Public or private, recyclable or recycled products, for products or their packaging, environmental logos are becoming more and more common on labels. But be aware, these labels do not all offer the same guarantees to consumers.
Riding on the wave of environmentally-friendly consumption, the number of manufacturers and distributors marking their products with symbols attesting of their environmental quality is increasing. What do these labels really guarantee? At the Ministry of the Environment, warnings are issued against misleading labels with vague declarations like “preserves the environment” or “non-polluting.” In the same way, when “does not contain” is written on product packaging, it does not always mean that what is chosen as a substitute is less harmful to the environment. This was the case for detergent manufacturers who substituted phosphates for chemicals that were sometimes more polluting. “In addition, manufacturers often brag about product characteristics that have become required by law,” emphasizes Jean-Paul Ventère, in charge of eco-design at the Ministry of the Environment.
To find one’s way in this jungle of labels, the consumer must keep a few things in mind. The first question to ask oneself is whether the label is about one particular aspect of the product or its entire life cycle. As far as the life-cycle labels are concerned, the most comprehensive ones are definitely the eco labels, both European and French, issued by AFNOR (French National Organization for Standardization). From the extraction of raw materials to post-consumer treatment, the eco label guarantees that the product respects the environment and especially that all improvements are integrated into an overall process, which keeps progress at one level from having negative repercussions on another level in the chain.
Unfamiliar to the general public, eco labels were created for between 5% and 30% of available products in each category. Fabric detergents, laptops, coffee filters, etc., this label covers a wide variety of products but suffers from the mistrust of manufacturers. “Many reject the idea of certification organizations prying into their business. As a result, some do not even try to obtain the label. This is particularly true for the majority of low energy consumption lamp manufacturers,” explained an expert from the Ministry of the Environment.
Occasional inappropriate use of company labels
Aside from public labels, many private labels have emerged. Most of them come from the initiatives of organizations or companies. These labels are the sole responsibility of the company, but must answer to the recommendations of the Bureau de vérification de la publicité (advertising standards authority), particularly concerning false advertising. Ecological labels created by companies, which boomed in the 1990’s, were thus the focus of a large investigation conducted by the General Directorate for Fair Trading, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Control (DGCCRF) in 1998. The result: 60% of environmental seals of approval appearing on the non-food products they checked were not really justified. The DGCCRF asked companies to remove these abusive labels from their packaging. “Since that investigation, the reliability of ecological labels has improved,” added Aline Sancho, inspector at the DGCCRF. Some labels are even cited by the Ministry of the Environment as examples, such as “Green Monoprix” and “Let’s Pamper the Earth” from 3 Suisses.
Somewhat obscure labels
While companies sometimes dress up their product packaging with unfounded labels, consumers are also prone to making mistakes when it comes to the scope of certain labels. The Green Dot, for instance, is often overestimated by the latter. This green circle with two intertwining arrows simply means that the producer financially contributes to a mechanism that helps towns develop selective waste collection systems. Likewise, Tidy Man (little character that throws garbage away in a trash can) is simply intended to encourage consumers to stop littering. This label can be confusing since it was implemented before the widespread use of selective waste sorting. Finally, the Möbius Loop, a triangle made up of three arrows, indicates that the product or its packaging is recyclable. But nothing guarantees that it will be recycled later.