easy-to-understand and actionable in the marketplace. GoodGuide draws from more than 1500 data points to create ratings on the environment, health and social impacts of products and companies. Without a comprehensive approach, consumers are left to sort through a bewildering array of competing product claims on their own. Credible, streamlined solutions are essential to empowering consumers to make healthy, safe and socially responsible choices.

  9. This, unfortunately, is a ridiculously complicated question! I wish it weren’t so. Having said that, it would be great if companies should aim for a one-size-fits-all label for their products, ideally certified by an independent third party. It should take into account the overall responsibility of the company (a CSR rating) and a science-based lifecycle assessment of the product (carbon footprint, water usage, use of recycled material, etc.). It would seem to be to be possible, if not easy, to reduce all this to a couple of letter grades, A through E, with one for the company and the other for the product. Fortunately, smart people are already at work on this. I’m thinking of the sustainability consortium convened by Wal-Mart and the folks at UL Environment, among others. Let’s all wish them luck.

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