Need to know
- With no standard definition for eco or sustainability claims, it's next to impossible for shoppers to know which certification schemes to trust
- We identify 17 labels you can trust when trying to make an ethical or sustainable choice when shopping
- We show you how to work out if a sustainable or 'eco' label is legitimate
Want to shop sustainably and ethically, but are unsure what all those labels actually mean? All manner of products bear claims such as 'green', 'eco friendly', 'fairly made'... it's no wonder shoppers are confused.
According to the Eco Label Index, there are 57 different labels in use in Australia that identify products and services as being sustainable. That's a lot to keep track of, and it's not always clear what they stand for or if they're trustworthy.
To help you shop more sustainably and ethically, we've put together some tips to help you spot legitimate eco labels.
We've also compiled a list explaining some of the more common labels you might see in Australian products ranging from clothing and food to building materials. Plus, we link you to tools that can help you find certified products.
Eco labels can mean different things between manufacturers
Eco labels can be useful for helping you choose a more ethical products when shopping instore or online, and help you choose products that are doing more to reduce their negative impacts on people and the planet.
Labels such as organic, sustainable, cruelty-free and fair trade-certified are common, but there's often no universal regulatory definition or agreed-upon standard for these claims, which means there is great variation in what they stand for.
Some businesses may also 'greenwash' their products and misrepresent how sustainable or ethical they actually are
For example, sustainably labelled products from one manufacturer could indicate they're using sustainable farming techniques, whereas from another it could mean recycled packaging is used or that the product is biodegradable.
Some businesses may also 'greenwash' their products and misrepresent how sustainable or ethical they actually are, undermining the trustworthiness of eco labelling claims.
Fast fashion giant H&M has recently come under fire for greenwashing and is the subject of a new lawsuit in the US for allegedly marketing products as environmentally friendly when they are not. Part of the legal complaint highlights their use of "misleading" environmental scorecards, which have been prominently displayed on green hang tags, in store signage, and online marketing.
Cracking down on greenwashing
In March 2022, the ACCC announced greenwashing as one of its priorities over the next year. While greenwashing claims are not new to the ACCC – you may remember the Volkswagen dieselgate emissions scandal – this crackdown is good news for consumers who place importance on sustainable and ethical products.
The ACCC says it will be focusing on misleading environmental and sustainability claims because consumers are unable to test the accuracy of green credentials and claims on products (i.e. carbon neutral), and businesses can be negatively impacted by competitors making false green claims.
The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) label shows a garment has been produced according to the Better Cotton Standard, which aims to "help cotton communities survive and thrive, while protecting and restoring the environment".
How to spot a legitimate eco label
There are a number of eco labels that are genuine and backed up by robust certification and standards. However, it isn't always clear what the logo stands for or what the certification requirements are.
There are five criteria to help you identify legitimate certifications and their associated labelling systems:
Certifications should be based on standards and guidelines that must be met in order to use the label. This means all companies or products using the label are meeting the same minimum requirements.
Look for ISO certification numbers on labels and in online information. These identify the global standards that the certification is based on, or that the certifier uses, and are more robust and enforceable than guidelines or self-set standards.
Certified by independent third parties, either an independent group from within the same industry, or a collaboration between third-party experts and other organisations. Businesses should not be self-certifying.
The third party reviews factors such as environmental impact, manufacturing processes and supply chain. They determine that the final product complies with the relevant standard's criteria, ensuring that the label is robust and more credible.
Regular third-party audits should be undertaken to make sure that the certified products and business are still meeting the relevant standards. These may be conducted annually, as is the case for Australian Certified Organic (ACO), or less frequently, such as every three years for BCorp.
Standards may also be altered or strengthened over time so this ensures that those certified under older schemes meet the updated requirements.
Ethical and sustainable claims should be verifiable. Verification means consumers can trust the claims made on product packaging because they've been confirmed by a professional and impartial assessment body through independent certifying and auditing.
Eco labelling schemes should be upfront about how their certification works, what it stands for, who administers the program, how businesses and products are assessed, what standards they use, who conducts audits and how often they are conducted.
Ideally audit results and annual reports would be made available online, and tools, such as searchable databases, can be provided to help consumers find certified products.
Transparency helps consumers make sense of a product's sustainable status and the ethical rating, and contributes to the label's credibility.
Common eco labels and what they stand for
Below are 17 common eco labels that you'll see in use in Australia. All of the schemes listed are independent third-party certifiers that conduct audits unless otherwise specified.
Products and businesses with an imperfect certification system in place may still be better than uncertified ones.
We've included links to searchable databases where available to help you find certified products and businesses.
Australian Certified Organic (ACO)
This is Australia's largest certifier for organic and biodynamic produce. ACO is part of a nonprofit group owned by industry members. They are ISO 9001 certified and ACO certification ensures compliance with national and international organic production standards, including the Australian Certified Organic Standards (ACOS), and allows tracing of all products back to their origin. They have an online database of ACO-certified products.
Better Cotton Initiative (BCI)
BCI is a nonprofit that promotes better cotton farming standards. It's the largest cotton sustainability program in the world, with more than 2300 members.
Farmers produce cotton to their own Better Cotton Standard, which aims to minimise harmful environmental impacts, use water efficiently, conserve habitat, care for the health of the soil, promote fair work, and farm in a way that is "better for themselves, their communities and the environment".
You'll find their logo on textiles and fashion items and you can search the BCI database for members.
B Corp Certification
B Corp Certification is obtained through B Lab, an independent, nonprofit, multi-stakeholder group that specialises in responsible and sustainable business. Their standards define social, environmental and governance best practices for businesses. They measure a company's entire environmental and social impact as part of the certification process.
Companies that have achieved B Corp certification have committed to high social and environmental performance, are accountable for all stakeholders including their supply chain, and are transparent about their performance against certification standards. You can use B Lab's search tool to find B Corps around the world.
Cruelty Free International
A nonprofit that aims to eliminate animal testing, Cruelty Free International has recently merged with Choose Cruelty Free. Their leaping bunny logo indicates the product is free of animal testing and you'll find it on cosmetics, personal care and household products. You can search their database for certified products and brands.
Energy Star Ratings
These are an initiative of the Equipment Energy Efficiency program (E3) between the Australian government, states and territories and the New Zealand Government.
They deliver a single, integrated program on energy efficiency standards and energy labelling for equipment and appliances. The Energy Rating Label allows you to compare the energy efficiency and running costs of similar appliances of the same size.
Every new washing machine, dryer, dishwasher, TV and fridge sold in Australia must meet a minimum standard for energy efficiency. The more stars it has, the more efficient it is, and the less energy it will use, thus reducing your electricity bills.
Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA)
ECA is a nonprofit organisation currently funded by the Victorian Government, Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions. They work with Australian textile, clothing and footwear businesses to protect and uphold the rights of Australian garment workers.
To be accredited, businesses must ensure that workers are working in safe conditions, being paid appropriately, and are receiving all their legal entitlements. They have a tool to search for ethical manufacturers and a guide to shopping ethically in Australia.
Fairtrade International is a global co-operative and nonprofit organisation owned by 1.8 million farmers and workers. Their certified products are helping to make trade fair for farmers and workers by tackling poor working conditions, poverty and environmental degradation in developing countries.
The Fairtrade Mark may appear on food stuffs, such as cocoa and coffee, and on textiles such as cotton. They have a list of Fairtrade retailers on their website.
Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)
FSC is a nonprofit, multi-stakeholder group of businesses, environmentalists and community leaders. Their global forest certification system provides an assurance that forest products support responsible, sustainable forestry.
FSC has developed a set of ten principles and 70 criteria that apply to FSC-certified forests around the world. Their logo appears on paper and timber products as well as retailers and printing services.
You can search their international database for certificate holders, and their Australian website has a list of local FSC-certified suppliers and retailers.
Fuel Consumption Label
This is an Australian Government initiative that requires all new light vehicles for sale in Australia to display a fuel consumption or energy consumption label in the windscreen.
The label shows the fuel consumption of the car in litres/100km under different driving conditions and the CO2 emissions in g/km based on a standard test. This labelling is similar to the Energy Star and WELS ratings and can help you choose a more energy-efficient vehicle.
Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA)
GECA is a nonprofit that certifies businesses and products in the building and construction space. They administer the Green Tick labelling program.
GECA's standards follow ISO14024 principles for global best practice in eco labelling, which are then independently audited. You can search the GECA product database for products and suppliers.
Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
GOTS is a nonprofit organisation that administers the global leading textile processing standard for organic fibres that includes stringent environmentally sustainable and socially responsible criteria and certification of the entire supply chain.
GOTS-certified products include fibre products, yarns, clothes, textiles, mattresses, and personal hygiene products. Use the GOTS online search tool to find certified suppliers and stores.
This is an independent global sustainability certification program established by a private company. They have nine different certifications including Sustainable, Carbon Neutral, Carbon Negative, Organic, and Fair Trader. The tick can appear on any product.
Green Tick complies with the latest international standards, such as the ISO 14000 standard series for environmental management which includes sustainability, environmental auditing, and advertising requirements.
OEKO-TEX is a textile and leather industry certification body that consists of 17 independent institutions in Europe and Japan. There are six different standards and labels, with three of them most likely to be found on consumer products.
OEKO-TEX Standard 100- and Leather Standard-labelled textiles and products are free from harmful substances, while the Made in Green label also means that the product has been manufactured under sustainable and socially responsible conditions.
Rainforest Alliance is an international nonprofit working at the intersection of business, agriculture and forests. Their sustainability certification aims to protect forests, improve the livelihoods of farmers and forest communities, promote human rights, and help farmers mitigate and adapt to climate change. You'll find the Rainforest Alliance frog seal on products such as tea, coffee, chocolate and tissues.
Vegan Australia is a nonprofit organisation that campaigns nationally for veganism and sets a standard for vegan food in Australia. The logo indicates that the product does not contain animal ingredients and none of the manufacturing or testing processes involve animals or animal products.
Note that this is a single-issue standard and does not directly address environmental or social sustainability issues, only avoidance of animal products. See the list of Vegan Australia-certified products.
Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards (WELS)
The WELS scheme is a government initiative that applies to plumbing products and white goods that use water such as toilets, taps, showers, washing machines and dishwashers.
The blue WELS star label is designed to help you make informed choices about the water efficiency of products you're buying. The more stars on the label, the more water-efficient it is, which will help you reduce your water bill and your electricity bill for products that use hot water.
Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP)
WRAP is an independent nonprofit that ensures that production facilities operate in a safe, responsible, and ethical way. They promote lawful, humane manufacturing in facilities throughout the world via their certification and training programs.
WRAP only certifies individual facilities, not brands or companies, but do help to make supply chains more transparent.
While you may not see a WRAP logo on a product in store, you may see it pop up on business websites and communications from those with or who use certified facilities in the apparel, footwear and textiles industry. You can search for WRAP-certified facilities.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.