Eco-Labels – What’s Your Type?

Eco-labels are designed to pro­vide envi­ron­men­tal­ly-rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion about a prod­uct to pur­chasers. At the same time, by way of clear­ly-defined issu­ing cri­te­ria and steadi­ly increas­ing require­ments, they are intend­ed to cre­ate an incen­tive for con­tin­u­ous improve­ment in the qual­i­ty of prod­ucts and prod­uct infor­ma­tion. A vari­ety of eco-labels have now estab­lished them­selves on the mar­ket and can be used by man­u­fac­tur­ers, on a vol­un­tary basis, to label their prod­ucts. But, how do they dif­fer from each oth­er and what are the advan­tages and dis­ad­van­tages of the var­i­ous types of eco-labels?

Each of us comes into con­tact with eco-labels in our every­day lives, whether we real­ize it or not. Par­tic­u­lar­ly as con­sumers, we put our trust in the prod­uct pack­ag­ing labels that can be found in every super­mar­ket or build­ing sup­ply cen­tre. As a read­er of this mag­a­zine, you also are a per­son who is well-informed about envi­ron­men­tal prod­uct dec­la­ra­tions – per­haps you have already even relied upon these dur­ing a build­ing cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. Let’s now step back and con­sid­er the basics of the var­i­ous eco-labels. This will help in cat­e­goris­ing the types of infor­ma­tion they pro­vide at both the prod­uct and build­ing lev­el and in deter­min­ing which type of eco-label is best-suit­ed for a spe­cif­ic use.

Type I Eco-labels: Con­sumer-friend­ly and externally-tested

Type I eco-labels are designed to enable con­sumers to eas­i­ly iden­ti­fy prod­ucts that meet spe­cif­ic envi­ron­men­tal or health stan­dards. The cri­te­ria required be ful­filled by a par­tic­u­lar prod­uct type are defined in advance by an inde­pen­dent issu­ing organ­i­sa­tions. Man­u­fac­tur­ers may then apply to be issued the label. This requires sub­mis­sion of doc­u­men­ta­tion that sub­stan­ti­ates the manufacturer’s com­pli­ance with the cri­te­ria that has been estab­lished. Depend­ing on the pro­gram, eval­u­a­tions may also include site inspec­tions, sam­pling, and lab­o­ra­to­ry test­ing. If all issuance cri­te­ria have been met, the man­u­fac­tur­er will be per­mit­ted to use the label on the prod­uct that has been evaluated.

The great­est advan­tage of Type I eco-labels is their user-friend­li­ness. A prod­uct dis­play­ing this label ful­fils the require­ments that were applic­a­ble at the time of issuance. Type I eco-labels are there­fore par­tic­u­lar­ly well-suit­ed for prod­ucts where a direct com­par­i­son with oth­er prod­ucts is pos­si­ble and infor­ma­tive, includ­ing such prod­ucts as elec­tron­ic devices, clean­ing sup­plies, and oth­er consumables.

Assess­ing the advan­tages of Type I eco-labels for build­ing mate­ri­als is more dif­fi­cult, since it is only in com­bi­na­tion that these con­sti­tute a fin­ished ‘prod­uct’: a build­ing. Here, issu­ing organ­i­sa­tions can only esti­mate which cri­te­ria at the build­ing mate­r­i­al lev­el will lat­er result in con­struc­tion of a com­plete build­ing that is a healthy and envi­ron­men­tal­ly-friend­ly liv­ing space. The intend­ed sim­plic­i­ty of this label can even be a hin­drance in this sit­u­a­tion: Detailed infor­ma­tion that would be use­ful at the build­ing lev­el is gen­er­al­ly not pro­vid­ed on Type I eco-labels.

Oth­er dif­fi­cul­ties can arise due to the lack of com­pa­ra­bil­i­ty of Type I eco-labels, since each issu­ing organ­i­sa­tion is per­mit­ted to deter­mine its own cri­te­ria and test­ing meth­ods. In addi­tion, issuers must also first ascer­tain whether the cri­te­ria that has been estab­lished for a spe­cif­ic label is even of any sig­nif­i­cance for the build­ing project in ques­tion –  as well as deter­min­ing which labels would be best-suit­ed for which prod­uct groups. It must also be borne in mind that, due to the large num­ber of dif­fer­ent labels, it would be vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble for a man­u­fac­tur­er to obtain all of the var­i­ous cer­ti­fi­ca­tions that are avail­able for a sin­gle prod­uct. There are, there­fore, many prod­ucts that might meet the require­ments for a par­tic­u­lar cer­tifi­cate but, due to the expense involved, will not pos­sess that cer­tifi­cate. If a deci­sion for a spe­cif­ic label is made, this can thus severe­ly lim­it the avail­able prod­uct port­fo­lio, even in the ear­ly plan­ning phas­es. Par­tic­u­lar­ly in pub­lic ten­ders, there­fore, alter­na­tive doc­u­men­ta­tion of com­pli­ance with cer­tain award cri­te­ria is per­mit­ted. How­ev­er, this requires a com­pre­hen­sive analy­sis of the under­ly­ing cer­tifi­cates and can result in a con­sid­er­able increase in work­load for issu­ing organ­i­sa­tions, builders, and manufacturers.

The ‘Blue Angel’ is the eco-label of the Ger­man Fed­er­al Min­istry for the Envi­ron­ment, Nature Con­ser­va­tion, Con­struc­tion, and Reac­tor Safe­ty (BMUB). It is issued by RAL gGmbH and can be found on over 12,000 envi­ron­men­tal­ly-friend­ly prod­ucts and ser­vices. The prod­uct groups cur­rent­ly being eval­u­at­ed include fur­ni­ture, clean­ing prod­ucts, elec­tri­cal appli­ances, paper, vehi­cles, and var­i­ous build­ing mate­ri­als, such as paints, floor­ing, and insulation.


Type II Eco-labels: Self-declared envi­ron­men­tal claims

When man­u­fac­tur­ers, man­u­fac­tur­ers’ asso­ci­a­tions, or ven­dors wish to call atten­tion to spe­cif­ic envi­ron­men­tal or health-rel­e­vant char­ac­ter­is­tics of their prod­ucts, Type II eco-labels can be used for this pur­pose. These self-dec­la­ra­tions are not backed by inde­pen­dent test­ing or eval­u­a­tion –  how­ev­er, they are also not gen­er­at­ed in a legal vac­u­um. Type II eco-labels must com­ply with the require­ments of the DIN EN ISO 14021 stan­dard. This stan­dard includes def­i­n­i­tions of require­ments for prod­ucts that are intend­ed to be labelled with legal­ly-pro­tect­ed terms, Includ­ing, e.g. ‘com­postable’, ‘designed to be dis­man­tled’, ‘recy­clable’, ‘ener­gy-effi­cient’, and ‘refill­able’. In addi­tion, it pro­hibits non-spe­cif­ic state­ments, such as ‘envi­ron­men­tal­ly friend­ly’, ‘green’, or ‘emis­sion-free’. More­over, since there is no method that per­mits the mea­sure­ment and assess­ment of the com­plex top­ic of ​​sus­tain­abil­i­ty at the prod­uct lev­el, the stan­dard also explic­it­ly bans the use of the word ’sus­tain­able’ in Type II eco-labels.

Along with the above-men­tioned ben­e­fit of labels as a con­sumer-friend­ly and clear source of infor­ma­tion, Type II eco-labels offer the advan­tage that, in these self-dec­la­ra­tions, man­u­fac­tur­ers have much more flex­i­bil­i­ty in respond­ing to spe­cif­ic cus­tomer requests and mar­ket require­ments. While Type I eco-labels must be devel­oped in advance, in con­for­mance to the require­ments estab­lished by the issu­ing organ­i­sa­tion, with self-dec­la­ra­tions, man­u­fac­tur­ers can, in a non-bureau­crat­ic way, high­light spe­cif­ic prod­uct char­ac­ter­is­tics –  and, if changes are lat­er made to pro­duc­tion, the labels can be quick­ly adapt­ed. Since the man­u­fac­tur­ers them­selves are able to deter­mine how many and which prod­uct fea­tures they choose to empha­sise, con­sumers then must care­ful­ly check to see whether or not the select­ed cri­te­ria bear any rela­tion­ship to the prop­er­ties they desire. In select­ing par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ter­is­tics, man­u­fac­tur­ers can also some­times over­look oth­er cri­te­ria that would be much more infor­ma­tive for envi­ron­men­tal and health con­sid­er­a­tions. In addi­tion, there is nor­mal­ly no inde­pen­dent ver­i­fi­ca­tion of com­pli­ance with the estab­lished cri­te­ria, sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduc­ing the mean­ing­ful­ness of the self-dec­la­ra­tions in com­par­i­son to the oth­er types of eco-labels. Of course, how­ev­er, it is pro­hib­it­ed for man­u­fac­tur­ers to make false or mis­lead­ing state­ments about their prod­ucts or to vio­late fun­da­men­tal require­ments of the DIN EN ISO 14021 standard.


Type II eco-labels may be freely select­ed from and issued by an issu­ing organ­i­sa­tion. The use of these labels on prod­ucts, how­ev­er, man­dates com­pli­ance with the DIN EN ISO 14021 stan­dard. This means, for exam­ple, that the sym­bol with the three arrows may only be used for prod­ucts that can be proven to have been recy­cled (left) or that include recy­cled parts in a pro­por­tion that is con­sis­tent with estab­lished require­ments (right).


Type III Eco-labels: Trans­par­ent, Com­pre­hen­sive, and Inde­pen­dent­ly Verified

The objec­tive of Type III eco-labels that con­form to DIN EN ISO 14025 is the neu­tral col­lec­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion of envi­ron­men­tal infor­ma­tion. In con­trast to the pre­vi­ous­ly-described eco-labels, here, no spe­cif­ic prod­uct prop­er­ties are eval­u­at­ed and no cer­tifi­cate is issued. The basis for these so-called “envi­ron­men­tal dec­la­ra­tions” is the life cycle assess­ment, which deter­mines the “eco­log­i­cal foot­print” of a prod­uct. The data that is pro­vid­ed by the life cycle assess­ment as to, for exam­ple, ener­gy con­sump­tion and green­house poten­tial is dis­played in a result­ing table, along with any nec­es­sary expla­na­tions. In addi­tion, Type III eco-labels may con­tain fur­ther infor­ma­tion, such the ingre­di­ents or com­po­nents used, rel­e­vant emis­sions dur­ing use, or infor­ma­tion about the post-use phase. The infor­ma­tion required for a spe­cif­ic prod­uct group and the man­ner in which it will be dis­played are deter­mined in advance by the indi­vid­ual pro­gramme oper­a­tors, who also arrange for inde­pen­dent ver­i­fi­ca­tion of the prod­uct infor­ma­tion before it is pub­lished. To obtain this ver­i­fi­ca­tion, man­u­fac­tur­ers are required to sub­mit doc­u­men­ta­tion, such as test cer­tifi­cates, to a recog­nised insti­tute. The under­ly­ing life cycle assess­ment must also be described in detail in a back­ground report that includes infor­ma­tion on all rel­e­vant process­es and sce­nar­ios. The report must doc­u­ment com­pli­ance with all rel­e­vant stan­dards and reg­u­la­tions, as well as with the spe­cif­ic require­ments of the pro­gramme operator.

A sig­nif­i­cant advan­tage of the dec­la­ra­tions is that they facil­i­tate a free and informed choice of prod­ucts. The inde­pen­dent ver­i­fi­ca­tion, with no con­nec­tion to any spe­cif­ic appli­ca­tion area, guar­an­tees a high lev­el of trust in the infor­ma­tion pro­vid­ed. It is also not nec­es­sary to obtain any fur­ther back­ground infor­ma­tion in order to be able to use the dec­la­ra­tions – all envi­ron­men­tal­ly-rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion is pre­sent­ed trans­par­ent­ly and clear­ly. There­fore, envi­ron­men­tal prod­uct dec­la­ra­tions are specif­i­cal­ly list­ed in the Con­struc­tion Prod­ucts Reg­u­la­tion as pro­vid­ing accept­able evi­dence for assess­ing the sus­tain­able use of nat­ur­al resources at the build­ing lev­el. In addi­tion, the data and infor­ma­tion con­tained in the dec­la­ra­tions can be used as a basis for assess­ment in build­ing cer­ti­fi­ca­tion sys­tems and even for Type I and II eco-labels. One char­ac­ter­is­tic of Type III eco-labels that is often per­ceived of as a dis­ad­van­tage is the lack of a prod­uct assess­ment, since a Type III eco-label could be cre­at­ed for basi­cal­ly any prod­uct: the exis­tence of a dec­la­ra­tion is not an indi­ca­tion of the envi­ron­men­tal per­for­mance of the prod­uct. Con­sumers must there­fore inde­pen­dent­ly eval­u­ate the infor­ma­tion and come to their own con­clu­sions. This, how­ev­er, also allows them to design their own eval­u­a­tion cri­te­ria and to be able to select prod­ucts accord­ing to the prop­er­ties that are rel­e­vant to them. Final­ly, the knowl­edge that their data will be pub­lished is a moti­vat­ing fac­tor for man­u­fac­tur­ers to become more informed about envi­ron­men­tal aspects and to improve the eco­log­i­cal qual­i­ty of their products.

EPDs IBUEnvi­ron­men­tal prod­uct dec­la­ra­tions from the Insti­tut Bauen und Umwelt e. V. (IBU) are Type III eco-labels that com­ply with DIN EN ISO 14025. They are based on a life cycle assess­ment and pro­vide addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion on envi­ron­men­tal and health pro­tec­tion. The devel­op­ment of the IBU dec­la­ra­tions pro­gramme involves the par­tic­i­pa­tion of an inde­pen­dent advi­so­ry coun­cil, made up of rep­re­sen­ta­tives of a num­ber of author­i­ties, gov­ern­men­tal offices, and envi­ron­men­tal groups, along with renowned con­struc­tion engi­neer­ing scientists.

To date, the IBU has pub­lished more than 1,600 envi­ron­men­tal prod­uct dec­la­ra­tions (EPDs), all of which have under­gone inde­pen­dent third-par­ty ver­i­fi­ca­tion. All EPDS are clear­ly and uni­form­ly struc­tured, enabling users to quick­ly find the infor­ma­tion they are seeking.



The types of eco-labels pre­sent­ed in this arti­cle each dis­play dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter­is­tics and have dif­fer­ent objec­tives. The table below sum­maris­es the pri­ma­ry differences:

Cri­te­ri­onEnvi­ron­men­tal Label 
Type I 
Envi­ron­men­tal Label 
Type II 
Envi­ron­men­tal Label 
Typ III 
“Envi­ron­men­tal Declaration”
Pri­ma­ry tar­get group Con­sumers (e.g. builders)Con­sumers (e.g. builders)Eco­nom­ic stake­hold­ers, e.g. plan­ners and auditors
Objec­tiveProd­uct assessmentProd­uct assessmentTrans­par­ent­ly pro­vide information
Exter­nal third-par­ty administrationyesnoyes
Inde­pen­dent verificationyesnoyes
(inter­nal­ly or exter­nal­ly – required to be exter­nal for infor­ma­tion to be direct­ed to con­sumers and, e.g. for IBU EPDs)
Con­tentTest­ing based on envi­ron­men­tal or health-relat­ed cri­te­ria pre­vi­ous­ly estab­lished by the communicatorEnvi­ron­men­tal or health-relat­ed prop­er­ties that the provider wish­es to emphasiseQuan­ti­fied envi­ron­men­tal information
Exam­plesBlue Angel, CSC (Con­crete Sus­tain­abil­i­ty Coun­cil), Eurob­lume, FSC (For­est Stew­ard­ship Coun­cil), natureplusThree-arrow-sym­bol, var­i­ous asso­ci­a­tion seals (e.g. Demeter)Envi­ron­men­tal prod­uct declarations


Eco-labels con­tribute sig­nif­i­cant­ly to the selec­tion and devel­op­ment of envi­ron­men­tal­ly-friend­ly build­ing prod­ucts. Their uses range from pro­vid­ing clear con­sumer infor­ma­tion all the way to serv­ing as evi­dence for build­ing cer­ti­fi­ca­tions. In assess­ing the indi­vid­ual types of eco-labels, the spe­cif­ic pur­pose and cat­e­go­ry of the prod­uct to be eval­u­at­ed must be tak­en into con­sid­er­a­tion: While the assess­ment cri­te­ria con­tained in Type I and Type II eco-labels is pri­mar­i­ly suit­able for end-prod­ucts (e.g. elec­tric appli­ances) and can also direct­ly serve as evi­dence of effi­cien­cy, Type III eco-labels can be utilised as an impor­tant source of infor­ma­tion for prod­ucts whose intend­ed ulti­mate use will only take place in inter­ac­tion with oth­er prod­ucts, for exam­ple, at the build­ing level.