Sustainability Meta Labelling: A Discussion of Potential Implementation Issues
Changing consumption patterns is increasingly acknowledged as one of the key factors for sustainable development and to tackle urgent problems like climate change. To facilitate more sustainable consumption different actors have introduced various schemes over the past few decades informing about environmental, social or other product attributes. Even so, the current product information situation has been criticised for delivering insufficient information and being confusing. More and more actors are calling for the introduction of some form of meta scheme that unifies existing product information to inform about sustainability related product attributes in a more condensed way. Such an attempt could potentially increase the effectiveness of existing labelling schemes as a mean for political consumerism by individual consumers and broader society as well as a mean for businesses to modify supply chains into a more sustainable direction through making existing (or non existing) certification measures more transparent and less confusing.
Based on a review of academic and grey literature within the broader theme of product information as well four case studies on the EU energy label, the EU ecolabel, the Fair Trade label and the MSC, this paper starts a discussion on a potential implementation of such a unifying sustainability meta label along the main constituent stages: product groups included, criteria setting, assessment and communication. In brief, the following main conclusions can be drawn: • Product groups included: Although a labelling scheme becomes more complex the more product groups are included, a large scope in terms of included product groups is perhaps most likely to deliver a condensing of existing product information schemes in the long term. In the short term, the amount of product groups included will probably need to be restricted.
One challenge is the definition of the right product group category potentially leading to conflicts between the aim of a product label to show the consumer the most sustainable consumption option and the motivation of producers to produce more sustainably. • Criteria development: Given the very wide and complex concept of sustainable consumption, any labelling schemes will probably need to define and also restrict in some way what is meant by a sustainable product. Considering the difficulties in defining any absolute sustainability a relative approach seems more feasible for a labelling scheme by defining a sustainable product as a product that meets individual utilities for a justifiable price while reducing socio-ecological problems compared to conventional products.
To define criteria for such products it seems necessary to take into account the whole life cycle of a product whilst restricting to the most relevant issues but also acknowledging the limitations of the LCA approach and the subjectivity of the decisions involved. Next to lifecycle related product and process criteria for particular products different authors suggest including organisational criteria and product requirements that are applicable across many different product groups. Criteria need to be sufficiently flexible for local whilst remaining sufficiently specific to ensure their verifiability. A balance needs also to be found between ambitious criteria ensuring the credibility of the schemes and the applicability of the criteria to ensure sufficient market coverage. A potential ease for this conflict could be the introduction of a graded scheme. • Assessment: Considering the weaknesses of currently proposed inter product group comparisons as well as their potential conflict with the motivation of businesses to produce more sustainably, comparative assessment will probably need to be made within product groups rather than between product groups.
A possible way to unify existing product information while also encouraging competition between different schemes is to base the assessment not on the product itself but on the standards that the respective product adheres to. • Communication: In the case of a sustainability meta label, the high intake of information and rather large degree of aggregation seems unavoidable. Considering the complexity of the sustainable consumption concept, the huge variations between current labelling and certification schemes, the facilitation of the use of labelling and certification schemes to place societal demand for more sustainable supply chains and the needs of at least some consumers, more detailed information and a subdivision into different categories is worth considering. Yet the risk of information overload has to be kept in mind probably for the majority of consumers. Conflicts could therefore arise between the use of a meta labelling scheme to facilitate individual consumer demand for positively labelled products on the one and facilitate broader societal demand for more sustainable supply chains on the other hand. The implementation of a graded scheme, illustrated through a traffic light system, is perhaps most likely to be able to meet both aims and potentially ease this conflict.
Yet there are many problems and pitfalls related to the implementation of labelling schemes in general and a sustainability meta label in particular that need further research. This includes the subjectivity of many processes within the labelling scheme and potential legal challenges related to it, the need to organise a huge amount of dynamic data and deal with substantially different labelling and certification schemes, limitations in assuring the sustainability of a product through existing schemes as well as compliance problems and lastly the limitations of a sustainability meta label itself in supporting sustainable consumption. Regarding the last, a labelling scheme based on an intra product comparison does not address the effects of overall levels of consumption. The degree to what a sustainability labelling scheme can contribute to sustainable consumption is therefore limited and will need to be accompanied by other measures and probably more fundamentally challenges to our current societal structures.