Ecolabels can make sustainable procurement easier and more efficient. However, if the system behind the label is poorly designed, you risk being subject to greenwashing. This article explains what it takes to develop a trustworthy ecolabel and presents three key questions that will help you find an ecolabel with the capacity to make the impact you aim for.

As a purchaser, you don’t need to know everything yourself to be strategic and successful in sustainable procurement. A trustworthy ecolabel does a lot of the heavy lifting for you, allowing you to stay ahead, especially when legislation is lagging. It includes relevant, comprehensive and updated criteria that push sustainability where it matters most. And even more importantly, it verifies compliance with all criteria. This is something that otherwise takes a lot of time and resources — and for products with a complex supply chain, it may not even be possible without deep knowledge of sustainability and a network of experts with access to factories all over the world.

There are however large differences in scope and methods between ecolabels. If a robust system of verification, follow-up and accountability is lacking, and product compliance is based on self-declarations and unverified product claims, you risk falling into the greenwash or bluewash trap.

Developing a robust ecolabel takes time and effort. Take TCO Certified as an example — it includes a comprehensive system of up-to-date criteria, independent verification of compliance and a structured system for continuous improvement to drive real and lasting change. To stay ahead of changes in legislation and technical developments, a new generation of TCO Certified is released every three years. We’re currently working on the development of TCO Certified, generation 10, which is due to be launched in December 2024. The development process includes more than 30,000 hours of analysis, development and design of the new criteria and verification methods:

Here’s an overview of what the development process includes:

  • Sustainability challenges are continuously monitored. About two years before a new generation is launched, we thoroughly analyze and compare all these challenges to see where and how we can make the biggest impact.
  • We then discuss challenges and possible solutions with a broad scope of stakeholders including representatives from the academic world, purchasers and other representatives from purchasing organizations, and the IT industry.
  • At this stage, we have decided on a number of focus areas, and need to find the right criteria level where we challenge the IT industry and drive sustainability but at the same time, avoid setting criteria that are impossible to meet.
  • Once we have designed the first version of the criteria and verification methods, we publish a draft of the new generation. All stakeholders are welcome to comment and give their input during a two-month period. We then review the comments and apply necessary changes before we release a new draft, open it up for comments, and make adjustments one more time.
  • After the two drafts, we publish the final version of the criteria document. Now, IT brands can apply for product certification according to the new generation.

So, how do you know if an ecolabel is trustworthy? Based on our more than 30 years of experience in this field, here are three questions that will help you evaluate ecolabels, to decide which one you want to rely on in procurement.

1. Does it include up-to-date environmental and social sustainability criteria?

  • Multi-attribute criteria, covering environmental, social and governance aspects (ESG).
  • Criteria rigorous enough to make a measurable impact beyond legal requirements.
  • Science-based criteria, with clear testing thresholds and without loopholes.
  • Circularity criteria, demanding products are durable, repairable and upgradeable.
  • Supply chain responsibility criteria that include all ILO Core Conventions and require independent factory audits.
  • The same criteria apply globally.
  • All criteria are mandatory.
  • If the answer is yes, you have chosen an ecolabel with effective, up-to-date, verifiable criteria that are relevant across all sustainability dimensions, tough enough to make a difference, without loopholes.
  • If the answer is no, keep searching. Don’t choose an ecolabel with outdated, irrelevant or optional criteria that opens up for own interpretations, or loopholes. Criteria that are difficult to measure and verify lead to low sustainability benefits, and unfair competition in procurement.