Are We Drowning in Labels?

Are labels becoming too much?

Do labels work? With the launch of the 2degrees Essentials Labeling Guide, Sally Vivian of URS discusses the purpose of labelling and questions whether labels are being used effectively.

The ever-increasing variety of labels has led to mounting confusion about their meaning and scope. Such a diversity of labels, all with different messages and information, has made it difficult for consumers to understand the underlying meaning and for businesses to select the appropriate label to convey their chosen message.  

Sustainability labels can be beneficial at various points along the product value chain. From a consumer perspective labels should provide recognisable benchmarks about the performance or provenance of products to assist consumers in making informed purchasing decisions. This should not be forgotten by businesses when selecting a label. There has been much debate on labelling in recent years but how should we judge success? And what makes a label successful (or effective) from a consumer perspective? 

Plenty of others have provided thoughts about this, but with the launch of the 2degrees guide I thought that some reflection would be timely. To begin with, consumers have to first understand what the label indicates. Secondly, they must have something to compare it against. This should be true for performance or provenance labels.

So what about the European Energy label as an example?  A consumer purchasing white goods can make an informed decision about a product’s energy consumption – and therefore likely running costs. The relative nature of the table (A+++ to G) allows for easy comparison, aided by the high uptake levels driven by policy.  However, as a legal requirement is this an appropriate assessment of success?

Some of the sustainability labels that provide information on provenance – such as certifications and  standards set by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), Soil Association, Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) and FairTrade Foundation - also appear to meet the criteria of issue recognition and comparability. These labels have definitely achieved a high level of uptake. As voluntary labels, regulatory help can be discounted as directly contributing to their success, so what is it about these labels that has specifically allowed them to become so successful? Is it because they relate to a single issue that consumers can readily understand – i.e. they provide a simple and easy to understand message? Is the focus on a single relevant issue more important than regulation?

Arguably, some of the voluntary performance labels (e.g. carbon labelling) have yet to become mainstream and are more complex. Many consumer groups claim such labels are confusing and this is further compounded by a lack of comparability as there are lower levels of adoption. Although some manufacturers continue to use carbon labelling as a statement of their intent, enabling them to showcase initiatives and extent of programmes, does the consumer actually care? Does the average consumer know what 50g of carbon is or what impact it might have, either directly or indirectly? 

And does the situation with carbon labelling and, say, taking MSC certification as an example, suggest that there is a tipping point between when benefits are seen by businesses for particular labels (i.e. they are business or peer led) and when a label achieves high levels of adoption and becomes consumer led? This doesn’t mean business-led labels are unsuccessful and many will argue they have an important role in raising awareness of issues through gaining media interest. These business-led labels may not yet directly influence consumer decisions but their presence has informed the debate, and in some cases, has resulted in companies selecting and tackling sustainability issues as part of the process. Surely this is a significant benefit in its own right?

Whilst I have touched on some of the debate, I know there is a lot more to be added to this discussion, especially as I think success factors for sustainability labels can be product specific. I would be really keen to hear your thoughts on what constitutes a successful sustainability label and what you consider to be the key factors or barriers. Is there also a tipping point in achieving labelling success?

What do you think? Are labels becoming too overused and confusing? Tell us in the comments below.

Be sure to check out the 2degrees Essentials Guide: Labeling.