Seals of Approval
Advertising or Useful Consumer Guidance?

How can one be sure that a label is reliable?
How can one be sure that a label is reliable? | Photo (detail): © ferkelraggae -

Many products in Germany bear seals of approval and quality marks designed to draw the consumer’s attention to the product’s sustainability or absence of artificial flavourings. Holger Brackemann from German consumer organization Stiftung Warentest talks in our interview about the reliability of such claims.

Mr Brackemann, one carton of milk bears four different labels: “Ökotest ‘sehr gut’”, “Bio nach EG-Öko-Verordnung”, “Bioland” and “Bio7initiative“. How are consumers supposed to find their way around this confusing plethora of labels?

First of all, we need to distinguish between seals of approval introduced by the EU and more general labels. Like Stiftung Warentest, the consumer magazine Ökotest issues a quality rating based on certain openly declared test criteria. The Bio mark, which is a hexagonal logo, is awarded when a farm is certified by an inspection authority as having complied with the EU legal regulations applicable to organic farming. The other two logos are awarded independently by associations or retailers.

Is any retailer allowed to award a logo?

Yes, any retailer can. Indeed some environmental associations – such as Demeter for instance – apply strict test criteria which go beyond any EU regulation. On the other hand, a supermarket chain such as Rewe can come up with a label like its Pro Planet so as to promote its products and advertise them as being “ecologically and socially sustainable”. Who verifies such claims is quite another matter, however.

Nothing but a marketing trick

Is there a risk of consumers being deceived?

Definitely. Consumer protection associations keep a watchful eye on labels. For example, the so-called clean labels, which advertise yoghurt, cold cuts or packet soups as being “without preservatives, flavour enhancers or artificial flavourings”, are often nothing but a marketing trick, as the products actually do contain yeast extract or other ingredients which serve the same purpose. 

The EU’s Ecodesign Directive requires products to bear energy consumption labels. Are these reliable?

On the whole, yes. Manufacturers of white goods are obliged to affix energy labels to their products to provide additional information and help consumers decide which product to purchase. Studies have found that these are completely reliable in the case of washing machines, for example. Whether the energy consumption label for cars has really achieved any impact is a matter of some controversy, however.

What is your opinion of the widely used “GS” mark, attesting to “tested safety”?

The GS mark confirms that an independent third party has assessed, tested and then certified a product as being electrically safe and non-harmful to health. A manufacturer wishing to affix the GS mark must therefore have its product tested by an approved inspection authority such as TÜV. This is why the mark is only valid if the inspection authority is named on it. The situation is different when it comes to the much less reliable CE mark: all this means is that the person who is placing the product in question on the market declares that it satisfies the legally applicable requirements in the EU. In many cases, producers in Asian countries simply affix this label to their products.

In other words, falsifications are not all that uncommon?

The GS mark is frequently faked. There is systematic abuse because manufacturers know that most consumers base their purchase decision on seals of approval – the more logos a product bears, the better it will sell.

Stiftung Warentest also issues test ratings. How does the organization protect itself against imitations?

Since 2013, Stiftung Warentest has charged licensing fees for the use of its quality mark. Anyone wishing to use it to advertise their product must pay between 7,000 and 15,000 euros. No small part of this money is invested in checks and follow-up tests.

Useful Orientation to consumers

Are “fair trade” labels reliable?

We have tested products with all kinds of different labels and advertising claims. The most widely used is the Fairtrade mark, though this is found predominantly on foods rather than on textiles. Unfortunately, it is impossible to give one single answer to the question as to the reliability of fair trade labels. Having said that, the promises associated with the labels are met in the majority of cases, meaning that they do provide useful orientation to consumers.

What can consumers do to protect themselves?

I can only advise that people seek information on the Internet: the website lists over 500 seals of approval that have been evaluated by the consumer initiative Verbraucherinitiative.

How can one be sure that a label is reliable?

The key criterion is that it should be verifiable. That is also the most important thing when it comes to our Stiftung Warentest tests. We do not have samples sent to us but buy the products we wish to test on the open market. Anyone can invent and affix a label – it is up to consumers and consumer associations to check what its true value is.