Ecolabels tell the consumer that the labelled products or services cause less environmental load during their life cycle than other corresponding products or services in the same product or service group. Thereby they provide the consumer with an opportunity to promote sustainable solutions through their own consumer choices. When making their buying decisions, the consumers may decide to buy ecolabelled copying paper, washing detergent, copying machine, hotel, restaurant, etc. In addition to individual consumers, especially those who make public purchases can have a significant effect on the success of sustainable products.
Ecolabelling is based on knowledge that energy and water have been saved when manufacturing the product. In the design process of the product, materials have been chosen that are easy to recycle and whose manufacture consumes the minimum of natural resources or whose negative environmental impacts are small.
When establishing the criteria for ecolabels, different levels of life cycle analyses are used. Considering furniture, ecolabels have been awarded to e.g. beds. (Finnish Environment Institute, 2007.)
The EU Flower is the official ecolabel of the European Union. It informs the consumer about the environmental friendliness of the product or service. The label is voluntary and its purpose is to encourage companies to launch greener products to the market and also to help the consumer to make sustainable buying decisions. The purpose of the label is not to prevent a product from entering the market; instead, its use gives companies a chance to improve the competitive advantage of their product. (European Commission 2008.)
The ecolabel of the EU was introduced in 1992. The development is based on life cycle analyses, and the objective is that the products bearing the label have smaller environmental impacts than the corresponding competing products. The label is not based on only one parameter but is granted based on the environmental impacts of the product during its whole life cycle starting from raw material acquisition and production process to the disposal of the product. (European Commission 2008.)
The criteria for the EU Flower are set by the European Union Eco-labeling Board, EUEB. The EUEB is also in charge of periodical reviewing of the criteria, and the representatives of the member countries accept the environmental requirements of the criteria. The aim is to have a transparent process when defining the requirements. The representatives of industry, civic and environmental organizations, as well as trade unions and employers' organizations are invited to express their points of view. The Commission and member countries may ask international observers to join the process. Non-European producers are represented by Eurocommerce. (European Commission 2008.)
The advantage of the EU Flower, compared to other similar labels, is that you can get the right to use the label in all EU countries with just a single application process. The label is also used outside the Union in Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland. Even producers coming from outside the Union can apply for a license to use the label. A fee is charged for applying for and using the label, but it is possible to get a discount if the producer or importer of the product already has a valid EMAS or ISO 14001 certificate. (European Commission 2008.)
Hundreds of products have already been given the right to use the EU Flower. So far the label has not been granted to furniture, but work has been going on for a long time to set criteria for the requirements for furniture. There are criteria for interior lacquers and paints, as well as textile products and mattresses. (European Commission 2008.)
The Nordic Swan ecolabel has been used in all the Nordic Countries since 1989. Each country has an ecolabelling organization of its own, supervising the use of the label. In Finland the supervising body is SFS--Ympäristömerkintä, which guarantees that the label is not used without a license and that a product that has been awarded the license to use the label really meets the requirements.
The purpose of the Swan ecolabel is to tell the consumer that the manufacture, use and disposal of the product are friendlier to the environment than with other corresponding products. The right to use the label is awarded to products and services that meet the requirements set by environmental experts. The Swan ecolabel also sets requirements for the quality and functionality of the product, so when making buying decisions the consumers can trust that the product will serve them in use at least as well as other corresponding products. The requirements of the Swan ecolabel are reviewed at 3-5 years' intervals. This is to ensure that they keep up to date as legislation gets stricter and technology develops, and that the products that meet the requirements will be environmentally among the best even in the future. (SFS--Ympäristömerkintä 2008.)
Each country has an ecolabelling board, which has a wide representation of various influential bodies in society, as well as a secretariat, which takes care of the practical matters such as distribution of information, preparation of criteria and granting of the licenses. The requirements are set in cooperation between the Nordic Countries. This includes for example an open circulation for comment, which makes it possible for manufacturers and raw material suppliers to express their views. The transparency of the system guarantees that it is unbiased. (SFS--Ympäristömerkintä 2008.)
The Swan ecolabel criteria concerning furniture require for example that the wood does not come from a forest that has a high biological and/or social value. There are also limit values for the use of recycled materials and chemicals. The application process for the Swan ecolabel is easier if for example the textiles used in the furniture are labeled with the Swan ecolabel or the EU Flower.
The Swan ecolabel is better known in the Nordic Countries than the EU Flower. It has criteria for a greater number of product groups and the license to use the Swan has been granted to more products than the EU Flower. The idea is to avoid setting criteria for such product groups that overlap the labeling of the EU Flower. Nowadays the range of the Swan ecolabel is fairly wide. Licenses can be granted for example to hotels, furniture, washing detergents, different paper products and sustainable timber. The Swan ecolabel can also be granted to products manufactured outside the Nordic Countries. Studies reveal that four fifths of the companies using the Swan ecolabel recommend its use to other companies and think that the label has had a positive influence on the company. (SFS--Ympäristömerkintä 2008.)
The Blue Angel, established in 1977, is the world's oldest ecolabel. According to research, the Germans know this label the best, people in different income classes pay as much attention to the label, and it has a significant effect on buying behaviour.
(The Blue Angel 2008.)
The license to use the Blue Angel label is granted by an expert board appointed by the federal republic. The label can be granted for example to returnable containers, paints and processing materials, as well as to wood materials intended for interior use. Several licenses have been granted to office furniture. (The Blue Angel 2008.)
The environmental friendliness of the wood material used in furniture is often connected with a demand for a forest certificate. The certificate guarantees that certain requirements of sustainable forestry have been observed in the production of the wood material. The ecolabels presented earlier often include demands for the certification of the wood material. For example the Nordic ecolabel requires that at least 70 per cent of the weight of the furniture comes from a certified forest (SFS-Ympäristömerkintä 2008).
The development of the certification system for forest products started in the early 1990s, when the worry about the loss of tropical forests increased. Forest certificates are voluntary and the expenses are covered by the forest owner. The commonly used and in a way competing forest certification systems are the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).
The FSC is an international system where a central organization determines the major ecological, social and economic principles. Based on those principles, the national organizations create their own more detailed regulations, which are submitted for approval by the central organization. This ensures that enough consideration is given to local conditions so that the same rules apply everywhere. The certification is always done by a certifier accredited by the central organization. An FSC standard concerning Finland is being prepared at the moment. (FSC 2008.)
The PEFC is the forest certification system that is the most widely applied throughout the world. It pays attention to the ecological and social sustainability of forest management and use. The PEFC certification has been used since year 1999. (PEFC 2008.)
In addition to the "official" ecolabels, there are many kinds of less widely used labelling systems, which are connected with the eco-friendliness of products. One such label is the Bra Miljöval label of the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation. Also, some quality labels can be important and they may be beneficial when marketing environmentally friendly products. However, it is good to keep in mind that a quality certificate awarded to furniture production does not necessarily guarantee that the furniture has a long life or properties that are otherwise good from the environmental point of view.
Examples of labels that organizations use for fund-raising are the Panda label of the WWF and the Norppa label of the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation (Suomen Luonnonsuojeluliitto). For example companies that want to support the operation of the WWF can donate part of the profit of a product sold by them to the organization. The companies can utilize the label in their marketing and in this way develop the environmentally positive image of their product. The product and the company's operation must be in harmony with the values of the WWF.
There are also several markings that can be misleading. For example Der Grüne Punkt, which is used in Germany, tells that a waste collection fee has been paid for the package of the product in Germany. In other words, this label does not in any way guarantee that the package will be recycled in countries other than Germany. Also, the Der Grüne Punkt label does not describe the environmentally good properties of the product, although the consumer may mistakenly think so.
There are also problems with the widely used recycling arrows, since the symbol may mean that the product has been manufactured from recycled materials or that it is possible to recycle the product. Sometimes the symbol refers to the recyclability of the package but often it is not supported by a collection system that would make recycling possible. (SFS-Ympäristömerkintä 2008.)
European Commission. 2010. The European Union Eco-label Homepage. Available: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/ecolabel
PEFC. 2010. The PEFC is committed to promoting sustainable forest management through independent third party forest certification. Available: http://www.pefc.org/internet/html/
SFS – Eco Labeling. 2010. Available: http://www.ymparistomerkki.fi/
The Blue Angel. 2010. Available: http://www.blauer-engel.de/englisch