Kompass Nachhaltigkeit

Öffentliche Beschaffung

Labels show the way to sustainability

Labels as indicators for more sustainable purchasing decisions

Labels are an important instrument for promoting sustainable production worldwide. The increasing number of certifications, labels and standards is making it more and more difficult to find one’s bearings. The Sustainability Compass with the integrated Sustainability Standards Comparison Tool provides an overview of the world of labels and creates transparency.

Which labels can be used?

Social and environmental labels can serve as a means of proof of sustainability. If you are looking for labels based on certain social and environmental criteria, please select whether you wish to see a list of all labels or search for the label of a specific product.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is a sustainability standard?

    The term ‘Sustainability standard’ represents social and environmental requirements that aim at reducing negative impacts of global economic activity on society and the environment. The requirements can refer to the manufacturing process (e.g. prohibition of child labour) as well as to physical properties of the final product (e.g. energy consumption of electronic devices). Other standards look at corporate management procedures (e.g. corporate environmental management). Not all standards are visible for end consumers. Some are used only for business between companies (business to business, B2B).

    Besides the term sustainability standard, the terms label, ecolabel or certification are also widely used. Moreover, experts distinguish between ‘standards’ and ‘schemes’. While the term ‘standard’ refers to the document in which the requirements are specified, a scheme additionally comprises the underlying assurance system.

  • Who defines the standard and who awards the label?

    A scheme can be launched by governments, NGOs, industry or a single company. There are also initiatives formed by multiple stakeholders.

    Ideally, labels and certificates are awarded by a conformity assessment body (CAB). CABs need to be independent from both the scheme holder and the certified organisation. Some standards only require monitoring through the scheme holders themselves, and sometimes there is no monitoring at all. The latter case is a good indication that a label is primarily used for marketing purposes. This is what is generally referred to as greenwashing. In other words, bringing about change is not a primary objective.

  • What are common environmental, social and economic aspects covered by sustainability standards?

    The aim of a credible sustainability standard should be to find solutions for the biggest social and environmental challenges in a sector (hot spots). However, the focus and aspirational level of standards can vary greatly. Here you can find a description of the most severe social and environmental challenges in the different phases of the supply chain for several product groups. You can find also out whether a label covers these topics by using the <link file:98 download>Sustainability Standards Comparison Tool.

    Most standards don’t cover all three sustainability dimensions (environmental, social and economic), but instead focus on one of the aforementioned. This is partly due to the fact that methods of assurance and monitoring differ depending on social and environmental requirements.

  • How is compliance with the requirements of sustainability standards assured? How credible are sustainability standards?

    Different assurance methods are available depending on the scheme’s focus. If a criterion refers to a certain product property, e.g. chemical residues on the product, compliance can be tested in a lab using random samples. Other criteria, like health and safety requirements, can only be monitored through on-site audits (learn more).These too, however, only offer a snapshot and do not guarantee continuous verification. To effectively implement social standards, workers need to be trained to know their rights and how to claim them.

    In order to maintain the credibility of a sustainability standard, basic rules have to be adhered to. This includes that criteria are clearly formulated and verifiable, and can be monitored by a third party. Transparency creates trust, therefore all relevant documents, including the standard itself, need to be accessible to the public. Implementation and monitoring systems that are well aligned with effective implementation of sustainability objectives form a credible standard.

  • What differences are there between sustainability standards?

    Sustainability standards can differ greatly regarding their requirements as well as their credibility. Some standards cover specific problems of a certain sector and define strict, specific requirements. Others define less severe requirements, thereby allowing for a bigger group of producers to comply with the standard.  Less strict standards also contribute to more sustainability. Particularly demanding standards cover most of a product’s life cycle and deal with most of the relevant social and environmental challenges. A standard should always provide a distinct added value regarding sustainability compared with non-certified products.

    While content-related differences in standards can be quickly identified, the implementation system that stands behind the standard is even more important. Social and environmental criteria are only effective if the corresponding implementation and monitoring system checks their suitability and compliance. Therefore, the implementation and monitoring system must fulfil several minimum requirements. The <link file:98 download>Sustainability Standards Comparison Tool helps you find labels that meet these requirements. 

  • Which products are covered by sustainability standards?

    There are sustainability standards for many products, including agricultural products, wood and paper products, textiles, electronic devices, cosmetics and detergents. Since many standards only refer to the production of agro-commodities, it is possible that products are certified by a label even though only elements of the production process or a few ingredients are actually certified. Credible standards draw attention to this by using an informative label (learn more).  

  • Are there sustainability standards for the building and service industries?

    Sustainability standards also cover services such as power supply (green electricity) and tourism. There is also a standard for the planning and building of low-energy housing. Certified materials (paint, building material like boarding, etc.) are also available. In Germany, the German Sustainable Building Council (DGNB – Deutsche Gesellschaft für Nachhaltiges Bauen e.V.) can label sustainable housing.

    Membership in initiatives like the United Nation’s Global Compact demonstrate a service provider’s interest in sustainability. There are also labels and standards for family- or employee-friendly companies. Please keep in mind that the use of these labels in the tendering procedure is restricted due to the lack of a link to the subject-matter (learn more).

  • There are many sustainability standards. How can I separate the wheat from the chaff and find out which labels are trustworthy and cover relevant requirements?

    The Sustainability Compass includes a Sustainability Standards Comparison Tool that allows you to analyse and compare labels and find out which ones are credible and cover the requirements you want to be considered.