Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Eco-Labels 101

As someone who is extremely neat and organized, the clean and concise manner in which an eco-label delivers an environmental message is attractive to me. This small graphic affixed to product packaging can communicate an immense amount of information to a consumer about the environmental impact of a product in a highly visible way. An eco-label is defined by the Global Ecolabelling Network (GEN) as:
a label which identifies overall environmental preference of a product (i.e.good or service) within a product category based on life cycle considerations. In contrast to a self-styled environmental symbol or claim statement developed by a manufacturer or service provider, an eco-label is awarded by an impartial third party to products that meet established environmental leadership criteria (2004).
Consumer Reports lists 140 eco-labels that are commonly found on U.S. products. Eco-labels are an important consumer education tool because they provide simple information about the environmental attributes of a product at the point of purchase. Recognized labels can communicate to a consumer that a product meets a particular environmental standard in just a glance. Eco-labels are more useful to consumers than lengthy corporate responsibility reports or ratings websites because they are, theoretically, simple to use and require little time, research, and effort.

Eco-labels have the potential to meet three major objectives. Eco-labels are first and foremost a tool for educating consumers and building awareness of sustainable product options. By simply observing an eco-label on a product, consumers are informed of the environmental attributes of the product and can differentiate between brands. The eco-label provides environmental information about a product that consumers cannot reasonably ascertain on their own. Even if consumers are not already concerned about environmental impacts of products, eco-labels can “serve as a communication vehicle for awareness transfer to the market at large” (Bratt et al., 2011, p. 1631).

Secondly, eco-labels offer producers an opportunity to display their environmental accomplishments in a way that is verified by a third party. An eco-label “offer[s] a market incentive to environmentally innovative and progressive businesses” (GEN, 2004). Eco-labels give businesses a leading edge in the market and also explain any price premiums that are often inherent in products that are responsibly produced. Overall, “the label is expected to affect the purchasing decision in favor of the labeled product and thereby be morally as well as economically rewarding for those companies that have been awarded the label” (Bratt et al., 2011, p. 1631).

The final objective of eco-labels is to drive sustainability. Eco-labels are meant to be a market-based instrument for improving environmental conditions. By encouraging innovative businesses and green consumerism, eco-labels can potentially eliminate the need for command and control solutions to environmental problems, or at least set the stage for future legislation.

This all sounds brilliant, right? Unfortunately, however, the eco-label world is not without its problems. In my next few posts, I will highlight the major challenges that eco-labels face in achieving the above objectives and will offer recommendations for improvement. Stay tuned for Challenge #1: Abundance of Labels Creates Confusion and Mistrust.


Bratt, C., Hallstedt, S., Robert, K.H., Broman, G., Olkmark, J. (2011). Assessment of eco-labelling criteria development from a strategic sustainability perspective. Journal of Cleaner Production, 19, 1631-1638.

Global Ecolabelling Network. (2004). Information paper: Introduction to ecolabelling. http://www.globalecolabelling.net/docs/documents/intro_to_ecolabelling.pdf.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Maya Albanese: A Leader in Sustainable Business

Maya Albanese is a young, bright, and influential player in the world of sustainable business.  She is less than five years out of college and has already made quite a name for herself through her various endeavors across the globe.  Maya is currently a part of the Rainforest Alliance team and charged with expanding the portfolio of companies that sustainably and efficiently source, sell, and promote tropical commodities such as coffee and bananas.  She previously worked as an assistant buyer of furniture at Williams-Sonoma Inc  and at the Commercial Service of the U.S. Embassy in Paris, France.  Maya, a self-described “yes-woman”, takes every opportunity she can: she spent seven months backpacking through South America while writing, learning the Spanish language, and doing conservation work.  In her spare time, she writes a column for GreenBiz called “How She Leads”, participates in cause modeling, launches activist campaigns, maintains a well-read travel blog, and serves as a brand ambassador for responsible organizations.  Maya clearly has a wealth of experience in the sustainability space (and beyond), so I sat down to learn more about her and her career thus far.

On her passion for sustainability and her chosen career path:

Maya was brought up in a family in which being a part of the solution was encouraged.  “I’ve always known that I wanted to make change.  I come from a family of activists and from a culture of being politically engaged and not sitting on the sideline.”  Maya’s father is a professor of economics and consumer behavior and her mother is a composer and musician, which, she explains, is probably where she derived her creativity, business sense and ambition.  “I used to be a total nag in terms of getting people to recycle and be responsible about the environment and then when I got to college I realized that was actually something about me that wasn’t just annoying.  It was something I was naturally passionate about and it would be easy for me to work in and it wouldn’t even feel like work.”

“Working with the private sector and working with big business in operations to make positive change appeals to me more than being just an activist”, she states.  Maya has worked in the public and private sector, and currently works in the NGO world at Rainforest Alliance.   “Throughout my entire career it has always been about sustainability and environmental and social change. What I’ve realized is you have to play with the big guys because they are the ones with the influence and the resources.  They’re some of the biggest economies in the world so sitting there pointing your fingers from the sidelines is not being a part of the solution.”

On public, private, and non-profit sectors and her work in each:

“They’re definitely really different and I wouldn’t say I had a preference but I did have a goal upon graduating university that I wanted to try out public, non-profit, and private sectors”.  Maya elaborated: “I wanted to go on the inside of these structures and figure out how they work and which I liked the best because it’s important to have idea of all the full landscape of all the stakeholders involved.  The public, private, and non-profit sectors all have really key roles to play and none are more important or better so I’ve really valued my time working [within each of them] but they’re all really different.” 

Maya had the opportunity to hold a true business role while working in corporate merchandising  at Williams Sonoma.   Her role as sustainability assistant there was something that she did out of passion.   She told me her experience at Williams Sonoma was really interesting because it was very bottom-line driven.  “I got a really good window in on what it’s like to be a sustainability person at a company where sustainability is not really tied to people’s performance reviews.  It was really quite an uphill battle.  At Rainforest Alliance everyone is working there because they’re passionate about its work, not the money.  They are working at it because they like Rainforest Alliance and their morals align with its mission and that’s really cool to see.  Here I don’t have to influence other people because they already get it.  I think another advantage to working at an NGO like Rainforest Alliance is that you have the opportunity to consult with a bunch of companies that want to partner with you versus being confined to the structure and desires of one corporate board or entity."

Maya then provides me with some wise words concerning her experiences: “Public sector, private sector, and non-profit are all huge umbrella terms generalizations and working in a sustainability role at Williams Sonoma is nothing like working in a sustainability role at Nike or Microsoft because they face completely different issues. Companies that are publicly owned can’t make sweeping changes and broad general public statements like a company owned by a family for 200 years can.  So you in deciding your career you have to take each open position as a different animal not by sector necessarily."

On the name she’s made for herself and her advice for other young people interested in this field:

Maya is incredibly humble and thanks me when I mention how impressed I am with how far she’s come in just a few years since she graduated.  “Every day I wished I’ve accomplished so much more.  I guess that’s the unfortunate symptom of being an over achiever and someone who is anxious to make change in the world.”  As for advice, Maya says it’s all about being passionate but rational.   “The number one reason I’ve gotten the jobs I’ve gotten and the exposure I’ve gotten is because I’ve put myself out there and said, “I know I don’t have a graduate degree or an MBA but hey, I’m gonna do a damn good job at this because I’m passionate about it”.  When you put your mind to anything, you can do it well. I think people really want to see confidence and passion and enthusiasm and dedication to the company and the cause.  Nobody is going to succeed in the sustainability world unless they are a cheerleader and a preacher and someone who can really influence the people at the top and the consumers at the bottom.   You have to pair that passion and creativity and idealism with straight business sense.  I’m always going to want to do more than I can do and I have to consider the bottom line because ultimately nothing is going to succeed for you in your career unless you have that rational, practical business-minded sense.   I think that’s why I’ve succeeded. People may be drawn to my energy or passion, but they wouldn’t hire me if they also didn’t think I was knowledgeable and rational about what’s possible and what’s not possible.”

 On commonalities among the women she has interviewed for her How She Leads column:

“I wouldn’t say there is any over-arching theme or trend. I think what is interesting about the column is how varied [the women’s] backgrounds are…the type of woman in the role in terms of experience and passion varies by company and what that company needs to work on the most.”

“To get really down-home gritty about it, women in general see sustainability as an issue affecting generations to come.  As women we have a maternal instinct and a lot of these women [that Maya has interviewed] have children and they want to see that their children’s children have clean drinking water and have fresh air to breath and good food.  Being a mom, or even just being a woman if you haven’t had kids, makes you much more inherently aware and concerned about this issue of sustainability for future generations.  That’s often a response I get when I ask women why they are passionate about [sustainability].”

Friday, February 17, 2012

Voting and Shopping are Separate But Equal: A Response to Sami Grover

This is a response to the blog post on Tree Hugger entitled, 5 Reasons Why Voting and Shopping are Not the Same Thing by Sami Grover.

While I certainly agree with the title statement, shopping and voting (i.e. political activism) are not the same thing, I don't think that the underlying sentiment that political action is somehow superior to conscious consumerism is accurate. The two are separate but equal means to achieving the same end: that is a healthy environment and society.  Ethical consumerism is not seeking to inspire lasting political change, specifically. There is rampant frustration with the political system and many are tired of waiting for regulation to pass that would reform corporate behavior and protect environment and society. Responsible consumers bypass the need for a political middleman to communicate their desires and instead send their message directly to corporations (which have arguably more power and influence than the government anyway).

Canned tuna companies were pressured through consumer boycotts to end fishing practices that endangered dolphins before governmental legislation mandated such. While I certainly agree that systematic and lasting change is necessary, why do we assume that it must originate from governmental legislation?  Why downplay an alternate route to the same kind of social and environmental change? Whatever the vehicle of change you choose, the important thing is that you get behind the wheel and drive!

2/20/12 Update: Sami Grover responded to my response here.