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Published: 2010

What’s in a label

Rachel Sullivan

Product certification and labelling is one way retailers can influence consumers to make more sustainable purchases, and the signs are that it is gaining traction, reports Rachel Sullivan.

ALDI was the first Australian supermarket to stock the Ocean Rise brand of Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)-certified seafoods.
Credit: ALDI

A recent forensic analysis revealed that fish sold with the Marine Stewardship Council’s tick of approval in the US, UK, Japan and Germany all came from sustainable fisheries, giving consumers added confidence that they are buying seafood sustainably.1 But, are consumers keeping up with the proliferation of eco-labels and other trust marks?

The Australian market for healthier, more sustainable products and services is worth AU$19 billion, according to the Living LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) 3 Survey, compiled by market research company, Mobium Group.

Studies overseas have found that consumers are willing to pay a premium for ethically sourced goods. A 2008 survey conducted by Professor Michael Hiscox – Clarence Dillon Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University – found that New York consumers were willing to pay more for items labelled as being made under good labour standards. Demand for such products actually increased when prices increased.2

The Australian Food and Grocery Council’s ‘Green Shopper’ survey found that while 36 per cent of Australian shoppers are prepared to pay more for green products, only 13 per cent actually buy environmentally sustainable food and groceries from the supermarket.3 Free-range eggs, dolphin-safe tuna, environmentally friendly toilet paper and laundry powder, and certified organic fresh fruit and vegetables are among the most common green purchases.

The survey suggested that one reason for the so-called ‘green gap’ between community concern and taking action through making greener purchases is cost, but another may simply be confusion.

More than 50 different eco-labelling programs operate in Australia, from energy and water savings ratings to Forest Stewardship Council, Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade trust marks, all aimed at helping consumers make the right choice.

‘At the consumer level, environmental labelling is potentially a very effective way of distinguishing between products with good and bad credibility,’ says Mobium Group co-founder, Mr Andrew Baker.

‘Eco-labels are seen as very helpful about making informed choices, but the recent Living LOHAS survey found that many people are unaware such labels exist, or they have low levels of awareness of specific labels and what they want to achieve,’ he says.

‘While 10 per cent look for detail and want information, a much larger group finds it more difficult to absorb, even though they want better information about environmentally sustainable products.

‘When Planet Ark or WWF endorse a product, consumers at least recognise the organisation and can link the product with an environmental cause. However, we found that consumer awareness is lower than 20 per cent for non-major NGO [non-government organisation] labels.’

Credibility is a concern for companies and products in the green marketplace. One OECD study found that marketing language and competing claims on what makes a product green have caused low market penetration for some eco-labels.

In response, the World Resources Institute and Big Room Inc. recently released the 2010 Global Ecolabel Monitor, a report and online database aimed at helping companies and individuals sort through the green claims of different environmental certifications and labels.

One of the best-known labels is Fairtrade, which certifies products that support farmers, their families and communities in receiving more stable and secure incomes and better working conditions; and that enhance investment in product quality and local environmental sustainability.

Mobium reported a five per cent increase in awareness of the Fairtrade label compared with the same time last year, which means it is now recognised by almost a quarter of the Australian population. Among LOHAS ‘leaders’ – defined as consumers proactively engaged in sustainable behaviours – recognition of the Fairtrade label was up to almost 75 per cent.

Retail sales of Fairtrade-certified products in Australia and New Zealand increased by more than 50 per cent between 2008 and 2009 to more than AU$50 million, as mainstream retailers and suppliers such as ALDI, Starbucks, Jamaica Blue, Jetstar, Virgin, and Woolworths/Safeway began stocking Fairtrade products.

Coffee continues to be the most frequently purchased Fairtrade product in Australia and New Zealand. It makes up 74 per cent of total Fairtrade retail sales, a figure that was boosted when 170 Wild Bean cafes switched to 100 per cent Fairtrade-certified coffee beans in both countries in 2008.

Australian consumers now have another label to look out for; ALDI and Planet Ark recently announced that ALDI would be the first Australian supermarket to feature carbon reduction labelling on its house-brand olive oil range.

The Carbon Reduction Label originates from the UK-based Carbon Trust, and advises consumers of the total carbon footprint of a product: from raw materials and manufacturing right through to disposal or recycling of packaging.

The Carbon Trust has endorsed more than 5700 products since launching the label in 2007, and has worked with many big international brands such as PepsiCo, Tesco, Coca Cola, Danone, and Kimberly-Clark.4

Fairtrade coffee is becoming a familiar sight in cafes and on supermarket shelves.
Credit: Coles

At this stage, ALDI is focusing only on olive oil. Other products may follow if consumer demand is high enough.

‘We are focused on leading the introduction of the concept in Australia with our everyday olive oil range and will be guided by consumers’ response to the initiative,’ says Mr Benjamin Ward, Group Buying Director, ALDI.

‘Independent research conducted for Planet Ark found 60 per cent of Australians would be more likely to purchase a product displaying the Carbon Reduction Label, so it’s certainly something we believe consumers will value,’ he says.

Woolworths’ Group Manager, Corporate Responsibility, Ms Armineh Mardirossian, believes that carbon labelling is not meaningful unless everything is labelled in the same way. She says that in response to customer requests, Woolworths is concentrating on palm oil labelling.

‘Woolworths currently features on-pack labelling of palm oil and derivatives in all of its private label products, and we will be moving to RSPO [Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil]-certified sustainable palm oil by 2015 for all Woolworths’ private label products.’

Ms Mardirossian adds that while the consumer goods market is very competitive, ‘first-movers’ are typically able to influence the market to change.

Mr Baker agrees. ‘In particular industries, there is no doubt the eco-label provides a market advantage. Some, like the building industry, are re-tooling to create cleaner processes, especially where a certain green star rating is required as part of a tender process. There is a clear mandate that better products are the price of entry to the market,’ he says.

However, Ms Mardirossian is concerned about confusion in the market as a result of too many labels and logos.

‘Consumers are becoming sceptical about the integrity of eco-labels,’ she comments.

Choice’s Mr Christopher Zinn is also concerned about this problem.

‘There has been a lot of greenwash when it comes to labels, especially around cleaning products. Lots of products have globes or helping hands in their logos, without the environmental credentials to back them up,’ he says.

‘The plethora of eco-labels and trust marks only serves to increase confusion,’ says Mr Zinn, adding that the UK has done much more in this space.

‘There is far more scope for clearer labelling promoting organic food or otherwise sustainably produced goods. This has helped stimulate demand, and means that the premium for sustainable products is not too different.

‘Good labelling is key to helping consumers make sustainable choices, because when they are at the point of sale they are bombarded by information. The labels we currently have help, but we still have some way to go.’

Published: 2010

Empowering vision

Cynthia Karena

Educational filmmaker and sustainability advocate, John Liu, has a knack for effectively communicating the complex in ways that make people sit up and take notice. A key to his success is leveraging the power of the image to inspire hope and a commitment to action.

John Liu in Rwanda – <i>Hope in a Changing Climate</i> documents local communities and government working together to rejuvenate the land.
John Liu in Rwanda – Hope in a Changing Climate documents local communities and government working together to rejuvenate the land.
Credit: John Liu

John D Liu’s mission is to make it easy for people to understand climate change.

‘The issue is knowledge. For either the public or for policy makers, ignorance is a good excuse,’ says Mr Liu, founder of the Environmental Education Media Project (EEMP), which produces audiovisual environmental education materials for broadcast and educational audiences.

For more than ten years, the project has been documenting best-practice methods for large-scale restoration of damaged or destroyed ecosystems.

‘If (people) don’t know what to do, they are unlikely to be able to do much,’ says Mr Liu. ‘But if we know that it is possible to rehabilitate large-scale degraded ecosystems and we don’t do it, then we have crossed a line, because our knowledge is responsibility.’

An American with a Chinese father and an American mother, Mr Liu has lived in China for more than 30 years. He trained as a journalist in the United States, and moved to China to help open the CBS News Bureau in Beijing in 1979.

After a decade of living in China, Mr Liu became concerned about the levels of pollution and the rapid pace of development.

With his ‘knowledge brings responsibility’ philosophy, he founded the Environmental Education Media Project for China (the precursor to EEMP) and has been engaged in researching, documenting and educating people about ecology ever since. As an environmental filmmaker and ecological field researcher, he has produced and directed documentaries for CBS, National Geographic and the BBC.

John Liu on location in the 1990s, soon after establishing his environmental education media project.
John Liu on location in the 1990s, soon after establishing his environmental education media project.
Credit: John Liu

In 2006, Mr Liu was named the Rothamsted International Fellow for the Communication of Science. Rothamsted – a non-profit organisation working towards sustainable agriculture in developing and emerging countries – supports his PhD work with the Soil Sciences Department at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom.

Mr Liu is also a member of the Steering Committee of the Global Forum on Media for Development, and an Associate Professor at George Mason University’s Center for Climate and Society in the US.

Stories of hope

Mr Liu says most policy makers and the public assume that the human impact on climate is limited to the copious emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases generated by fossil fuel combustion over the past century or so.

‘The problem with this is that it is only partially true,’ he says. ‘Human impact on the climate began long before egregious emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, when human beings began to reduce biodiversity, biomass and accumulated organic matter. These impacts are exacerbated by egregious emissions.’

Re-balancing the world’s carbon equilibrium, according to Mr Liu, is not just a matter of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

‘If we restore all degraded land on the entire planet as well as reduce emissions, you can extrapolate massive carbon uptake, [as well as] re-regulated hydrological flows, increased fertility and productivity, and the ability to ensure that the highest level of genetic diversity possible survives into future generations,’ he says. ‘That seems like a much more comprehensive result.’

EEMP’s most recent documentary is Hope in a Changing Climate, filmed on location in China, Ethiopia and Rwanda.1 The film aims to demonstrate that damaged ecosystems and degraded land can be restored to health, and that such an outcome economically improves the lives of local people.

The segment on China’s Loess Plateau proves the point, with location footage showing how a barren, brown landscape covering an area the size of Belgium was transformed into a functioning, green ecosystem where rainfall infiltrates, water is retained and crops are readied for export. Importantly, this has enabled local communities to prosper.

Hope ... also interviews world leaders, bankers, students, presidents, journalists, scientists and local people. According to the film’s website, the Government of Rwanda has adopted a new national land-use policy based on EEMP’s presentations and analysis.

The film aired on BBC World last year, and screenings were held for world leaders at the Copenhagen climate change summit.

Reversing the damage

Degraded farmland in developing countries may be one of the best opportunities we have to reverse the trend toward reduced ecological function, says Mr Liu.

‘What human beings have done historically to damage the environment can be understood rather simply. We have interrupted evolutionary trends. This has resulted in reducing biodiversity, which has caused a reduction in biomass, which has in turn caused a reduction in the accumulation of organic matter. These changes have caused disruptions to fundamental systems that all life relies on.

John Liu’s documentation of the transformation of China’s Loess Plateau from barren landscape (top) to fertile oasis (bottom) has inspired communities in other ecologically damaged areas.
John Liu’s documentation of the transformation of China’s Loess Plateau from barren landscape (top) to fertile oasis (bottom) has inspired communities in other ecologically damaged areas.
Credit: John Liu

‘Through our ignorance, we have reduced gas exchange through photosynthesis, lowered nutrient recycling through the decay and transformation of each generation of life, and massively disrupted the infiltration and retention of rainfall in the biomass and in the soils.

‘If we return vegetation to degraded landscapes we can sequester large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. This is done through photosynthesis. If we return vegetation, we also can lower temperatures because of shade, and we can increase soil moisture and relative humidity by restoring microclimates below vegetated canopies.

‘The Global Partnership for Forest Landscape Restoration has roughly estimated that one billion hectares of the Earth have been degraded and could be restored. This represents a huge potential, through understanding and positive work, to improve what is now a quite bad situation.’

Urban responsibility

The principles of conserving biodiversity and utilising biomass and accumulated organic matter are not just applicable to rural areas, says Mr Liu.

He sees the Earth as made up of five different landscape types; urban landscapes, pristine or functional landscapes, agricultural landscapes, industrial landscapes and large degraded landscapes.

‘In urban and industrial areas we have in many cases created “dead zones” without any biology. This is not true of all cities. In great cities [such as] London, Beijing, Tokyo, Paris and New York, there are lovely parks, but the buildings, the streets, the parking lots, the factories and businesses are mostly not designed to include these principles.’

Mr Liu says that if you lower biodiversity, biomass and organic matter, you get elevated temperatures. Another impact of losing biomass and organic matter to impervious ground cover such as pavement is the loss of capacity to retain and infiltrate rainfall. This results in flooding during rainy seasons. Further, water that would have been captured by living plants and roots during rains is not available to an ecosystem during the dry season.

‘If we understand these principles, and design our cities, our transportation systems and our buildings around them, then we will have a very different, a very liveable and a sustainable future,’ he says.

‘If we continue to fail to learn this, then I think we are in for very serious problems very soon.’

Not ‘them’ – just ‘us’

Australia’s pollution has little impact on the world compared with China or India, which may lead some Australians to feel complacent about the environment. However, this type of thinking suggests an ‘us’ and ‘them’ approach, says John Liu.

‘From my perspective there is just “us”. Humanity is a species. We need to have a species response now to our problems, not suggest that this is “their problem”. It is our problem because we are affecting global systems,’ he says.

Mr Liu gives the example of persistent organic pollutants. These human-made substances travel all over the world and accumulate up the food chain, but the highest concentrations can be found in Inuit peoples who are thousands of miles from any source.

‘Pollution somewhere is pollution everywhere,’ he says. ‘There is no them. Just us.’

More information

Environmental Education Media Project,


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