Bio sells - Eco-labels and what they mean

Updated: Aug 6


https://images.app.goo.gl/2wvs399n7wF85bq99


You've all seen them: Little symbols on everything from sponges to laptops, depicting green leaves, happy frogs, rainbows, sun rays and such like - eco-labels, suggesting that the buyer of products marked with them does good for the environment (and for their producers as well).


Such a label can easily translate into a price increase of 20 to 30 cents.

In Belgium alone we find some 60 different eco-labels. [1]


But what do they actually mean?


Which set of criteria does a product have to full fill in order to be awarded such a label?


And does this really mean it's good for the environment or is it more like 'marginally better for the environment' or even 'just more expensive' and is it just indulgence in a modern guise? [2]


This article does not aim to judge all existing eco-label schemes by digging deep into their regulations and business models. 

This article aims at the moderately involved/conscious customer ambling down the aisles of the next best supermarket.



In search of some reportable facts we've checked the websites of three of the eco-label awarding bodies.


A) The Rainforest Alliance (that's the logo with the little frog) [3]




This is a non-profit organisation .


After a few clicks the user will find a document named 'Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Agriculture Standard'.


This document enlists all the requirements for a farm to meet in order to be allowed to print the little frog onto its bags of cocoa beans, tea leaves, nuts etc.


These criteria are quite detailed, however, their usefulness and the ease with which they could be circumnavigated are impossible to gauge by the layman.


However, it has to be stated that the rules for the little frog are freely available.


Naturally, every organisation comes under criticism at some point.




In case of the Rainforest Alliance, the criticism levelled at them is primarily concerned with their refusal to pay their farmers guaranteed prices, leaving them at the mercy of the often wildly fluctuating world markets. 


Economists argue on the other hand that by doing so the Rainforest Alliance puts pressure on the farmers to produce a marketable product. 


The question of which of these two points of view is right cannot be answered here.


However, if, as was pointed out in an article in The Guardian [4], coffee roasters can slap the little frog logo on batches of coffee containing as little as 30% of certified organic coffee beans it starts to smell of green washing.



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B) The LEAF marque.





LEAF [5] is a BSA [6] that stands for Linking Environment and Farming.


They are a UK based body on whose website one finds lots of sententious claims like:


“By buying LEAF Marque produce, you are enjoying food from farmers who care for the countryside and wildlife while doing your bit for the environment too.”

One also finds lots of rules and regulations concerning how their logo may be used and who will help you with further information on LEAF's dedication “to inspire and educate future generations about food, farming and the countryside.”


It is also pointed out that, like most other eco-label organisations, they do not certify the farms themselves, but leave that to third parties instead.



What is not immediately clear is the actual set of rules which farms have to abide by in order to be worthy of the LEAF marque, in fact, this appears to be proprietary information which has to be paid for.



In other words: A LEAF marque might indicate products which are fantastically advantageous for the environment - we just don't know! 


Which brings us to the very name of this organisation:


Linking Environment And Farming.

In the light of the above it now begs the question: Who's trying to link to whom?


C) The EU organic products label






As opposed to the above two eco-labels, this one appears to be slightly different.



Whereas the Rainforest Alliance and the LEAF marque are private entities awarding their seals on the basis of conformity to their own set of rules,



the EU organic products label merely indicates that the product in question conforms to the EU's laws regarding organic farming. 


All three eco-labels have in common that the assessment is not carried out by third party certification bodies.


In all three cases these bodies themselves have to be accredited under the ISO 14000 scheme and again the regulations of this scheme is not freely available. [6]


From this very much incomplete and cursory overview one thing should have become crystal clear:


a label alone doesn't mean much.

For the non-expert, the merits and shortfalls of these labels are simply impossible to assess and we're not even talking about the possibility of misuse or even fraud which, of course, no scheme could be immune to.


What remains is common sense: If you see cucumbers carrying big labels touting 'Bio' or 'Eco' that are nonetheless shrink-wrapped in polythene - leave them in the shop!



[1] http://www.ecolabelindex.com/ecolabels/?st=country,be [Last accessed on June 6th, 2020]

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indulgence [Last accessed on June 6th, 2020]

[3] http://www.rainforest-alliance.org/ [Last accessed on June 6th, 2020]

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2004/nov/24/foodanddrink.shopping [Last accessed on June 6th, 2020]

[5] https://leafuk.org/ [Last accessed on June 6th, 2020]

[6] Bloody Stupid Acronym 😉

[7] https://www.iso.org/standard/72644.html [Last accessed on June 6th, 2020]

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