Ecolabels and greenwashing

The world of ecolabels and other responsibility certificates is hardly straightforward or clear. First of all, there are way too many to start with: when looking at all the labels there are, you would think that if certifications were the answer for responsible world trade and sustainable production chains, the problem would have been solved already!

The modern consumer is more demanding, and wants to know the goods they buy are ethically and sustainably produced. Companies know this, so in addition to visual cues of responsibility, like green or brown packaging (which, by the way, is usually just the color of the package, not an actual sign of responsibility) or nice pictures, they are after all types of certification, which would make their brand and sustainability goals more believable. For the consumer, however, this poses a problem: it is hard to separate the more credible ones from the ones who don’t hold much or any credibility. In addition to this, there is the unfortunate truth that even the certifications provided by third, independent parties can be problematic.

There needs to be actual legislative change, which concentrates on corporate responsibility – and this change needs to happen on a global level.

First of all, many certificates concentrate on some specific aspect of the production: so they are concerned with ecological damage, or social sustainability issues, or less harmful chemicals – but not everything at once. This can be a good thing, in the sense that the criteria for a certificate does not get too complicated or “watered down” – meaning that there are too many points so nothing is actually regulated in the end. But it is an important thing to keep in mind. When buying coffee, for example, it is good to recognize that some certificates are above all interested in the protection of nature and hold weaker criteria for fair trade policies and social issues (like Rainforest Alliance) and vise versa. Other problem with even credible certification is that many companies actually use only a small amount of certified ingredients in their final products to gain the label – and then make the rest up with non certified material.

I do not want to throw the responsibility on the shoulders of the consumer. As individuals – and especially as poor students, we cannot solve this problem alone. There needs to be actual legislative change, which concentrates on corporate responsibility – and this change needs to happen on a global level. Luckily, there are actors who work for these things, like The Consumer’s Union of Finland. They have set goals for the next government to tackle issues regarding green washing and sustainability. You can check those in here

You can also come and listen to a lecture given by the Consumer’s Union on 15th of March as part of our Green Week! This said, there are always some things you can yourself do. I will give 3 tips on how to navigate in the confusing world of green washing and responsibility certfifcates:

  1. Learn to recognize the more responsible actors and certificates

We have made a quick quiz to help you with this: It is worth participating since you have a chance to win a coffee packet! 🙂

In short, you can usually trust labels more if they have some actual legislation behind or are well established and regulated by trustworthy third parties. These labels include EU Ecolablel, Fairtrade and the Nordic Swan. Like I said, none of these are perfect and they regulate quite different things, but if you buy something with these labels on, you can trust that the criteria is usually met.

I would not trust anything that just states that they are “Ecofriendly” or “Sustainable” with a nice logo that does not tell you anything else. This includes also the little statements saying “sustainable development” or “ethically made” on top of pictures in different online stores: this is companies exploiting your trust and good will. Of course no one wants to be associated with cutting rainforest and killing sloths or child labor and human rights violations – no one admits being behind such violence. But it is still happening, somebody is doing that – and trying to hide behind false certifications.

I would also be cautious of any certificate created by the company itself even when they are monitored by a third party. For example the global coffee chain Starbucks has created their own C.A.F.E. Practices label which claims social and environmental responsibility and is regulated by a third party. However, there has been many concerns among activists on the actual credibility of the label.

2. Consume less

I know. It is always the same thing. But it is the most simple truth: your actions are more sustainable if you don’t buy as much. Of course this as well is a double edged sword: if we all stopped buying coffee at this instant, it would be catastrophic for the farmers cultivating and selling it – they surely would not be celebrating. Here following the credible certifications are a good starting point for fairer world trade and consumption.

Certifications are criticized for being a way for the middle class and the rich to buy a “pure conscience” whereas the poor in rich countries cannot afford certified products. I do agree that this is a fair criticism and needs to be taken into account. We live in such consuming concentrated world, that basic social needs like sense of belonging and identity are tied to the amount of stuff we own. In this culture, it can be hard to cut back your own consumption. However, consuming ethically is not always more expensive than the alternative: it comes down to what you actually need. Do you need five trendy t-shirts or could you do with just one, that is actually ethically and sustainably made – or could you use your phone still for another year even though it is not the latest tech? These kind of decisions can prove to be less costly in the long run, even though they might not be so tempting at first.

3. Concentrate on (collective) hope and take action

Like with almost all environmental issues, the problem seems so vast and complex that it is easy to lose hope and motivation. Like I said, I do not want to throw the responsibility on the consumer, since it is not a problem one individual or ten or hundred individuals can solve alone. But collectively, together with others, we can do a lot.

Therefore I urge you not to lose all hope. There has happened changes for the better, and there will be changes made in the future. For example the Fair Trade certificate was not founded before 1992, and since then there has been actual change in the production chains and regulations of products. So even though certificates have their own problems, some of them have managed to actually regulate production and tackle the problems with unequal trade or ecological damage. We already have become more conscious and demanding consumers (I do not think my grandma or her friends in the 50s thought much about the origin of their coffee), so we have the ability to learn separate green washing from actual credible claims.

The fact that these problems are complex do not mean they are unsolvable.

To alleviate anxiety about these issues you can take action. In a group, or alone if you are not a group work type of person. I am not talking about something drastic: already the above mentioned things, consuming more mindfully and learning to recognize green washing are important actions. You do not have to be the most passionate environmental activist climbing on top of office buildings of the companies selling fossil fuels. You can start small – it does count, it is not for nothing. The fact that these problems are complex do not mean they are unsolvable.


Lai, Jessica C. “Hijacking Consumer Trust Systems: Of Self-Declared Watchdogs and Certification Trade Marks.” IIC – International Review of Intellectual Property and Competition Law 52, no. 1 (2021): 34–61

Poynton, Scott. Beyond Certification. First edition. London: Routledge, 2015.