The study involved canvassing more than 1,000 executives from a range of firms, including Nestlé ; Sara Lee ; Hewlett-Packard ; and Canon on their views about eco-labelling. Results suggest the process has become so fragmented that it is subject to wide-ranging reappraisal by manufacturers.
Duncan Pollard, Nestlé’s sustainability advisor, said: “Fifteen years ago eco-labelling was considered to be the way forward. Now we may be seeing the first serious reappraisal of the conventional wisdom that if you wish to prove you’re sustainable you need a certification logo.”
Respondents listed brand-strengthening, addressing consumers’ sustainability demands and protecting against pressure-group attacks as key benefits of eco-labels, such as the Rainforest Alliance and the Fairtrade logo.
But they also expressed what the study calls “substantial scepticism” over eco-labels’ enduring credibility and the rigour of the criteria and certification procedures.
The research found continuing fragmentation, consumer confusion and lack of consensus on qualifying criteria are viewed as the greatest challenges to hopes of eco-labelling continuing in its current form.
The findings highlight a desire for improved consolidation and standardization as industry adoption of eco-labelling moves towards saturation.
The study warns that companies and customers alike risk being “overwhelmed” unless there is greater dialogue and cooperation among stakeholders.
IMD Professor Ralf Seifert, the study’s co-author, said: “It’s not just consumers who are confused. Selecting an eco-label has become a highly complex decision for firms.
“The trend towards fragmentation, which is made worse by a lack of consensus over qualifying criteria, is clearly causing ever more opposition and frustration.
“The fact is that the initial momentum and high expectations of more than 30 years ago are giving way to different challenges – ones that urgently need to be addressed.”
Dr. Joana Comas Martí, an expert in supply chain environmental management, said: “There’s also a feeling among firms that many eco-label providers launch with good intent but morph into organisations whose desire is to survive rather than serve.
“This raises serious questions about eco-labels’ effectiveness in delivering real outcomes and their potential to help achieve genuine market transformation.”
More than 400 eco-labels are now used across 25 industries.