Sustainable Purchasing & Eco-Labels


Flickr / schizoform

A couple weeks ago I attended a Metro Vancouver Community Sustainability Breakfast. The focus of this month’s session was sustainable purchasing and eco-labels. Metro Vancouver did a great job in selecting speakers. The panel featured Trevor Bowden from Big Room Inc., Tim Reeve of Reeve Consulting and Bob Purdy from the Fraser Basin Council.

The session started with a ‘big picture’ description of eco-labels by Trevor Bowden. Big Room Inc. is the creator of, a website which hosts a database of all the eco-labels available on the marketplace. It’s a really helpful, free tool which anyone can use to look up a specific eco-label and find out the type of products it covers, the length of time its been in existence, how products are verified, links to additional resources and more. Basically it allows visitors to judge eco-labels on a variety of merits, and determine which programs are in line with their concerns.

So many eco-labels to consider…

Given the great number and range of eco-labels currently in action ( tracks more than 300 different programs!) Trevor suggested breaking them down into categories based on the number of environmental attributes and life cycle phases a label covers. Energy Star, for example, is considered a single stage, single issue label since it looks at consumer use of a product and the amount of energy the item consumes. Ecologo on the other hand is a multi-stage, multi-issue label since it examines the manufacture, use and disposal of products and a variety of environmental attributes.

When choosing an eco-label, a good starting point is considering what the largest impacts of a given product will be. For example, with a new computer, certified sustainable packaging isn’t nearly as valuable as a logo recognizing low energy consumption or clean production.

Characteristics of a good eco-logo

To further simplify your eco-logo choices, Trevor shed some light on the characteristics of good ones, including:

  1. Independent 3rd party verification of claims – A party other than the manufacturer or certifying body has verified the claims. A study from Yale University showed the most trusted eco-labels are validated by environmental groups. Not surprisingly, the least trusted are validated by industry.
  2. Life-cycle based – The entire life of the product is considered
  3. An open and  transparent standard development process
  4. Publicly available standards

An additional characteristic Trevor raised is the level to which an eco-label is “future proof”, meaning that as new standards and science develops, the eco-label is able to adapt and change.

The International Standard Organization (ISO) has put together a group of standards for governing environmental labeling. You can read more about it on the ISO website.

Eco-labels for purchasers

While these guidelines and tools are helpful, without a deep understanding of the field and exposure to constant updates, it can still be tricky to choose an eco-logo program that represents your organization’s needs.

This is where Tim Reeve comes in. His company Reeve Consulting helps groups strategically re-think how they approach the ethical and environmental issues affecting their supply chain.

Tim shared that eco-labels can help purchasers in a number of ways. One is by helping buyers prioritize purchasing categories based simply on the eco-label programs available in the marketplace.

Tim also shared a few things to consider when starting a sustainable purchasing program:

  1. Specify – What are the goals and objectives of the program? What will the selection criteria be?
  2. Create a shopping list – What do you need to source?
  3. Build expertise with experience – Don’t expect to be able to find responsible products for all the items on your list right away. Start small, but start.
  4. Start strategically – Search out sections of your organization’s shopping list where eco-labels exist and are well-defined. For example, cleaning products or office supplies.
  5. Engage in conversations with your suppliers – Let them know what you’re looking for
  6. Develop specifications for a solicitation document
  7. Look for opportunities to collaborate with other organizations and companies and search out their “lessons learned”.

Tim identified a couple challenges to keep in mind too:

  1. Greenwashing – Delve deeper to make sure the green claims are backed up with clear and transparent standards.
  2. Increasing number of certifications – Keep in mind that not all standards are created equal.


One way to tackle these challenges is to access your allies and learn from others – collaborate! The final speaker at the breakfast was Bob Purdy from the Fraser Basin Council, and he talked about just that through his experience with sustainable purchasing and the BuySmart Network.

Perhaps Bob’s most interesting insight was that speaking of collaboration is far eaiser than cultivating meaningful collaboration, but his greater point was that the benefits of collaboration are worth the effort. These benefits can be derived both between organizations and within an organization between departments.

Bob had a pretty convincing argument for collaboration in the realm of eco-labels.

Why collaborate?

  1. Sustainability is complex. It deals with inter-related issues that require interaction among people (e.g. private interests, environmental interests etc.)
  2. Diversity of interest and expertise needs to be tapped to address sustainability concerns (e.g. economists, biologists, engineers etc.)
  3. Avoid re-inventing the wheel by learning from others experiences and expertise (saves time and money)
  4. Proactive and inclusive collaboration helps avoid duplication and gives rise to more enduring “whole system” solutions.
  5. Reduces the likelihood of conflict or push-back later as people are more likely to buy into a plan they are a part of.

Metro Vancouver Sustainability Community Breakfasts

In the end I was left with lots to think about. It was a great event and I recommend attending a future Sustainability Community Breakfast if you’re in the area. They feature some great speakers and it’s free! Read more about the breakfasts and upcoming schedule of topics HERE.

Additional Resources:

Sustainable Community Breakfasts – Previous Presentations, Metro Vancouver – view the full presentations mentioned here

Eco-Labeling – a nice overview by

Is Eco-Certification a Carrot – or Killer – for Innovation? Fast Company Expert Blog

Resources – a great section on the BuySmart Network website

GOOD Guide – rates over 65,000 products based on manufacturer’s environment, social and safety records. There’s also a handy barcode scanning iphone app.

Greenwash Brigade – a blog by environmental professionals on the hunt for “greenwash” as they examine eco-friendly claims by companies, governments and other groups.

The Daily Green – blog and news; the consumers guide to the green revolution

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One Response to “Sustainable Purchasing & Eco-Labels”

  1. How to navigate the field of ecolabels to improve your ethical and sustainable purchasing practices « Reeve Consulting Says:

    […] Sustainable purchasing and ecolabels Product with Purpose Fairware Blog […]

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