Eco-labeling schemes are often run by, or unduly influenced by an industry association that is not altogether unbiased. There are hundreds of schemes around the world of varying degrees of authenticity, independence and comprehensiveness. Any organization, including a private company, can set up its own eco-labelling scheme. Examples include UK retailer, Tesco, and US footwear manufacturer, Timberland. Sometimes eco-labelling schemes achieve recognition by having glossy websites, endorsements by paid experts, and association with celebrities.
Many green labels and logos are not what they seem. The Panda symbol of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) merely indicates that the company has given money to WWF, not that the product is necessarily environmentally beneficial.
Endorsement is often for specific criteria and that it says nothing about the total environmental impact of the product. A detergent with a green label for being free of phosphates might be overpackaged and use high amounts of energy in its manufacture. This could give consumers a false idea about the environmental merits of a product.
For example, Environmental Choice Australia endorsed "Insinkerators" which macerate food scraps in the sink and allow them to go down the drain. These devises not only add good compost material to the load going to sewerage treatment plants but they represent an unnecessary, energy-intensive consumer item.
In 2008 the Inspector General in the US found that the Energy Star program was inaccurate with respect to greenhouse gases and claims about energy savings: “Deficiencies included the lack of a quality review of the data collected; reliance on estimates, forecasting, and unverified third party reporting; and the potential inclusion of exported items."
Even genuine certifications may not give the whole picture. Take recyclable symbols. Just because there is a recyclable symbol on the package it doesn’t mean that your local council can recycle it. You have to take notice of the number inside the arrows. Often numbers 4 and above cannot be recycled in your area. Also the symbol will probably relate to the packaging rather than the product inside.
Even if a product is recyclable or has a good energy rating this does not mean it is good for the environment. A washing machine may use less energy but it might also use more water and its manufacture may create toxic pollution. This is why environmentalists call for a whole life cycle analysis of products.
Eco-labels that purport to include life cycle analysis are not beyond criticism. They usually only consider some phases of a particular product in terms of their environmental performance in comparison with similar products and omit other phases such as the impacts of raw material extraction, particularly where similar products require the same raw materials. This process is not transparent to the consumer.
Rather than identifying products that are environmentally benign, eco-labels tend to recognise products that are merely better than competing products. For example, an SUV may be labelled as being fuel efficient but still be less fuel efficient than other types of cars. However, consumers tend to assume an eco-label means that the product does not harm the environment but this is not necessarily the case.
In Australia, Woolworths claimed its Select paper products such as toilet paper and kitchen towels were made of 'sustainable forest fibre' and this was supported by "an an official-looking logo and environmental management system (ISO14001) certification. Yet this particular certification is about ongoing improvements to
the management process, rather than guaranteeing a high level of environmental performance or sustainable forestry."