Consumers increasing demand for greener and more responsible products led civil society and major industry players to develop a number of voluntary initiatives. It came to supplant local governments who failed to address improper industrial practices in their effort to remain competitive and attractive on the global market. If the initiatives were often brought by NGO with good intentions, a Changing Market Foundation study from May 2018 shines a light on the limits of eco-labeling focusing on three highly problematic sectors: palm oil, fisheries and textile.
消费者对更环保和更负责任产品的需求不断增加，促使民间社会和主要产业参与者发展一系列的自愿倡议。它们取代了地方政府未能解决的不合适产业政策，以保持在全球市场上的竞争力和吸引力。如果这些倡议是由非营利组织以良好的意图带来，一个由 Changing Market Foundation 自2018年5月的研究揭示了环保标签的范围，重点关注在三个高度问题的产业：棕榈油，渔业和纺织品。
Is the more really the merrier when it comes to eco-labels?
“In 2015, a Nielsen survey of 30,000 consumers in 60 countries found that 66% were willing to pay more for products or services from companies committed to positive social and environmental impact – this is an increase risen from 55% in 2014 and 50% in 2013”.
This probably explains the eco-labels boom over the last 10 years. Indeed, the Ecolabel Index currently lists over a hundred certifications in textile industry and more than 460 labels across all sectors. As consumers, we tend to think that the more eco-certified products, the more sustainable the industry is getting. Unfortunately, in practice the growing demand of certified products puts an increasing pressure on certifications with two major consequences: standards loosen to accommodate a larger number of applicants and less qualitative certifications develop.
A blatant example is the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) which introduced a mass balance platform: PalmTrace, removing the need for brands to set up segregated supply chains. They can now buy certificates which support sustainable growers, to offset the oil sourced on the regular market. Closing the eyes on the origin of the palm oil contributes to maintain illegal growing, the NGO Eyes On the Forest demonstrated in a report from June 2018 .
In the recent years, we have also seen the arrival of looser certifications which quickly became more popular than the leading ones. We could cite Friends Of the Sea (FOS) which is supplanting Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).
Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (棕榈油圆桌倡议组织－RSPO)是一个显著的例子，它采用了一个质量平衡的平台：PalmTrace，移除了品牌需要建立隔离供应链的要求。他们现在可以购买支持永续发展者的认证，以抵消在常规市场上采购的石油。密切关注棕榈油的原产地有助于控制非法种植，非政府组织Eyes On the Forest在一份2018年6月的报告中表明了这一点。
在近几年，我们也看到更宽松的认证到来，这些认证也很快的比领先认证更受欢迎。我们可以引用正在取代Marine Stewardship Council（海洋管理委员会－MSC）的Friends Of the Sea（海洋之友－FOS）。
“Nearly one-quarter of the global catch of tuna is certified as sustainable through FOS, making it the largest certifier of tuna in the world (FOS, 2016).”
Or Better Cotton Initiatives (BCI) which seems to be curbing the development of organic cotton initiatives. As the increasing demand is driving a race to the bottom some of the leading NGO start to disengage or challenge the initiatives such as WWF with MSC or Greenpeace with Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
或是Better Cotton Initiatives（良好棉花倡议－BCI），它似乎在抑制有机棉倡议的发展。随着需求的增加推动了底部的竞争，许多领头的非政府组织开始与倡议断绝关系或挑战倡议，像是WWF（世界自然基金会）和MSC或Greenpeace（绿色和平）和Forest Stewardship Council (森林管理委员会－FSC)。
How far can we expect eco-labels to drive sustainability?
Still reports were published showing some positive outcomes of eco-label schemes such as some fish stock increase in the area where MSC standard is in use. But sustainability is a complex notion which requires a holistic vision and standards usually fall short to address all aspects.
If you take the example of Fishery certifications, most of them do not consider the marine ecosystem in its entirety. They might allow the use of damaging fishing technics or overlook non-targeted species stocks. MSC is often condemned for not paying enough attention on fish by-catches and high-value conservation areas preservation. In 2010, they granted the certification to a fishery catching Ross Sea toothfish or “Chilean seabass”, despite the fact that fish stocks in that area of the Antarctic Ocean were not yet assessed by scientists.
On the contrary the Canopy scheme focuses primarily on viscose production impact on the ecosystem, assessing deforestation and biodiversity changes led by wood logging. But still, the approach fails does not include the hazards linked to the industrial process and the wide use of chemicals responsible for high levels of air pollution and workers’ health issues. In fact, textile eco-labels overall fail to properly address the conditions of workers and farmers, which is however a major issue in the industry.
Finally, few standards really take in consideration the full life cycle of the products. Higg Material Sustainability Index ranks plastic fibers as most sustainable ones without considering microfibers released during use and recyclability in end-of-life.
We can see here that there is a risk for eco-labels to unintentionally promote products or practices that are not fully sustainable when taking a holistic approach.
Getting your way across the various standards as a consumer
A Nielsen study from 2014 shows consumers mostly rely on the label before buying to ensure that the brand is committed to positive social and environmental impact. The use of eco-label put all brands on the same level in consumer perspective, but there can be major differences in the practices.
To understand the complexity, you first have to consider that accreditation methods are very diverse.
If we take the example of OEKO-TEX standard 100, it guarantees that no harmful substances are present in the finish product but does not monitor chemical released during processing or workers’ conditions. For the Higg Index from Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) members have to fill in a self-declaration, but they have no obligation to release the results publicly so far. This is definitely a great advantage if you score low. Other standards require a thorough on-site assessment of the process by third party auditors. For any eco-label, you must also consider that certified brands can have different level of engagement. A good example is RSPO-Next a module developed to go beyond the basic RSPO standard and address issues of peatlands and secondary forest conversion. Whereas it is a great add-on it remains voluntary and either you comply with it or not, you can still be granted the RSPO certification.
Thus, if there are some very committed players who even go beyond the certification requirements, it also allows less committed players to get certified. In most cases the assessment reports are not available online or not detailed enough for consumers to assess the real level of engagement of the brand towards green practices.
如果我们以OEKO-TEX standard 100（生态纺织品标准100）为例，它保证了成品中没有有害物质，但并未监测在过程中所释放的化学物质和工人的状况。另外，Sustainable Apparel Coalition (永续服装联盟－SAC) 的Higg 指数，SAC会员必须填写自我声明，但目前并没有义务要公开结果。如果你的分数低，这肯定是最佳优势。其他标准则需要由第三方审核，进行全面的现场评估。任何的生态标签，你也应该考虑到，认证的品牌可以有不同的参与程度。
Industry tights and conflicts of interest
Finally, we should never forget that all ecolabels were created by brands coalitions and highly rely on their membership fees to operate. As the fees can be quite high, it mostly favors the big players with 2 major consequences: industry standard driven by big brands only and looser impact on unsustainable practices often operated by small players. For RSPO by example, they mostly certify old plantations with little involvement in illegal logging or forest conversion.
Also, eco-labels evolve on a highly competitive market and in order to survive, they have to become leaders on the market, while maintaining a high number of certificates. To provide those accreditations, Eco-labels rely on third parties, making it difficult to ensure an even quality in the assessments. Often loop holes and unclear writings can be found in the standards, that give auditors too much freedom in interpretation and will eventually lead to scoring inconsistencies. Also, accreditation bodies have in some case, in competing for clients, been found to be helping producers hide major violations of the standards.
In an effort to fix that certifications set up dispute resolution mechanisms that enable NGO’s, individuals or companies to report breaches. Whereas this is a great initiative, it is not always working in practice. Standards like MSC or FOS requires complainants to pay thousands of dollars to raise an official objection and trigger a re-evaluation. On the top of that the process is often long, complicated and rarely successful, as eco-labels try to maintain their memberships. Throughout the years, dozens of formal objections were submitted to MSC but so far only 2 of them led to the dismiss of the certification.
In order to overcome those collusion issues Forest Peoples Programme suggested to create a separate fund with all membership fees that would be used to cover the cost of the audits. This would eventually eliminate the financial tights between the accreditation body and the accredited parties.
要克服那些勾结问题，Forest Peoples Programme建议：创立一个涵盖所有会员费的独立基金，以用来支付审核费用。这最终将会消除评鉴机构和认证机构间的财务紧张。
As we see a lot remains to be done to consider eco-label certification system as a real driver towards sustainability, due to transparency and independence issues. More alarming, it makes customers feel good about their “responsible purchase” and triggers an increased consumption.
Thus, when choosing your products it is still important to do a work of due diligence, to favor brands that truly show some efforts in monitoring and managing their suppliers and not simply rely on certifications. Brands that develop customized, ambitious projects to foster continuous improvements. Hopefully this will give the chance to small committed players to show their value.
Article written by: Clotilde Pallier
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