Ecolabelling – Know Your Environmental & Social Product Labels

Do You Look for These Eco Labels While Shopping?

Do you know what they mean…

About Eco Labels

Ecolabelling refers to the small seals usually found around the edges of products that denote product attributes such as certified organic, fair trade, or cruelty free.  These eco labels are a form of sustainability measurement that help consumers make decisions while shopping.

There are over 460 eco labels, but only a handful are widespread among the products we see in store. In order to display an eco label, products must be certified by a third party with strict qualification standards. However, there are some eco labels created by the company themselves so it’s important to know which ones are credible and which ones are likely biased.

All of the eco labels outlined below are third party certifications. This guide will help you recognize and understand the most common eco labels so you can choose more responsible products.

Common Eco Labels for Food Products

usda-organicThis USDA Organic eco label is the most recognizable. For a product to get this seal the ingredients must be 95% or more certified organic.

Certified organic ingredients are free of synthetic additives like chemical fertilizers, pesticides and dyes, and can’t be processed using industrial solvents, irradiation, or genetic engineering. USDA has made a few exceptions to the rule however, such as with additives in processed goods like enzymes in yogurt, pectin in fruit jams, and baking soda in baked goods.

Many have argued that the standards for the USDA certification are loose, but products with this eco label are much closer to being healthy and responsible than their counterparts. You should also keep an eye out for the following claims that can only be made if these requirements are met:

  • “made with organic” – This means at least 70% of the ingredients are organic but the rest do not need to meet organic standards.
  • “100% organic” – All ingredients meet the USDA organic requirements


Although the USDA Organic certification prohibits the use of genetically modified organisms, many food products also have the NonGMO Project verification as well. As the name suggests, this eco label verifies a product’s ingredients are not genetically modified. The Non GMO Project has a thorough testing process for all product ingredients which is conducted annually. This eco label offers the most thorough verification available for non GMO.

Watch out for “GMO free” or other non GMO claims that are not backed by a third party certification. If you want to be sure you’re supporting a business that actively avoids he use of genetically modified organisms, look for this eco label. Also, not all products that are verified sport the label, but you can double check with the NonGMO Project site to make sure.

Fair Trade Eco Labels

When you purchase fair trade certified products, you are supporting human rights for workers around the world that have historically been exploited. The mission of fair trade is to ensure that small farm owners and agricultural operations receive a fair price for their products. Fair trade also means all the workers are paid a fair price and are guaranteed good working conditions.

Fair trade eco labels are most commonly found on food items but aren’t limited to food. Some textiles are starting to sport the eco label to show they have used fair trade ingredients. Here are the most common fair trade labels to look for:


The Fair Trade Certified eco label is issued by Fair Trade USA, a third party non profit certification body that audits suppliers to ensure they meet minimum wage and working condition standards. Their programs help to protect farmers in third world countries from being exploited and they emphasize sustainable practices.

Best explained by them, “We provide farmers in developing nations the tools to thrive as international business people. Instead of creating dependency on aid, we use a market-based approach that gives farmers fair prices, workers safe conditions, and entire communities resources for fair, healthy and sustainable lives. We seek to inspire the rise of the Conscious Consumer and eliminate exploitation.”


FairTrade International facilitates trade partnerships to ensure producers get a fair price for their products. Traditionally, small scale farmers in poor countries have been exploited because they have little or no bargaining power with large established purchasers. They not only facilitate fair trade but also support standards for hired labor, democracy, and transparency among developing communities.



Similar to the previous eco labels, the Fair for Life certification aims to support human rights through their work. Fair for Life certified products ensure farmers receive a fair share of profits and workers have fair working conditions. They also foster programs to provide the means for social community projects and empowerment of the people.



The Rainforest Alliance eco label certifies products that originate on or have ingredients that come from a farm or forest operation. The certification criteria for the label is designed to conserve wildlife, safeguard soils and waterways, protect workers and their communities, and support long-term sustainability. This eco label can be found on coffee, chocolate, tea, fruit, flowers, paper products, furniture, and even on some tourism lodges.


Common Eco Labels for Electronic Products


Energy Star is one of the most recognized eco labels as it is one of the oldest. Like the USDA Organic label, Energy Star is government backed – the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is the issuer. This eco label signifies energy efficiency for products and even homes and commercial/industrial buildings. For products to receive the Energy Star certification they have to meet the energy efficiency requirements established by the EPA.

Each product category has its own set of requirements, which are revised regularly. Essentially, the Energy Star label is awarded to the most energy efficient products in their class. As technology advances the requirements change, so products need to continually improve to meet the standard year after year.

While the Energy Star eco label doesn’t provide discrete values or ratings, it does provide an indication for products leading in energy efficiency which helps when deciding what to buy. You can lookup all Energy Star certified products here.


EPEAT  (Elecronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) is a rating system that uses criteria to register products that are manufactured with less toxic content, are easily recycled, and are more energy efficient. This is a label you may not see on a physical product in the store, but is sometimes displayed when shopping online. There are three levels in the EPEAT rating system – Bronze, Silver, Gold. And yes, in case you are wondering… Your Mac Book is certified Gold. You can search products and companies here: EPEAT Search.

Other Types of Eco Labels to Look For

b-corporationThe B Corp eco label is a certification for corporations with a goal of using business to solve social and environmental problems. A B Corp is to business as fair trade certification is to coffee.

Unlike traditional corporations, social and environmental responsibility are built into the framework and mission of the certified B Corps so money is not the only factor that dictates decision making. To maintain their status, B Corporations are held to comprehensive and transparent social and environmental performance standards.

Some notable corporations that have joined the movement include Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s, New Belgium Brewing, and Couchsurfing… So whether you feel like drinking a beer, eating some ice cream, or traveling, you can support responsible business while you do so!  Find out if your favorite brands are certified B Corps here: Find a B Corp

cradle-to-cradle-certificationCradle to Cradle is another eco label with multiple tiers: Basic, Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum. Each product assessed by Cradle to Cradle is measured against five criteria which are combined for an overall score:

  • Material Health
  • Material Utilization
  • Revewable Energy & Carbon Management
  • Water Stewardship
  • Social Fairness

Cradle to Cradle has certified a wide variety of products including furniture, health and beauty products, cleaning supplies, and some apparel. You can browse the certified products and their ratings on the Cradle to Cradle website.


Looking for eco labels is a great way to identify socially and environmentally responsible products. While these marks aren’t a complete sustainability rating for products by any means, they do help determine the social value of products which makes shopping responsibly much easier.

Be careful though! Not all labels on packaging are authentic. If you find an eco label and aren’t sure what it means, the best place to search is the Eco Label Index. If you don’t find it there then it’s probably not a valid label.

What are your go-to eco labels?




I am a minimalist, environmentalist, and conscious consumer with a background in environmental studies, conservation, and tech. I founded prch to help others be more sustainable and realize an alternative to consumerism.