Recently consumers have become more discerning in relation to the food they purchase. Although organic products have carried certification labelling for a while, consumers are now questioning other claims on product labels. This has resulted in the expansion of eco-labels which tell consumers something about the way that the food was produced. The eco-label aims to promote products with a reduced environmental impact compared with other products in the same product group. Eco-labels allow farmers and processors to gain recognition for using environmentally-friendly production processes.

Eco-labels are any label or symbol on a product or its packaging that indicate how a product was produced in an environmentally sensitive manner. Organic is the first and most widely recognised eco-label, and regional or country labels that indicate where a product was produced are also relatively common and easily understood helping us to support local producers

One of the original ideas of the eco-labels was to push the food production sector towards more sustainable practices. But the plethora of eco-labelling means consumers often don’t know what each one guarantees. Dolphin safe; Bird friendly; Eco-OK, Fair Trade Certified, Protected Harvest, and Nature’s Friend are but some of the many eco-labels that come under the banner of guilt-free labels. Another drawback is that ‘farm fresh’ and ‘environmentally-friendly’ may look good, but these labels may do nothing to affect food production methods.

Many of these eco-labels are just feel-good slogans that offer no guarantee of real environmental protection. Critics claim the labels’ standards are not rigorous enough and many claims aren’t verified. This often results in consumers paying more for nothing. Labels that include the name of respected environmental groups, such as World Wildlife Fund and Nature Conservancy, are considered to be nothing more than ‘greenwashing’. Some food companies are either creating their own labels and standards or are paying for the right to use an environmental association’s logo.

Eco-labelling can provide a very useful mechanism for increasing awareness of crucial environmental issues, but consumers need to be discriminating and not accept labels at face value. The differences between legitimate programs and marketing shams are not clear.

The development of environmental labelling standards for different product categories is an important part of defining the real environmental attributes and concerns of certain industries. The Australian Environmental Labelling Association Inc. is a non-profit organization dedicated to servicing the Australian market with an independent credible environmental labelling system to international best practice standards. In August 2005 the Australian Environmental Labelling Association released an information sheet “Understanding Misleading Environmental Claims of Products in Australia”. This document provides an overview of different claims and their environmental significance. The information sheet outlines the National Eco labelling Programs for different product sectors and shows these eco labels.