Ecolabeling and the Culture of Sustainability

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We have all heard of “going green,” or a “greener” way of living life, but what does that actually mean? Going green can be as simple as recycling or as involved as living a trash-free lifestyle. For companies, one way to go green is ecolabeling.

Ecolabeling is a voluntary method of environmental performance certification that is practiced around the world. You have more than likely seen ecolabeling before but may not have realized it. Examples include USDA Organic, Energy Star, Certified Vegan, and many others.

In addition to being completely voluntary, a product must adhere to ten key principles in order to participate in ecolabeling. Some of the principles a product must meet include complying with environmental and other relevant legislation, performing its intended function and being in great shape for consumer use (people want to be green AND have things that work), and certification must be based on science and engineering principles. 

Companies must submit the products they want ecolabeled for testing. If a product passes third-party inspection, the company will be allowed to use the distinctive ecolabel symbol after paying a licensing fee. Use of the symbol is watched closely by the managing agency to prevent misuse and misleading product informationThis emphasis on credibility has allowed ecolabeling to become popular and trusted, even without a government mandate.

Of course, there are also roles for the government, program managers, retailers, and especially consumers. Consumers are the ones who provide demand, and given the rising appeal of sustainable products (and companies whose missions reflect that same ideology), ecolabeling is a trend that looks like it’s here to stay — so long as that credibility remains.


Color Your Life “Green”

While it is great for companies to go green, individuals can also make sustainable choices in their personal lives. Though the following examples are focused on what a single person can do, sustainability — and by extension, corporate sustainability — is a cultural adjustment rather than a passing trend. In order for companies to embrace these processes, it starts in the hearts and minds of individuals.

Recycling and Reusing

Yes, everyone knows about recycling in the traditional sense. They know that they should do it, but sadly, many do not. It’s much easier to do — and do well — if you know what is and is not recyclable. The list of recyclable products is not as simple as we would like to think. Just because something is made out of paper, does not automatically mean it can be thrown in the blue bin. Is it wax covered? Does it have food on it? Many common items like plastic grocery bags, take-out food containers, styrofoam, and shredded paper are not recyclable. Luckily, another third-party initiative called How2Recycle is making recycling identification much easier on the consumer end, especially as more companies adopt their standards.

But what about the stuff you can’t recycle? When combating wastefulness, removing as much as you can from the waste stream through recycling or repurposing helps the process along tremendously. After all, it’s much easier to use something that still has value before it’s tossed into a landfill than trying to dig it up later. There are plenty of resources out there on how to repurpose junk you have lying around; Pinterest is a treasure trove of instructionals ranging from fun arts and crafts to practical repurposing like building furniture and shelving. And if you can’t make use of it, someone else might. Donating old toys, furniture, electronics, and clothing — or selling them, if you can find a buyer — is another way to breathe life into used goods while keeping your life (and wallet) in good order.

This same analytical thinking can be used in the office: instead of throwing out old equipment like computers, printers, and other supplies, could you wipe them of sensitive data and then sell them to employees or donate them to another organization that needs equipment but can’t afford it brand new? Instead of one-sided printed email memos, why not use both sides — or forego printing them out altogether so you can cut down on ink, paper, and electricity costs?

While it might take some time and sweat equity to adjust, sustainability is all about keeping what’s essential and minimizing what isn’t. With some creativity and thrift, you might find yourself enjoying how much time, money, and resources you save without compromising much quality of life for both yourself and everything around you, environment included.

Efficient Energy Use

Whether you’re one person or a corporation of hundreds, energy use is arguably the most significant contributor to one’s carbon footprint. Luckily, minimizing your electric bill is good for both your wallet and the environment. If you can afford to make some upfront investment, think about updating your space to run on cleaner energy sources. Some electric companies even allow their customers to opt-in to green energy programs. While these might cost a bit more month to month, the extra money goes towards supporting utility investment in power sources like hydro, wind, and solar energy. If you’re running on a tighter budget, however, you can always manage your energy use proactively, either powering down or unplugging electric equipment that’s not in use to avoid vampiring power.

Climate control such as heating and air conditioning can also significantly impact your energy usage, especially if you live in a place that has all four seasons. Using less of either might not sound fun, but the incentive of saving about 3% off your energy bill for every degree might be too good to pass up. If your home or office has an electronic thermostat equipped with timers, powering them down depending on usage and time of day can also help rein in your energy costs. After all, you don’t need to keep your space fully air-conditioned if no one’s there to enjoy it.

Proper insulation is a huge factor in energy usage as well. Beyond what’s in your walls, materials that trap heat (think of a plush carpet that’s been laid out in the afternoon sun) can help retain warmth, though not as efficiently. Still, every little bit helps, especially if that means minimizing your expenses as well as the burden these energy costs are placing on our utility infrastructure.

Consumer Buying Power

If you’re tired of waiting for pro-sustainability regulations, remember that consumers consent to business practices with their money. What you buy and how you spend your money sends a message to producers. It’s the reason why ecolabeling is a voluntary step that many companies have found worth investing in. It’s this “altruistic capitalism” that has also driven the recent local food revolution and the rise of sustainable product options available on the market. Shying away from companies that seem indifferent or unconcerned for the well-being of their customers or their communities and environment can send a strong message.

The shift to local, smaller businesses also tightens up the supply chain. Aside from the health and economic benefits to be enjoyed by buying things closer to home, a shorter supply route means fewer greenhouse emissions and associated shipping costs for both retailers and customers. Certainly, it might be easier to buy things at larger grocery stores, but if you can find what you’re looking for while buying directly from the farmer at a local market or produce stand, cutting out the middleman also cuts down on cost. Especially if you are active in the food industry as a farmer, restauranteur, brewer, baker, or one of many other occupations, farmers markets are perfect for networking with local suppliers who not only help keep your supply costs down but share in your marketing campaigns and story as well. For customers who care about supporting their communities, these connections are invaluable.


Taking Green to the Extreme

If all the above is a little “been there, done that,” take a read at some ways people have taken their love of preservation and going green to what some may see as extreme: dumpster diving, living in a tiny house, or even attempting to live with zero waste. Mind you, we’re not advocating sifting through the curbside trash bins on your block, but remember, there are always ways to do more with less — and you don’t need to conjure up the stereotypical unwashed hippie to get there. On the contrary, sustainable culture is seen as a necessary component for the clean, sleek image of a truly modern person or company. Why else would companies voluntarily add on an extra process for the sake of ecolabeling?

Regardless of your own feelings about the topics of climate change and environmentalism, sustainability — at its core — is about mitigating waste. If you want your company to last into the foreseeable future, it cannot waste more than produces value. It’s simple economics to keep your costs below your revenue; straying away from that fundamental fact will only cause hardship in the long run. With that in mind, just as the marketplace always seeks balances, we must give back what we take out. In this case, savvy 21st century business owners that intend on their company living into the next century must adjust their budget to include the environmental, physical costs as well their financial bottom line. If they don’t, their customers or the world itself is bound to hold them accountable. Between you and I, I’d rather be sustainable by choice than have either force it upon me.


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