There are plenty of ecolabels (or ‘sustainability labels’) around on the market, but are some more trustworthy than others? And if so, how can buyers tell?

We know that ecolabels act as a sign of trust for anyone wishing to buy a product. They show that the manufacturer meets a certain standard, whether that is for environmental impact, animal welfare, safety or a range of other criteria.

When it comes to knowing just how reliable an ecolabel is, a good place to start is with the set of credibility principles developed by ISEAL, the international membership association for sustainability standards. These principles provide a guideline for understanding sustainability label best practice around the world and help to define what it means for a label to achieve positive social and/or environmental impact.

Sustainability labels should have clearly defined sustainability goals and continually work toward achieving them with demonstrable, measureable impact. Improving their standards and their scheme should be an ongoing process, where standards are regularly reviewed and revised where necessary in order to incorporate new research and learning. These two measures ensure that everyone – whether it’s the buying public, the sustainable product manufacturer, or the sustainability label organisation itself – is on the same page, knowing exactly where the ecolabel is heading and that best practice is being upheld.

It’s also important for standard criteria to be truly relevant. Criteria should address the most important sustainability aspects of a product to avoid making unnecessarily misleading environmental claims. For example, labelling a light bulb as having “recycled content” is far less important than its energy efficiency. If water use isn’t a significant issue for growing a particular crop, there is little use in including water efficiency criteria in a standard for it. Criteria also need to be rigorous enough to ensure products are performing at a level that is significantly higher (more sustainable) compared to a business-as-usual approach.

This idea of ‘rigour’ also relates to how a sustainability label scheme carries out its audits for products. Those performing the audit for a product must have a high level of technical knowledge in order to accurately assess whether it complies with the standard criteria. Auditors should be well-trained, and third-party accreditation (such as JAS-ANZ, the Joint Accreditation System of Australia and New Zealand) is also highly favourable – essentially, auditing the auditors.

Ideally, the auditors should be entirely separate from the sustainability labelling organisation itself, bolstering transparency and credibility by minimising conflicts of interest. This impartial approach should also be carried over into the governance of the sustainability label organisation to maintain balanced representation of interests. In the interests of impartiality, it’s also worth considering how the organisation is funded: how much commercial interest does the certifying organisation have in the outcome of product certification?

Transparency is crucial for building trust and credibility. Sustainability label organisations that make their standard criteria, governance systems and other information freely accessible and available (within reason) demonstrate their impartiality and willingness to accept feedback about their scheme. This openness also allows for fairness in dealing with complaints and appeals, should the need arise.

Openly engaging with, and harmonising standards with, other sustainability label schemes around the world cuts through the sense of overwhelm felt when faced with multiple competing schemes and standards. This is where international organisations such as the Global Ecolabelling Network (GEN) come into play, providing a platform for collaboration, sharing information and alignment on a global scale. GEN also operates a peer review process (GENICES) for third-party evaluations of sustainability label schemes themselves.

Accessibility and engagement with stakeholders is also vital during the standards development process –all interested parties should be able to participate equally. Accessibility also needs to extend to the potential licensees under the sustainability label – has the bar been set unrealistically high by the standard criteria? Is the cost of certification affordable?

When considering the credibility and trustworthiness of a sustainability label scheme, investigate how well it aligns with these credibility principles. While all sustainability labels are arguably working towards a worthy common goal, transparency and minimising any conflicts of interest throughout all levels of the scheme is key to maintaining its effectiveness and positive impact.