Challenge the label

What are sustainability claims?

Sustainability claims are the words or images that are used to set apart responsible products, processes, businesses or services.
They can act as filters that provide people with information about the social and environmental attributes of a product or service, which may affect the decision whether to buy a particular product.
It is therefore important that these claims are truthful and that they convey what has actually been achieved.

What is behind a sustainability claim?

~ With a credible claim determining these is easy ~

There are five universal truths to sustainability claims

Credible sustainability claims are clear, accurate and relevant, and are backed up by systems that are transparent and robust.

1. Clear

The sustainability claim should be easily understood and free from misleading details.

How to tell

The claim conveys what it is referring to, the basis for the claim, which sustainability attributes are covered and how the claim was verified. In some cases not all of this information will be available within the claim itself, but it will be easy to find the answers to these questions elsewhere.

Ask yourself: was I left in doubt about the meaning of the claim, or what it applied to?

Resources

Use the four questions

From looking at the claim, can you tell:

  • What the claim is referring to (product, packaging, ingredient, etc)?
  • What is the basis for making the claim (e.g. met a standard, member, etc)?
  • Which sustainability attributes are covered (social, environmental, and/or economic, and pieces within these)?
  • Whether and how the claim was verified?

If these were not clear, you can try to access further information from their website - then see 'transparency'.

How to check: Could you describe to a colleague what the claim meant, what it referred to and how it was checked?

2. Accurate

The claim must be truthful and based on substantiated evidence.

How to tell

The claim states information that has been substantiated, and evidence is or can be provided to verify the claim.

Ask yourself: Is the claim true? Is there evidence to back up the claim? Where did it come from? Do you trust it? Does it seem too good to be true?

A claim could be more accurate if it states which specific part/component/percentage of the product is sustainable. While more accurate, such claims still need to be backed up by verifiable evidence.

Resources

An accurate claim clearly refers to the underlying evidence. Examples of the evidence behind a claim can be certificates, audit reports, test/lab results, impact reports or evaluations. Often claims are based on compliance with a standard - in which case the claim's accuracy depends on how it reflects compliance with this standard, and whether the product/producer is de facto in compliance with this standard.

Standards systems often publish a list of those that have met the standard, which makes it easy to check the validity of a claim. You can go directly to their website to find the list of permitted users of claims.

Some assurance providers also make a list of certificate holders available:

For example, the full list of companies and businesses which are FSC compliant can be found here.

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) publishes lists of all fisheries certified against its standard, all companies certified for chain of custody, and all products that have been approved to use the MSC's label.

Certified restaurants, Approved ecolabel users, Chain of custody certificate holders, Certified Fisheries

3. Relevant

The claim should be about an issue that is material or significant to the product or business and not a distraction from bigger and more important issues. 

How to tell

Is the claim about one of the biggest sustainability issues for this product or service? Or is it trying to distract you with an ‘easy win’ while glossing over the bigger issues?

Use the resources here, or ask your supplier or a trusted NGO partner to provide information about what the biggest issues are for that product or service, and see if the claim helps to address those issues.

If the claim is based on a standard, the development of the standard should have included an assessment of the biggest issues for the product or process covered - these are sometimes called hotspots and can refer to certain activities or stages in the supply chain where sustainability risks are the highest. You should be able to find information on various standards bodies' websites about how they assessed the key impacts in the life cycle of the product they are addressing.

Remember there may be environmental, social and/or economic factors that are particularly important for each product or business - it's important to check all of these.

Resources

Look directly at standards system's website for information about the issues the standard covers, and how they considered the most important issues when they set the standard.

Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council product category guidance describes the process for assessing most important business impacts, and then provides guidance within categories. You can download the document here - the category guidance is in Chapter 4, though it is worth following the whole process to consider your business's biggest impacts.

The Sustainability Consortium has produced a series of  'Sustainability Insights' (scroll down on link) which provide basic introductions to the core sustainability issues of more than a hundred different products and consumer goods, including various fruits and vegetables, electronics, toys and stationery. More elaborate and detailed assessments are provided through 'Product Sustainability Toolkits' (which can be purchased or acquired by becoming a member).

The WWF has identified the main environmental and social risks for 12 soft commodity sectors (Aquaculture, Beef, Bioenergy, Cotton, Dairy, Palm Oil, Soy, Sugar, Timber, Pulp & Paper, Wild-Caught Fish, Other Terrestrial) in its '2050 Criteria' report. You can download the full report or an overview sheet showing the issues with each commodity, or scroll down to click on each commodity in turn. After you click a commodity, scroll down and on the right is a very helpful one-pager highlighting the issues for that commodity. 

Forced- and Child Labour specific:

The non-profit Verite has compiled a 'Forced Labor Commodity Atlas'. It provides a brief analysis of the risk of forced labour for 19 commodities such as cacao, palm oil, bricks, charcoal, diamonds, and rubber. The Atlas also summarizes case-studies and lists further relevant documentation per commodity. Click on the pictures, or select a commodity from the list below.
The US Department of Labour's 'List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor' allows businesses to assess if a product from a certain country has a high risk of being produced by child labour or forced labour. The list can be sorted by country or by type of good/product.

Environmental - apparel products specific:

The Materials Sustainability Index (MSI) developed by the  Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) grades the environmental impact of product materials used in apparel and footwear products. It assesses materials such as leather and polyester in four categories (chemistry, energy and greenhouse gas intensity, water and land use intensity, and physical waste) and gives each material a score on its overall environmental sustainability. Click on 'View the materials list' to see the index, and select a material from this list to see a detailed breakdown of its score.

~ Based on a system that is ~

4. Transparent

Information about the system behind the sustainability claim must be freely available and easily accessible.

How to tell

The development and content of the criteria the claim is based on, how the system is governed, how the claim was verified, information about impact of the system and how stakeholders can engage in the system, must be freely available for anyone interested to learn more.

When you visit the website linked to the claim (standard owner, company, assurance provider), are you able to easily find more information about the claim (e.g. information about what the claim is based on, who decides whether the claim can be used, how the system is governed, how the claims was verified, is the system having impact, how can stakeholders engage, etc)?

Resources

Look directly at the website linked to the claim (standard owner, company, assurance providers, etc), to find answers to these questions. Some claims are based on environmental product declarations, which should be publicly available as well.

If a claim is based on a standard system, code of conduct or other system, information on transparency can be extracted from the ITC StandardsMap, a tool that is also useful to verify if the claim is robust. When using the tool, first select the standard you want to check, then click 'Quick Scan'. Once you click the 'Processes' tab, info about the transparency of the scheme is available when scrolling down towards the bottom of the list. (See further information about StandardsMap in the Robust section below).

5. Robust

There are controls in place regarding when the claim can be used and by whom, and clear criteria to be met before a claim can be used.

How to tell

Ask - are there any controls on who can use the claim? Are there set criteria before the claim can be used?

There are many approaches that can be taken to achieve a robust system. To assess whether a system is robust you may have defined your own internal policies, or you may wish to consult with a credible third party, such as an NGO, a government agency, a standards body or other environmental expert for guidance on what makes a robust claim.

Resources

If your claim is based on a sustainability standard, there are two main bodies that work on the credibility of sustainability standards - ISEAL Alliance and the Global Ecolabelling Network.

The ISEAL Alliance requires its members to subscribe to an overarching set of Credibility Principles, and comply with three Codes

- Code of Good Practice for Setting Social and Environmental Standards

- Code of Good Practice for Assuring Compliance with Social and Environmental Standards

- Code of Good Practice for Assessing the Impacts of Social and Environmental Standards

ISEAL members develop standards for a variety of topics and may consider any combination of social, environmental and economic factors. You can see a list of ISEAL members here and an overview of the criteria that are used to assess the credibility of its members' systems here

ISEAL has also led a global consultation to develop a Sustainability Claims Good Practice Guide for standards systems in setting and controlling the claims about their systems. This is a useful for resource for any organisation that sets a standard that claims are made against. 

 

The Global Ecolabelling Network criteria and product category differ amongst its members, reflecting local and regional variables, but all standards address multiple environmental attributes. The standards are developed to minimise environmental impacts across the entire life cycle of a product or service.

 

Additional useful resources include:

The ITC's (International Trade Centre) T4SD (Trade for Sustainable Development) database contains information on the scope and functioning of approx. 170 standards and codes of conduct, which are often at the basis of sustainability claims. The information in the database has been made available through two main tools: the ITC Standards Map and the Sustainability Compass. Both can provide information about the robustness of claims by looking in detail at the underlying systems - the Sustainability Compass provides a lower level of detail.

The Ecolabel Index is an online database on sustainability standards and labels which currently covers more than 450 initiatives. Only limited info is available for non-paying users (N.b. check the date to ensure information is current).

About Challenge the Label

Sustainability claims have become widespread in the modern marketplace, and with it greenwashing has expanded. The practice of making empty, unfounded or exaggerated sustainability claims risks alienating buyers committed to sustainable development. Not all claims are equal, and the systems behind claims are diverse - claims based on sustainability standards and certification are just one type. For governments, businesses or customers, navigating the claims landscape can feel like a jungle - or even a minefield – full of non-credible options.
The Challenge the Label webpage is a tool for claims users to detangle this busy space and distinguish between credible and non-credible claims. It aims to improve educated decision-making by leading people through the key questions in understanding a claim or label. The Challenge the Label initiative was set up by the ISEAL Alliance, the global membership association for sustainability standards. ISEAL convened a multi-stakeholder Steering Committee to oversee the development of its guidance on sustainability claims. The Committee consists of sustainability experts from government, business, the consumer movement, and leading NGOs and certification initiatives.

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Challenge the Label will be growing as more resources become available, so please keep an eye on this page for updates.
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