These days, there's a lot of approbation labels for a lot of different products:

and a lot more for a lot more different products.

I've been observing that "the average consumer" is greatly overwhelmed by the sheer amount of such labels. The focus of these labels seems to have been on making people more aware of the socio-economic, ethical and ecological impact of their products, in which many have (partially) succeeded.

However, in my opinion, what is really lacking in the other effort of having "the average consumer" make better decisions, is a sort of over-arching label that summarizes the ecological footprint, ethics, socio-economical impact, etc. of any kind of product. A sort of star-rating system that is universally applied to all products and is not limited by artificial things that are irrelevant for many modern products, like country borders, company specifics, economic differences between countries, product niches, etc.

However impossible it may sound to make such a system with any degree of accuracy, I still think it would be a great push towards reducing the amount of "worst" products while increasing the "best", on a global scale. To me it is almost axiomatic that consumers shouldn't have to consider all such factors when purchasing even a simple product. No system that demands that from their consumers will ever really be effective on a global scale.

I think, to be most effective on the largest of scales, consumers just need to take a quick look at some 10-star rating to know whether to buy the product or buy the one next to it that costs the same but has 2 stars more.

My question: what would it take to make such a label, and get it recognized by the right organizations/instances/governments/... to get it on every product everywhere? Where to even get started?

Or, just to start on a slightly smaller scale, what did it take to start the labels mentioned above? How does one create such a thing where none exists?

First of all, I think there are two very good reasons why there are many different labels that rate only a specific aspect of a product or look at a limited set of products:

  1. It is much easier than taking everything and every product into account.

    A lot of research is needed to continuously assess products. Products change all the time so your rating should be revised often as well. If you want your rating to be anything more than a very rough estimate, you'll have to limit yourself to certain products, a geographical location, or a small set of features to rate, or else the amount of data may be overwhelming.

  2. Different people care about different things.

    Someone who feels that the well-being of laborers is very important might not care for animal welfare or vice versa, so one specific label may be more interesting to a person than one label covering multiple aspects.

Obviously a global multi-aspect label has to take these two points into account. Here is a list of things I think you will need when you start such a label from scratch:

  1. A clear and well-defined set of rules on how you derive the rating of a product.

    The question here is how precise do you want to be and what is technologically possible? For example, LCAs provides a good measure of many (environment-related) sustainability aspects but are only available for 'simple' products like glass bottles, diapers and clothing, not for more complex products. Also LCAs are geographically dependent so that's also something to take into account. A second question is how do you derive the exact score of a product? For example, what will be the overall rating of a product with a good score on ecological footprint but very low on socio-economics?

  2. Reliable methods to gather the necessary information.

    Deciding on a rating system is one thing, using it is another. The difficulty here is from where do you get the information you want and how do you get it? There are many companies that do not disclose information about how a product is made exactly, which raw materials are being used in their products or where they buy the materials. You'll probably want companies to cooperate and provide this information, but what about products from companies that don't cooperate?

  3. People who will reliably assess and rate the products in a uniform manner.

    To rate all products all over the world you will need lots of people doing this. Perhaps some sort of co-creation / wisdom-of-the-crowds scheme is the way to go here, but you'll have to be careful for manipulation because if the label is succesful and widely recognised the stakes may be high for certain manufacturers and sellers.

  4. A way to inform the public about the rating given to products

    You can try and get a product's rating displayed on the product itself, but manufacturers that make products with low ratings will most likely not cooperate. Alternatively you can try to convince third-party sellers (e.g. supermarkets, shops) to disclose this information and display it on their shelves. Of course you can always put the information online but this is probably less effective as you won't reach spontaneous shoppers and people without internet access.

  5. Support from the public.

    Without public support, your chances of convincing companies, organisations and/or governments to cooperate and getting it certified will most likely fail.

  6. Funding

    Obviously you need capital to somehow get all of this started.

As to getting the label certified globally, I don't really know how you should approach that. Different countries/governments/organisations have different goals and ideas, so I suspect many won't be interested or won't agree with the way you rate products. Also a well-recognized and globally-accepted label won't be in the interest of many manufacturers so it's likely that several companies will start a big lobbying campaign against the label if it becomes succesful.

One final note, rather than starting a global multi-aspect rating label from scratch, I think it would be much easier to try and cooperate with existing labels and see if you can combine the most reliable and useful labels and use them to derive your own rating.

  • +1: I know I will run into a lot of resistance when starting "the one true label", for exactly the reasons you mentioned. Yet I think it is a necessity; for example, the label "organic" is clearly steering consumers in the right direction, even though organic cheese is a completely different thing from organic potatoes. The "one true label" will not do away with any existing labels, it will "simply" be a sort of averaging scheme for multiple labels that each consider a single, different aspect. – Rody Oldenhuis May 13 '13 at 12:50
  • Thanks for the steps though. Do you have references for all this? – Rody Oldenhuis May 13 '13 at 13:06
  • 1
    @RodyOldenhuis I welcome and admire your efforts! I've based my answer on the information I read in a book on information transparency as a way to force manufacturers to improve their products (can't remember the exact title right now, but will add it when I remember), as well as on information I read about a Dutch initiative called Rankabrand. Rankabrand searches the websites and year reports of companies to find information on labour conditions, environmental practices and climate change initiatives. I'll try and see if I can get more detailed references later. – THelper May 13 '13 at 13:29
  • The title of the book I mentioned in my comment above is 'Ecological Intelligence: The Hidden Impacts of What We Buy' by Daniel Goleman – THelper Aug 26 '14 at 11:01

I guess making such a label is something that anyone with a phone and a bit of money can do. Recognition from both manufacturers and customers is really "all you need", but anyone involved in marketing knows how difficult that is.

The main problem I see with an evaluative label is the following

How do you convince the manufacturer to stick your 2/10-star rating label on their products?

The German consumer organisation "Stiftung Warentest" is heavily funded and does just what you want to do with the sustainable aspect removed. They test products for how "good" they are. Products then receive a mark (grade) and these results are published in a magazine (which costs money). If the product gets a good mark, the manufacturer may decide to stick a label on their products. If not, well, then nobody knows how good or bad the product is and the consumer has to find out for himself (e.g. via reviews, personal testing, etc.).

The appeal for making labels like FairTrade, MSC, FSC, etc., is obvious: The manufacturer will likely be easy to convince to stick the label on his products. (As long as you can convince him, that you are a label the consumer cares about, that is.) This alone requires a great marketing campaign, preferably with TV spots that explain even to the layman, why your label is something worth paying attention to. Anything more ambitious (like the organic labels) require support from the government and, presumably, a very serious source of funding.

On a small scale, I think you can already work wonders with marketing products, which you know to be good, never mind whether they have some "organic", "sustainably produced", "whatever" label. Telling the customers about the company and the production process is becoming more and more fashionable, but there is an inherent appeal to sustainably produced products. I would say any marketing campaign for these type of products (which are deemed to be successful, if done correctly) will already change consumer behaviour, which of course is your motivation for creating this label in the first place.

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