Environmental Labelling Programs - Ecolabels
A consumer's guide to common environmental labels and claims in Canada
Printable Version (PDF Version, 999 KB, 7 pages)
Table of contents
- Environmental Claims
- Environmental Labelling Programs - Ecolabels
- Other Labels with Environmental Considerations
- More Information
About This Publication
Cat. No. Iu23-36/2012E-PDF
Consumers are increasingly interested in the environmental impact of the goods and services they buy. Manufacturers and retailers have responded by providing information on the environmental benefits of their products, on labels or in advertisements. When it is meaningful, accurate, and comparable, this information can be an important tool for consumers. They can act on this information and express their preferences when making purchase decisions, which in turn can encourage manufacturers to innovate and provide more environmentally friendly products.
Some claims consider environmental impacts through the entire life cycle of a product or service, beginning with the initial extraction of raw materials, through to the production, distribution and use of the product, and ending with its disposal after use. Other claims focus on a limited number of environmental aspects, such as energy efficiency in use, or product degradability. Manufacturers may make use of certified labelling schemes and logos such as “ecolabels,” or, instead, choose to make environmental claims that don’t necessarily involve independent verification. In either case, it is not always obvious to consumers what specific environmental claims mean, or for them to know what assurances exist, if any, regarding their accuracy.
A Canadian consumer may come across a wide variety of environmental labelling schemes and types of claims. The following guide aims to explain the meaning of some of the common types of labels and claims and to point to sources of more detailed information.
Self-declared environmental claims can be made by manufacturers, importers, distributors, or any person who promotes a product, service or business interest who is likely to benefit from the product’s environmental claims. These claims are usually based on a single attribute (for example, a manufacturer’s claim that a product is "biodegradable") without taking into account the environmental impact of a product’s entire life cycle, and without independent verification or certification by a third party.
In partnership with the Canadian Standards Association, the Competition Bureau, an independent law enforcement agency of the Government of Canada, has released guidelines for business which focus on self-declared environmental claims: Environmental Claims: A guide for industry and advertisers. The guidelines provide businesses with the tools they need to ensure their advertising practices are not misleading,1 which ultimately improves the accuracy of environmental claims in the marketplace.
However, the guidelines are not regulations,2 and deviations from the Guide might not, in and of themselves, represent a contravention of the Competition Act and/or the labelling statutes enforced by the Competition Bureau. Environmental claims that raise concerns under these statutes may be examined on a case-by-case basis, and each case will be assessed on its own merits. Consumers may find the guidelines helpful when trying to evaluate environmental claims. It is nevertheless up to the consumer to evaluate the pertinence of the information that is associated with environmental claims for products and services.
Claims of “… free”
(For example: CFCs-free, Chlorine-free, alcohol-free)
Substance “free” claims need to be literally true, and cannot convey a general impression that is false or misleading.
Example: aerosol containers that promote they are CFC-free despite the fact that CFCs have been legally banned for more than 30 years and that all aerosols are CFC-free. It’s a claim that is true, but doesn’t reveal a useful environmental distinction between products.3 This could be considered misleading.
Example: a claim that a product is free of a certain chemical and is safe for the environment but fails to disclose that it contains a different harmful chemical, could be considered deceptive. [Guidelines p. 11]
Claims of “Sustainable”
Sustainability can be measured only over a very long period and there are no definitive methods for measuring sustainability or confirming its accomplishment at this time. Therefore, no claim of achieving sustainability should be made. Claims that refer to specific, registered management systems are sometimes acceptable provided that they can be verified.
Example: This wood comes from a forest that was certified to a sustainable forest management standard [i.e., a sustainable forest management standard published by the Canadian Standards Association, Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), or the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification schemes (PEFC). [Guidelines p. 11-12]
Claims of “Compostable”
“Compostable” claims would be appropriate on products or packages that will break down or become part of usable compost in a safe and timely manner. For composting, a timely manner is approximately the same time it takes for composting organic compounds like leaves, grass, and food. Compostability claims should indicate if it is suitable for home composting or limited to municipal composting programs, whether all or part of the product is compostable, if there are any risks to composting the product, and should be qualified if facilities are not available to a reasonable proportion4 of purchasers, potential purchasers and users. [Guidelines p. 32-34]
Claims of “Degradable”
The term “degradable” refers to a characteristic of a product or packaging that, with respect to specific conditions, allows it to break down to a specific extent within a certain time [CAN/CSA-ISO 14021, Clause 7.3.1: Guidelines p.35]. This includes all types of degradability, such as photodegradability and biodegradability. Degradability claims should be supported by proper scientific testing, incorporate a reasonable timeframe and consider how consumers are likely to dispose of the product. A claim that a product is biodegradable should be made only if it would be true in the circumstances in which the product is likely to be disposed of and if no substances are released in concentrations harmful to the environment.
Biodegradable products destined for landfill should not make such claims due to degradability limitations, as most substances need light or oxygen to degrade, neither of which is available if the product is placed in a landfill. [Guidelines p. 36]
Example: Biodegradable claims for products that go down the drain, like shampoos/body washes or detergents, should be supported with tests that prove the product degrades in wastewater treatment systems. [Guidelines p. 36]
Claims of “Recyclable" and "Recycled Content"
Recyclable claims are only appropriate for products, packaging or associated components that can be diverted from the waste stream and collected, processed and returned to use in the form of raw materials or products. If collection programs or drop-off facilities are not conveniently available to a reasonable proportion of purchasers, potential purchasers and users, then qualified claims conveying the limited availability of collection facilities must be used. Generalized qualifications, such as “Recyclable where facilities exist” are not adequate.
Example: This container is recyclable through the blue box program in Southern Ontario and at recycling depots in Winnipeg and Edmonton [Guidelines p. 43]
Recycled content refers to the proportion (by mass) of recycled material in a product or packaging. Only material diverted from the waste stream during manufacturing (pre-consumer material5) and from consumer and other commercial, institutional end-users (post-consumer materials) can be considered as recycled content. The percentage of recycled content can be expressed as a written statement, or as a numerical percentage in the Mobius loop or immediately adjacent to the symbol. [Guidelines p. 25, 42, 44-46]
This product is made of 30% recycled content and is recyclable.
The Mobius loop6 should only be used for claims of recycled content and claims of recyclability. When the Mobius loop is used to claim “recycled content”, the percentage of recycled content must be identified in order to avoid the impression that the symbol refers to the recyclability of a product. Mobius loops used to designate both recyclability and recycled content simultaneously must be accompanied by an explanatory statement supporting both claims.
The Mobius loop may apply to the product or the packaging. However, if there is any potential for confusion about whether it applies to the product or the packaging, the symbol should be accompanied by an explanatory statement.
Comparative claims (for example, either between competing products, or between “new” versus “old” versions) must be accurate and verifiable, and always require an explanatory statement that is clear and precise about the nature of the extent of the improvement and the basis for the comparison.
Example: A statement such as “This product uses less energy” is not clear enough. “This product uses 20% less energy than our previous model” would be an appropriate way to make such a claim. [Guidelines p.29-30]
Environmental claims that are vague or nonspecific, or which broadly imply that a product is environmentally beneficial or environmentally benign, should not be used unless they are accompanied by statements that provide support for the claim. Claims that are vague or of a general nature, such as “safe for the environment” or “non-polluting” also require more comprehensive proof than fact-specific claims, such as “contains no chlorine”. Claims such as “environmentally friendly”, “ecological (eco)”, and “green” are examples of vague claims and should be reserved for products/services whose life cycles have been thoroughly examined and verified.
Example: “This product is ozone-friendly” is too vague.
“This product has replaced its aerosol ingredients with an alternative that does less harm to the ozone layer” would be preferable. [Guidelines p. 9-10 and 14-15]
4 If limited to municipal composting programs, at least half the population has access to collection facilities. Environmental claims: A guide for industry and advertisers p. 31 (Return to text)
5 Pre-consumer material is material diverted from the waste stream during a manufacturing process. Excluded is reutilization of materials such as rework, regrind or scrap generated in a process and capable of being reclaimed within the same process that generated it. This requirement is designed to limit the claim to material that has been deliberately collected and returned to an off-site producer for reclamation. (Return to text)
Ecolabel programs authorize the use of environmental logos on products or services that meet a strict set of criteria. These ecolabels indicate an overall environmental preferability of a product or service within a particular product or service category based on life cycle “considerations,” although not necessarily a more complex full life cycle assessment. Some ecolabels are created and managed on a national level while others are international in scope. They may be administered by government bodies or private sector labelling standards organizations, and typically involve certification by legitimate and independent third party organizations.
The Canadian EcoLogo Program, also referred to as “Environmental Choice,” helps consumers identify environmentally preferable products and services. EcoLogo is based on the International Standards Organization ISO 14024 standard for ecolabelling and is managed by TerraChoice. Products that display the EcoLogo have been verified by a third party to ensure their environmental claims are credible. Currently over 7,000 products are EcoLogo certified, including: paint, insulation, flooring, cleaning products, paper, tissue, electricity, printing inks, office furniture and equipment.
A number of other international ecolabels may also appear on products found on Canadian shelves, including the Green Seal (United States), the Flower (European Union Ecolabel), Blue Angel (Germany) and the Nordic Swan (Scandinavia). Below are the logos for these most recognized third party-verified ecolabels consumers may come across in Canada:
Energy labels can help consumers identify products that make the most efficient use of energy, and therefore both save on operating costs, and, by reducing energy consumption, help the environment.
The international ENERGY STAR symbol can only be found on products that are among the most energy-efficient on the market. Only manufacturers and retailers who sign an Administrative Arrangement with Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), and provide the results of third party product testing to meet ENERGY STAR criteria can label their products with this symbol. ENERGY STAR-qualified products include: major appliances, heating, cooling and ventilation equipment, lighting products, consumer electronics (for example, televisions, audio and video equipment, telephones), office equipment (for example, computers, printers, copiers), windows, doors, and skylights. For more information, visit the Natural Resources Canada’s Office of Energy Efficiency website.
EnerGuide labels list a product’s estimated annual energy consumption and compare it to the energy performance of similar products.
EnerGuide is a Government of Canada initiative that rates the energy consumption and efficiency of products such as: major household appliances, cooling and ventilation equipment, new houses and automobiles.
For more information, visit the EnerGuideNatural Resources Canada’s Office of Energy Efficiency website.
The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is an international non-profit organisation that works with fisheries, seafood companies, scientists, conservation groups and the public to promote environmental choice in seafood. Products bearing the Marine Stewardship Council label come from fisheries certified as having met the MSC standard for sustainable fishing. Fisheries meeting this standard must demonstrate sustainable fish stocks, minimize environmental impact, and have an effective management system in place that meets all local and international fishery laws.
The Canada Organic logo may be used on food products certified as meeting the Canadian standard for organic production and that contain at least 95% organic ingredients. The standard outlines the principles of sound organic farming systems throughout the production, processing, storage, transportation, labelling and marketing stages, including sustainable management practices which avoid damage to the environment, and ensure the ethical treatment of livestock. For more information on Canada’s organic products regulations and standards, please visit the Canadian Food Inspection Agency website.
The provinces of Quebec and British Columbia also have organic certification systems in place, administered by the Conseil des appellations réservées et des termes valorisants and the Certified Organic Associations of British Columbia.
Some products originating from outside of Canada may come with logos from the United States National Organic Program or the European Union organic farming logo. While rules vary somewhat from the Canadian program, these programs also require at least 95% of the product’s ingredients to be produced organically.
Third-party forest certification signals that the forest products being purchased come from sustainably managed forests. Governments in Canada support forest certification as a tool for improving performance and demonstrating the country’s sustainable forest management record, however, they do not endorse one system over another.7 Three internationally recognized schemes exist in Canada:
The CSA and SFI have also been endorsed by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes, a non-profit, nongovernmental organization that supports sustainable forest management globally.
Fair trade schemes support sustainable development in the developing world by setting standards that ensure that the conditions of production of all certified products are socially and economically fair, and environmentally responsible. Fairtrade Canada, a non-profit certification organization, promotes fair trade certified products to improve the livelihood of developing world farmers and workers. It is also responsible for certifying that Canadian products bearing the Fairtrade certification marks meet international Fairtrade standards.
The Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) introduced its resin coding system in order to identify the various resins found in plastic bottles and rigid containers and to make sorting and recycling plastic bottles and containers easier for recyclers in Canada. [Guidelines p. 23] The code has no other purpose. Despite the similarity in appearance between the SPI symbols and the Mobius loop, the presence of an SPI code does not indicate that the product is recyclable or is recycled locally. Nor is it meant as a guide for safe use for food or beverage contact, or as an indicator of the intended use of the bottle or container. Recycling firms have varying standards for the plastics they accept, and therefore not all types of plastic are recycled at every facility. Consumers will need to check with their municipality to determine what types of plastics are collected.
- Global Ecolabelling Network
- Consumer Reports: Greener Choices Eco-labels Center
- David Suzuki Foundation – Eco-label Guide
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