In his proposal for a new food labelThe New York Times food critic Mark Bittman wrote: "Right now, the labels required on food give us loads of information, much of it useful. What they don’t do is tell us whether something is really beneficial, in every sense of the word. With a different set of criteria and some clear graphics, food packages could tell us much more."

As Bittman suggests, food labeling should be more informative. When it comes to building products, however, the situation is much worse. Consumers have little or no access to information such as the key ingredients, life cycle, carbon footprint, or toxicity of products. As a result, many consumers have expressed a strong desire for a clear, authoritative, and comprehensive environmental label.

Although many ecolabels currently exist in the building product sphere, there is no single, pervasive designator such as the Nutrition Facts label on food products. Moreover, most building product ecolabels operate as "seals of approval" rather than measures by which a consumer can make intelligent choices (an exception is Energy Star, which provides a quantitative rating for the energy consumption of products).

In an assignment for the seminar Material Performance in Sustainable Building at the University of Minnesota, I asked students to develop a new, hypothetical ecolabel that could be used to rate the environmental quality of building products. Students were to imagine this label as a third-party designator that would appear on all goods offered in a typical hardware or building-products store. The label was to be clear, concise, credible, and comprehensive in its applicability, with a quantifiable score that could be measured against other products. In addition to an overview of their label, I asked students to evaluate three actual building products as a way to test its use.

The results of the exercise were intriguing. The labels demonstrated the challenges inherent in addressing a wide range of complex information within a simple information tag. The study also revealed the importance of value-placement on scoring—one system might prioritize human health effects, while another might give preference to embodied energy, for example. Although the student-designed labels have their quirks, each does a good job at imparting credible information that consumers might otherwise miss. The most radical proposal, called the "True Cost" label, seeks to completely internalize externalized costs—such as medical bills and environmental damage—as part of the store price tag. Although quite challenging to implement, such a strategy would be eye-opening if put into actual use.

Blaine Brownell is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.