With eco-labels, we can select products and services according to specific environmental and social criteria. What this means is that as consumers, eco-labels guide our purchasing decisions by providing information about the ‘world’ behind the product. For businesses, eco-labels are a means of measuring performance and also communicating and marketing the environmental credentials of a given product. And for governments, crucially these tools encourage the behavioural change of producers and consumers towards long-term sustainability.

The importance of eco-labelling achieved international consensus decades ago as part of the global push towards sustainable development. Ten years after the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, the international community met at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, and re-affirmed its commitment to “Agenda 21” adopted in Rio. To do this, stakeholders agreed to the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (JPOI) – to “accelerate the shift towards sustainable consumption and production.” Crucially, the stakeholders to the JPOI identified the need to “develop and adopt, where appropriate, on a voluntary basis, effective, transparent, verifiable, non-misleading and non-discriminatory consumer information tools to provide information relating to sustainable consumption and production.”

Today, several types of environmental labelling exist – including those which are differentiated into groups and classified by the International Organization for Standardization.

ISO Type I labels are those often referred to as eco-labels, and identify overall environmental preference of a product (i.e. a good or service) within a product category based upon life cycle considerations. In contrast to a self-styled environmental symbol or claim statement developed by a manufacturer or service provider, an ecolabel is awarded by an impartial third party to products that meet environmental leadership criteria. They are also multi-criteria and multi-sectoral.

ISO Type I-like labels (often referred to as “certification schemes” or “sustainability labelling”) share the same characteristics as Type I but often are focused on specific impacts (i.e. energy consumption, agricultural practice) and applied only to a specific sector (i.e. energy-using appliances, agricultural commodities). Organic labels or Rainforest Alliance labels would be examples. For its part, ISO Type II is a self-declared environmental label (often a single attribute, sometimes a company’s own environmental logo). Finally, ISO Type III is a product declaration that provides more detailed quantitative information of products. It takes the form of a matrix and is similar to declarations of the nutritional characteristics of products.