What can be learned from examining hundreds of eco-labels and environmental ratings? Quite a lot, it turns out, though probably not enough to answer the question in this book’s subtitle. Green Grades provides an “information realist” account of environmental claims about products and companies, with a particular emphasis on how these square with the values of conscientious consumers and citizens. As a scholar of environmental policy and co-founder of the rating body GoodGuide, Graeme Bullock is especially attentive to the content of green grades, the transparency of rating procedures, and the ways in which a higher-quality “information marketplace” could be crafted.

At the core of the book is a database of 245 labels and ratings focused on the environmental implications of products and companies. These include multi-stakeholder initiatives like the Forest Stewardship Council, government-sponsored eco-labels like Energy Star, company- and industry-sponsored labels for food and household products, and various ratings and scorecards issued by NGOs. Rather than study a few cases in detail, as much of the prior research has done, Bullock examines this larger set of cases to show what is most and least common when it comes to issues covered (e.g., pollution, biodiversity, etc.), foci of claims (e.g., products or companies), sponsors (e.g., public, private, or civil society), signals of credibility (e.g., independence and expertise), transparency, and forms of information provided (e.g., positive or negative; certification, rating, or ranking). These attributes are mostly examined individually in different parts of the book, generating a series of descriptions but few attempts to make sense of relationships between variables or clustering of attributes.

Bullock makes sense of the findings mainly by comparing the positions of what he calls “information optimists,” “information pessimists,” and “information realists.” Optimists tend to believe in the power of information to perfect markets, empower advocates, and create more objective bases for choice. Pessimists fear that green grades easily shade into greenwashing, “shallow transparency,” and the legitimation of overconsumption. In between, Bullock’s realist position recognizes wide variation in the quality of information provided and argues that “sunlight” can be a useful though not complete disinfectant, especially to the extent that it is delivered in prominent and intelligible ways, clarifies the procedures behind particular claims, and speaks to public benefits that consumers and citizens value. The realist position does not boil down to a simple set of guidelines, but Bullock convincingly shows that pessimists and optimists are both seeing only part of the picture.

Several striking findings and insightful tips emerge from Bullock’s analysis. For instance, most labels and ratings focus on products and (to a somewhat lesser degree) companies as a whole, but only 16 percent cover the production facilities where manufacturing or harvesting occur. Roughly 13 percent of labels and ratings make only vague claims of greenness, and nearly half make no reference to independence or expertise. Nearly 30 percent do signal credibility by referring to external generation or verification of data, but the meanings of “third party” verification can vary significantly—leading Bullock to a useful recommendation about standardizing these definitions. Roughly 40 percent of labels and ratings provide only simple and positive information (such as a seal of approval), while almost none provide only negative information (such as a list of worst offenders). This is perhaps not surprising, given that many initiatives rely on voluntary participation of companies, though another 40 percent of cases provide a mix of positive and negative information. To improve the power of information, Bullock ultimately argues for some combination of modest “choice editing” that excludes the worst product options, pathways for effective information strategies to be incorporated into public policy, and a more consolidated information marketplace that weeds out the weakest claims.

Other parts of the book are less satisfying. Rather than trying to consider the actual validity or reliability of particular labels or ratings, Bullock simply looks for whether their websites mention validity or reliability. A chapter based on interviews with rating/certification practitioners, companies in the electronics industry, and consumers does highlight some important advances in green electronics, but it also has a vague account of “perceived effectiveness” that needs, at the very least, to be connected to particular labels or ratings.

Bullock is a realist when it comes to acknowledging high- and low-quality information, but he could be characterized as an optimist when it comes to consumer behavior. Although he finds that many ratings and labels (nearly half) emphasize private benefits like health and cost-savings, he argues that consumers actually hold a range of “self-transcendent” values that can act separately or along with “self-enhancement” values to promote environmentally beneficial behaviors. He draws on psychological theories of values and survey research to make this point, but he pays less attention to experimental evidence about consumer behavior or data on sales of products with labels emphasizing private or public benefits. There is a danger that Bullock’s vision of a well-functioning information marketplace is too reliant on a values-driven account of consumer behavior that downplays self-interest, social status, and situational influences. Notably, after GoodGuide (which Bullock co-founded) was sold to Underwriters Laboratories in 2012, the organization dropped its ratings of environmental impacts and labor conditions to focus exclusively on consumer health.

Despite these criticisms, Green Grades should certainly be read by scholars and practitioners of information-based environmental governance. It provides useful critiques of optimists and pessimists alike, some thoughtful recommendations for stepwise improvement, and a systematic approach that reveals a highly varied world of ecolabels and ratings.