Paint the town green: the EU Ecolabel turns 30

The EU Flower, or EU Ecolabel, turns 30 today. To celebrate its anniversary, Miriam Thiemann and Blanca Morales take a look at what the label stands for and the role it plays to guide consumers and EU policy alike.  

Three decades ago, on 23 March 1992, the EU Ecolabel regulation was officially launched with the aim of establishing a EU-wide voluntary labelling scheme that would promote products with a lower environmental impact, based on reliable and scientific information.

Since then, it has  turned into a large and recognised label that helps consumers make a more sustainable choice.

According to the European Commission, who is in charge of the scheme, over 83,000 products and services with an EU Ecolabel are now available on the EU market, and their number has increased fast over the past years, despite phenomena like Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic could have slowed the trend down.   

What is the EU Ecolabel and why is it special? 

The EU Ecolabel is a certification of sustainability for non-food products and services. It covers categories such as detergents and cleaning products, paper products, cosmetics, textiles, furniture and electronics, as well as tourist accommodations, and a new category that rewards sustainable financial products is currently under development. 

The EU Flower stands out among many green labels for several reasons.

Unlike self-claims made by industry, this label is run by the European Commission and the criteria upon which the label can be awarded are chosen very carefully, in consultation with environmental protection groups such as the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), and consumer organisations such as the European Consumers Organisation (BEUC).

Moreover, the EU Ecolabel is a pioneer of taking a life cycle perspective. Its criteria consider all stages from the extraction of raw materials to the use and disposal of products. This approach ensures that a wide range of environmental impacts – including water, energy and material consumption, biodiversity impacts, greenhouse gas emissions, the durability and recyclability of the products, as well as the use of hazardous chemicals – are taken into account.

The implementation of the label scheme is carried out by independent authorities in each member state. 

Thanks to this rigorous approach, the EU Ecolabel has gained a high level of trust among the EU population. Eight out of ten people who know the EU Flower believe that it ensures environmental friendliness, and in many EU countries it is the most recognised of all available ecolabels. It is therefore safe to say that the EU Ecolabel is a reliable tool to navigate a jungle of green labels and to protect consumers from greenwashing. 

The EU Ecolabel in practice: cosmetics and textiles

To understand what this means in practice, let’s take a closer look at two product categories that are part of everybody’s daily life: cosmetics and textiles.  

Among the cosmetics covered by the EU Ecolabel we find rinse-off products such as shower gels, shampoos, and soaps, as well as cover products like day-creams, mascara or lipsticks. For these categories, the certification ensures that certified products only contain biodegradable ingredients, are free from microplastics, and only contain palm oil from verified sustainable sourcing. Moreover, the products must be free from hazardous chemicals such as endocrine disruptors, allergens and sensitising chemicals, and cannot contain forever chemicals like PFAS. This way, the EU Ecolabel for cosmetics protects the environment and consumers’ health at the same time.

Another category covered by the EU Ecolabel is textiles, including clothes and footwear, as well as fibres used for interior decorations. In this case, the label restricts the use of harmful substances, reduces water and air pollution during production, and demands more durable products. This means for example that a T-shirt would not shrink or lose its colour during washing and drying.  

The EU Ecolabel criteria for textiles had already set a high benchmark in 2014, and will be revised as part of the upcoming EU Textiles Strategy to further enhance circularity aspects.

A guide for consumers and policy makers alike 

The EU Ecolabel does not only guide consumers across store aisles, it also serves as a benchmark for other EU policies. For example, the Ecodesign directive requirements promoting the right to repair were developed based on learnings from the EU Ecolabel.  

Another example of legislation where the EU Ecolabel has served as a guide against greenwashing is the Unfair Commercial Practice Directive, which regulates what is considered as unfair or deceiving marketing. Notably, the guidance for implementing this directive lists the EU Ecolabel as a possible proof of true green claims. 

Moreover, a strong synergy exists between the EU Ecolabel and Green Public Procurement. Countries that want to spend public money sustainably can define what is “green” by referring to the EU Ecolabel in their tenders or procurement guidelines. In Estonia, for instance, since the beginning of this year, procurers must choose products with the EU Ecolabel or another equivalent Type-I ecolabel when purchasing furniture, copy and drawing paper, cleaning products and services, as well as office IT equipment. Another example is Denmark, which has set a target to base all of its public procurement on reliable schemes such as the EU Ecolabel and the Nordic Swan by 2030, for product categories where there is market offer. 

In the next few months, the role of the EU Ecolabel could be reinforced even further, namely through three upcoming legislative proposals: the Sustainable Product Initiative, the Initiative for Empowering Consumers for the Green Transition, and the Initiative on Substantiating Green Claims. All these initiatives, expected to be launched between March and July 2022, should build on the EU Ecolabel and its three decades of experience as a robust method to substantiate green claims and to reward sustainability frontrunners. 

Considering the fast-spreading number of green labels and claims on the market which tend to confuse consumers rather than enable them to make sustainable purchases, legislation to regulate green claims and to restore public trust into accurate green credentials is urgently needed.  

Birthday wishes

Over the past 30 years, the EU Ecolabel has achieved a lot and continues to play a key role in supporting sustainable consumer behaviour and EU policy alike. As we blow the birthday candles, we have three wishes for the future of the label.

First, we wish for the EU Ecolabel to grow further and cover more products and services: it is important to set a high bar of what sustainability means for even more areas of consumption. 

Second, we want to see retailers increase the offer of ecolabelled products on the shelves, and more and more producers and service providers to use it to back their green credentials, instead of developing their own labels. 

Third, we expect EU policy makers to agree on ambitious legislations that will progressively make sustainable products the norm, and put an end to greenwashing. The upcoming laws should further reinforce the EU Ecolabel and optimise synergies across different policies. Notably: Ecodesign should build on the learnings from the EU Ecolabel, including on the substitution of hazardous substances; frontrunner companies certified with the EU Ecolabel should be rewarded through financial incentives, for instance via green public procurement, extended producer responsibility or the EU Taxonomy; last but not least, the upcoming regulation on green claims should recognise the EU Ecolabel as a sufficient proof to substantiate green claims.