The history of consumer labelling, from Good Housekeeping to today

Labels proclaiming ethical or environmental bona fides have seen mixed success over the years

Various products bearing consumer labels

The 13th-century English parliament introduced the very first product labelling regime, demanding bakers brand their loaves with an identifying mark. Knowing where your bread came from was a matter of public safety. But in the past decade, there has been an explosion of labelling systems designed to identify the social good of products, such as Walmart’s recent announcement it would start identifying “women made” goods from female-owned businesses. While there are plenty of designations—450 eco-labels alone—only some actually help sales. Here, we look at do-gooder labels through the years—those that inspire consumers, and those that don’t.

1909: Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval

1,000s of associated products

Good Housekeeping labelGood Housekeeping magazine published its first list of 21 “approved” household goods in December 1909. In a period with almost no consumer protections, companies paid to have their products tested and certified. Today, firms of approved products must advertise in the magazine, which helped GH generate US$462 million in ad revenue last year.

1970: Recycled Content

Countless products

Recycled logoIn 1970, Chicago-based Container Corporation of America, a producer of recycled paperboard, sponsored a student contest “for the love of the earth” to produce a logo that represents the recycling process. Twenty-three year-old Gary Anderson won $2,500 for his “chasing arrows” design. Studies suggest consumers are 54% more likely to buy a product featuring the logo.

1978: The Blue Angel

12,000+ products

The Blue Angel labelThe first eco-label promoting environmentally friendly practices was launched by West Germany in 1978. But according to a 2005 UN report, while consumers have shown willingness to pay more at first, the premium isn’t always sustainable. “[This may] indicate that consumers are generally unwilling to pay higher prices for eco-labelled products,” it concluded.

1986: Australian Made

10,000+ products

Australian Made labelLaunched by the Australian government to encourage consumers to buy domestic goods, the program led to a 45% boost in sales for some companies. Four out of five consumers now say they prefer to buy products with the “Australian Made” logo. This year, Canada announced plans to develop an organized “Made in Canada” branding campaign. To be designated a “Product of Canada” requires 98% Canadian content, while “Made in Canada” demands 51%.

1988: Fairtrade

27,000+ products

Fairtrade labelDesigned to “tackle poverty and empower producers in the poorest countries,” the first fair-trade product was a Mexican coffee sold in Dutch supermarkets. Today, goods range from figs to gold. Fairtrade International sets product premiums—apricots, for instance, may fetch 15% above commercial prices. In 2014, the organization reported US$1.1 billion in sales of fair-trade certified goods.

1990: Dolphin Safe

500+ companies

Dolphin Safe labelThe designation was introduced in the early 1990s following U.S. legislation to protect dolphins from the impact of tuna fisheries. Some credit the logo for a rebound in tuna sales, but a 2013 UN report on more general seafood eco-labelling found “it is more likely that the benefit to producers…is improved market access and not price premiums.”

2008: Carbon Trust Footprint Certification

90+ brands

Carbon Trust labelThis certifies a company’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint. Evidence suggests consumers reward corporate altruism, but only if goods are competitive on “price, quality and convenience.” In the U.K., Marks & Spencer received glowing press for the world’s first carbon-neutral bra. “Consumers expect products that give brilliant results, at an affordable price, and deliver sustainability benefits,” noted one exec. “I.e., no trade-offs.”

2009: Canada Organic

3,700+ organic growers

Canada Organic labelThe Canadian Food Inspection Agency adopted this voluntary certification scheme, in large part, to meet stricter European standards on imported organic produce. The Canada Organic Trade Association claims the logo played a “large role in boosting consumer confidence and interest in organic products,” though one U.S. study found “green” certified wines led to a 20% dip in sales.

2014: Women Owned

Women Owned labelIn June, Walmart announced a collaboration with the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council to certify goods from firms that are 51% owned, operated and controlled by a woman. Slated to roll out internationally this year, Walmart pledged three years ago to source US$20 billion of goods from women-owned U.S. businesses by 2016.