12/06/2012 05:46 pm ET Updated Feb 05, 2013

Eco-labels: Is Design Thinking Bringing Clarity to the Chaos?

For businesses, eco-certification labels are a manifestation of two forces. First, a desire to demonstrate responsibility in an easy to understand, shorthand form. And second, creating market differentiation.

This agenda coincides nicely with increasing public demand for information on how responsibly things are made, used, and disposed of.

It's a trend toward transparency that is accelerating -- any brand interested in futureproofing itself should pay close attention.

There is one bugbear. We're overrun with eco-labels -- few of which are universally recognized (quick, name five). And even fewer which are trusted in a Good Housekeeping seal of approval way.

Enter Design Thinking

If designers were presented a problem like this, their answer would be to strip away the superfluous and create clarity around each eco-label's defining attribute.

That's exactly what seems to be happening in the mobile phone business.

I had a conversation with Bill Eyres, Head of Sustainability for UK and Europe at Telefonica. Bill just spoke on the changing eco-label landscape at Sustainable Brands London Conference. As someone dealing firsthand with the evolution of eco-labelling, his insight was uniquely valuable.

"We saw the need to tell a bigger story with the products we sold -- to prove that our claims to environmental responsibility were reflected in how we enabled consumers to choose more sustainable mobile phones." Eyres said. "What we came to realize was that this had to be part of a bigger, more robust approach. We needed to create certification that every handset manufacturer in our category could apply."

Telefonica's early eco-certification program was decidedly narrowcast -- aimed at differentiating the brand from others in the sector. This, however, didn't accelerate sustainability, adoption, or innovation. "The problem with differentiation is that it's exclusive. Only by creating something big enough for everyone to participate in do you create a movement that can accelerate sustainability exponentially -- a truly collaborative way forward."

Global Trends

Anastasia O'Rourke leads Ecolabel Index's Advisory Services. Her thoughts echo those of Mr. Eyres.

"I believe the eco-label jungle is, in fact, slowly being cleared, in terms of definitions and methods." says O'Rourke. "That said, the forecast is for continued growth in terms of the total number of claims and labels on the market."

O'Rourke believes this expansion is a direct reflection of the sustainability movement's increasing depth and breadth. New areas of concern are emerging, and the label movement is following suit.

Even with the expansion, there is an overall trend toward amalgamation, standardization and collaboration.

And if she were to predict where the eco-label movement is heading? "First, continued efforts to monitor impacts 'on the ground' -- ensuring that real environmental benefits come from ecolabels. And second, increasing availability of certification and traceability information to consumers -- through apps, QR codes, and other tools."

The million dollar question -- will the increasing clarity bring business payback? Eyres believes universal eco-standards will enhance innovation, and in turn drive business. It just remains to be seen how it will influence future consumer buying decisions.


Eyres and O'Rourke emphasized the need for simplicity, clarity and standardization in eco-labels -- sentiments straight from the design thinking playbook. If I were to summarize their strongest recommendations, they would be:

1. Don't go it alone -- collaboration floats all boats, and creates standards that are universally accepted, and understood by consumers
2. Understand that consumers don't understand -- dig into the label's acceptance - enlist help from someone like the Eco-Label index
3. Think like a designer -- how can you reduce the amount of confusion by clearing out the clutter, and letting the brand shine?