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These cows have horns. That means they must be Demeter cows. The farmers’ association decisively rejects the standard practice of horn cauterisation used in conventional farming – as just one of many stipulations in the complex set of rules represented by the Demeter logo. Photo: Anna Hirte
Our world is becoming increasingly complex and we all look for some form of guidance. Logos, labels and seals of approval aim to help us by providing information at a glance. We are all familiar with logos that intend to help people quickly recognise companies. More and more products are also displaying ‘word marks’, ‘figurative marks’ or ‘figurative marks containing word elements’, as they are known in the marketing world. These use visual cues to help us choose between products or companies at the point of sale without having to read the ‘small print’. However, the sheer deluge of these marks is increasingly conflicting with their actual purpose of giving buyers or users a sense of certainty when selecting a product.
Complex information content
Some of these logos, labels or seals indicate simple product attributes, such as ‘free from a certain ingredient’ or the energy consumption of an appliance, e.g. the ‘A+’ symbol. Often, they aim to tell us something about the origin of a product, how it was made or how it works. Examples here include the ‘Fairtrade’, ‘organic’, ‘Demeter’ or ‘Blue Angel’ logos. The information conveyed by these logos can sometimes be complex as it can be based on product attributes, manufacturing conditions and trading conditions, among other factors. Some logos also provide information about adherence to thresholds for harmful substances or limitations on ingredients.
Organisations also like to use logos on letterheads, brochures and websites. There, they aim to indicate memberships, abilities or acquired skills, for example certifications, at a glance.
The Demeter logo is regarded worldwide as an authentic and trustworthy mark. It is awarded by not just any farmers’ association, but the one with the strictest criteria in the whole organic sector. Photo: Anna Hirte
The EMAS logo is also based on an entire catalogue of self-obligations, which WALA regards as the basis of its commitment to the environment. Not only maintaining but promoting biodiversity on the company land is one such obligation. Photo: Anna Hirte
Authentic and misleading logos
There are many authentic logos, which meet a broad range of criteria, but also huge numbers of misleading ones, which often obstruct our view of what really matters. For example, misleading logos use visual designs, often coupled with well-sounding terms, to try and suggest something to us that they cannot actually live up to. Let us take the example of a globe with a circumferential arrow ring: with the appropriate colour scheme, this gives the impression of something sustainable and ongoing. Or a green clover surrounded by a blue circle with the phrase ‘environmentally friendly’ in the middle. Et voilà... you have logos that aim to make consumers feel good without actually being based on anything concrete.
Authentic figurative marks containing word elements are usually legally protected, either by the law itself, as with the EU organic logo and quality marks for EU products, or by the association behind them, as with the Demeter logo. The criteria or standards that labelled products or services have to fulfil are publicly accessible and can usually be found online with just a few clicks. An independent body always checks compliance with these criteria before the logo can be used.
However, even the information provided by authentic logos or labels can differ greatly. The label A++ or even A+++ on a refrigerator simply tells you that it consumes little energy. It does not reveal anything about the appliance’s origin or production conditions, the global warming impact of the refrigerant or where the raw materials came from. Similar applies to the term ‘regional’. This solely notifies us about the origin of the product; it does not tell us anything about the pay and work conditions of seasonal workers, which fertilisers and pesticides are used when growing vegetables or whether cattle are given prophylactic antibiotics.
There are some highly informative and content-rich logos that cover precisely these correlations and indicate compliance with comprehensive rules on sustainable production or product composition. These are based on a huge number of production conditions and properties, which are independently verified. Examples include the aforementioned Demeter logo, the Fairtrade logo and the Blue Angel logo, but also the ‘Fair for life’ logo and the ‘fair’n green’ seal for viticulture. These represent humane, environmentally friendly production conditions, fair trade and the limited use of harmful materials.
EMAS represents environmentally friendly production
An often lesser known but certainly one of the most content-rich logos on the market is the EMAS logo (EU Eco Management and Audit Scheme) for environmentally friendly production, the impact of which is continuously and demonstrably improved. WALA has already displayed this logo for 17 years as it has established and maintained internal structures throughout this period that subject all activities to repeated environmental impact checks. Every year, an environmental statement reports publicly on both the successes and the difficulties in this regard.
The award of the EMAS logo is based on the implementation and observation of an entire catalogue of commitments and rules, effective compliance with which is annually checked by independent, external auditors1.
- the constant internal self-monitoring of compliance with all requirements arising from environmental regulations and voluntary obligations that the company has committed itself to,
- the existence of a system that ensures environmental protection is constantly considered within the company and the company’s environmental performance is improved,
- proof that precisely this has been achieved in the last financial year and the environmental performance itself (often based on many examples) has truly improved,
- the involvement of all employees in environmental activities.
Our knowledge of nature, technical progress and the development of social systems change our everyday activities and habits. It is therefore both useful and necessary to also adapt the standards on which the seals of approval are based. This has just happened with the EMAS standard, for example. Accidents and reports from recent years showed that we manufacture products in Europe with a high level of environmental protection. However, important raw materials, individual components or products are often purchased from all over the world. Some of these are produced under extremely poor environmental and social conditions. Companies that purchase these kinds of components and then combine them in Europe (under good conditions once more) are certainly not operating in an environmentally friendly manner. Their use of the EMAS logo would therefore be labelling fraud or ‘greenwashing’ to use the recently coined term. Any companies who want to continue using the logo must therefore also take a very close look at their supply chain in future and try to make it environmentally friendly.
Not only did WALA have no problem with these additional obligations during the latest update to the standard, it can even act as a role model for other companies in this regard: for decades, WALA has been supporting or initiating exemplary cultivation projects that produce and process raw materials, i.e. the basic components of WALA medicinal and cosmetic products, in an environmentally friendly, socially responsible and economically sound (sustainable) manner.
In summary, logos, labels and seals of approval help us select a product or company through the information they contain. However, we still have to ask ourselves what exact merits or benefits they represent in order to find our way through the deluge and make the right choice.
1 The term ‘auditor’ refers to a person who uses interviews, observations and listening to check how companies or organisations are developing and if they are complying with certain requirements. This checking process is known as an ‘audit’, a term derived from the Latin ‘audire’ meaning to listen.
Please read more about environmental protection at WALA in our Environmental Statement.
Professor Lieback is the founder and CEO of the Berlin-based company GUTcert, now a member of the AFNOR Group. He has been an environmental auditor and auditor of management systems since 1995 and has taught environmental management and sustainable development at the Berlin campus of ESCP Paris since 1999.