8 October 2008

Evaluating environmental labeling

An evaluation of the environmental benefit of environmental labeling is underway in Mistra´s research programme Entwined. What is the potential, and does labeling provide guidance? Initial results indicate that labeling is complex and doesn´t easily lead to sustainable consumption or more environmentally-friendly products.

There are a number of different product-labeling systems that aim to provide guidance to consumers. In Sweden we are accustomed to, for example, the KRAV label, the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation´s Swan, the Nordic Swan and the EU flower, to name a few.

One of the questions that Mistra´s research programme Environment and Trade in a World of Interdependence (Entwined) has studied is how effective environmental labeling of different products is. The question is whether environmental labeling can guide consumers to make the best environmental choice in a broader perspective. This can, for example, be about more than choosing the KRAV-labeled beef. From some environmental perspectives, chicken may be a better choice.

Carbon-dioxide costs
“What environmental product labeling really says about a specific product varies greatly. Some labels indicate, for example, how much carbon-dioxide emissions a product has ‘cost´ as a result of production and transportation, while another label contains specific production requirements, such as pesticide-free agricultural production. The variations in labeling practices make it difficult for consumers to actually make an environmental choice, because the different labels address different criteria that are often difficult to compare to each other," says Mark Sanctuary, Program Director for Entwined.

Another question that the researchers in Entwined are studying is the effectiveness of an EU proposal. This is about the suggestion that goods produced in countries that are not signatories to the Kyoto Protocol be taxed when they enter the EU. The proposal is intended to protect both the environment and the competitiveness of European business.

Different degrees
“But the question is if this will protect EU industry in an effective way, and if it will lead to reduced carbon-dioxide emissions. Our report shows that different sectors are affected to different degrees, and in different ways. If one, for example, taxes a component in a product, then the production process for that particular component may move to a country that is a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol. That makes calculating how much carbon dioxide is associated with every product and how much should be taxed very complicated to calculate. Many believe that such a system would be difficult to implement. So the question is, how effectively that type of carbon-dioxide taxation would work," says Sanctuary.

Outwardly focused activities
The fourth report on different environmental labeling systems will be presented at an international conference on free-trade agreements, where Entwined will both participate and is a co-organizer. The other organizers are the Trade Standards Practitioners´ Network (financed by the World Bank) and the International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labeling Alliance (ISEAL), a non-governmental organization that has been active since 2001.

“Conferences of this type are important for Entwined, in part for capturing ideas and research advances, but also because they make it possible to reach an international public outside of academia with our results. There is so much research going on where the results remain unknown for the great majority, but we want to contribute to debate with arguments that are supported by facts. That´s why we often participate in similar conferences," says Mark Sanctuary.

Entwined aims to promote dialogue amongst a number of stakeholders. The researchers participate in research conferences and seminars. The programme also connects researchers with different end users, such as the National Board of Trade and other stakeholders that participate in negotiating international agreements. This was the intention when the programme co-organized a larger conference together with GothenburgUniversity in July.

Useful results
One of goals of Entwined is to contribute to developing tools that help Swedish and other European researchers and stakeholders to integrate environmental aspects into international trade agreements. Thomas Hagman, Director of the Trade and Sustainable Development department at the National Board of Trade, believes that collaboration with researchers is important. “We need research that is applicable for us with regard to trade and climate at the policy level, because we, in turn, provide information to the government that then participates in negotiations that result in international trade agreements. We base our analyses of the trade sector in part on sources such as Entwined. For us it is very important that there are researchers that study current issues, such as border taxation adjustments and climate and trade, which Entwined does," says Hagman.

The National Board of Trade participated in the conference that Entwined co-organized in July, and discussions about continued collaboration are underway.


The research programme Entwined is comprised of eight researchers spread across five cities in three countries: Stockholm, Gothenburg, Geneva, Montreal and WashingtonD.C. The programme started in January 2006 and will continue in its first phase through 2009.

Entwined has two primary research areas:

  • International trade agreements and their impact on the environment, with particular emphasis on the World Trade Organization (WTO)
  • Environmental labeling and standards.

Mistra Mistra