An Overview of Ecolabels and Sustainability Certifications in the Global Marketplace An Overview of Ecolabels and Sustainability Certifications in the Global Marketplace

  • Noyes C
  • Akella A
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The Corporate Sustainability Initiative at Duke University is undertaking a two-part research effort to examine the scientific underpinnings, transparency, and use of ecolabels and certifications in the global marketplace. This interim report provides an initial broad overview of the use of ecolabels. The second part of the research, which launched in the third quarter of 2010, will result in an in-depth examination of the science that has been used to create and implement the numerous labels and certifications. The initial findings presented within this document provide a broad overview of the landscape and general construct of how ecolabels and certifications are being used in the global marketplace. The report includes three main sections: (1) a summary of relevant literature, (2) a review of key findings resulting from a global survey of over 150 existing ecolabels and certifications, and (3) a series of parallel studies of ecolabels and certifications as they have evolved in the food and agriculture, personal care, electronics, and textiles and apparel sectors. The results of this initial work are intended to provide greater insights into the design and utilization of ecolabels and certifications. In the interim report, we have taken a step back from the headlines to understand the broader context and history of certification and ecolabeling efforts. Increasing focus on corporate environmental and social performance has led to a proliferation of green marks, including standards, codes, labels, indices, and certifications. Although companies and ratings agencies have developed a multitude of sustainability metrics, there are few comprehensive efforts to assess the relationships between and effectiveness of various systems. The focus of the literature review was to understand the current ecolabel and certification landscape, factors that make these systems effective or ineffective, lessons learned from the last 20 years of experience, and how to better design these systems in the future. This knowledge was then incorporated into a comprehensive analysis of the survey data. The results of the survey were in some cases quite unexpected, for example: Most ecolabeling organizations are unaware of the market share of products, services, or organizations carrying their ecolabels. Only 25% of labelers were aware of studies that assessed the market share of products carrying their label. Only 44% of single-standard labels have conducted an impact study to assess the effect of their certification efforts on the environment. This is surprising, given that one criterion for a successful label is the extent to which the organization can demonstrate positive on-the-ground impacts resulting from its labeling program. One-third of labelers surveyed had made no attempt to monitor or evaluate the environmental and social benefits of their ecolabels programs and have no intention of doing so. The survey was designed to examine if there might be a first-mover advantage in ecolabeling. Yet, the data shows that the labels that entered the market earlier generally have certified fewer products. Interestingly, there is a large cluster of labels established recently (within the last five years or so) that have hardly issued any certifications. The survey data provides a snapshot of descriptive statistics in the field of ecolabeling. The average time to certification across single-standard labels is 4.33 months. However, the standard deviation is 4.37 months, indicating that there is still a significant lack of uniformity in the market. Once a product is certified, there is no clear standard for the length of time the manufacturer is allowed to display the label before reassessment. Transparency in the ecolabeling process was also addressed in the survey. Three indicators of transparency were examined. Unsurprisingly, nonprofit ecolabelers score higher in all three transparency categories. The final component of this report is a parallel set of studies regarding the evolution ecolabels and certifications in four primary industry sectors: food and agriculture, personal care, electronics, and textiles and apparel.

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  • Catherine Noyes

  • Anita Akella

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