One resource that can help consumers to combat greenwashing is certification. There are a number of highly reputable programs that certify particular products as beneficial to the environment. Certification programs vary in terms of cost as well as the level of assurance they can provide. Some are very reliable, but others are little more than sophisticated examples of the very greenwashing they claim to be preventing. Therefore, it is important to know which certification programs are reliable and why.
Life Cycle Assessment
The most extensive, reliable, and expensive certification programs do a thorough life cycle assessment of products or services. The most common form of greenwashing is the “Sin of the Hidden Trade-off.” In this case, a company (or Al Gore) lays claim to the environmental benefits of one specific aspect of a product (for example, it is made from recyclable materials), while failing to disclose that other aspects of the product may be highly detrimental to the environment (for example, it may be manufactured in a very energy inefficient manner relative to competing products). Life cycle assessment programs prevent this type of greenwashing by evaluating the environmental impact of the entire life cycle of the product.
Products impact the environment at several stages. Energy and waste are created when raw materials to make the product are extracted and transported and when these materials are changed to create manufacturing materials. For example, iron ore must be converted to steel, and product parts must be created from steel. These steps consume energy and create waste, as does assembly of parts, distribution of the product, its use by the consumer, and the disposal of the product. The most ecologically beneficial products are designed from the beginning so that their impact on the environment at each of these stages will be minimal. Life cycle assessment programs attempt to determine the extent to which this is this case.
All life cycle assessments must make decisions about the boundary of the production system it evaluates.1 For example, one program may evaluate whether a computer manufacturer’s “eco-friendly” attributes extend to its decision whether to buy only from “eco-friendly” suppliers, whereas another may not include evaluation of suppliers in its assessment. Many programs offer different levels of certification, such as silver, gold, or platinum ratings, each reflecting a different depth or range of eco-friendly attributes for a particular company or product.
Independent Third-Party Verification
In addition to performing life cycle assessments of products, reliable certification evaluations are performed by third parties rather than the companies who sell the certified products so that they are buffered from conflicts of interest. When determining criteria to be used in identifying “green,” reliable programs include a broad array of stakeholders, such as consumer groups, environmental groups, businesses, and government representatives. They also adhere to standards established by widely recognized, independent organizations, such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) or the International Organization for Standards (ISO). The most reliable certification programs conduct on-site inspections of facilities and perform their own independent testing on the products they certify. They also require annual follow-up assessments in order to maintain certification. To see a comprehensive list of reliable third-party certifications, you can visit Proven Sustainable's Certification Center .
Reputable Certification Programs
For a Broad Range of Products
Green Seal, Ecologo, MBDC cradle to cradle, and SMART certification by MTS Green Clean Institute offer life cycle assessment certification for a broad range of products, which are then listed on their websites. These programs provide a full array of life cycle assessment, on-site inspection, and independent testing to assure that companies and products meet their standards. Co-op America, a nonprofit, provides a screening process that is less robust than the above certification programs, but is a much more affordable option for smaller businesses. In order to be listed in the Co-op Green Pages Directory, businesses must complete a questionnaire and provide answers that demonstrate to a screening committee a commitment to social and environmental responsibility. The Green Clean Institute is a independent third-party review for "Truth in Labeling" for green and sustainable products and goods.
The Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) adminsters a third-party certification and licensing program called "The Compostable Logo " where products are tested by independent laboratories to meet ASTM D6400 (Plastics) or ASTMD6868 (Coated Paper). The ASTM standards are pass/fail tests. The lab results are then reviewed by an independent authority, NSF International.
For Buildings and Building Materials
There are a number of programs that provide life cycle assessment certification for buildings. LEED is the largest national program. Green Guard and MAS Certified Green provide certification that products are not detrimental to healthy indoor air quality. The Green Clean Institute offers the Green and Healthy Building Partnership award based on a verfication of active cleaning and management processes to safeguard building and worker health.
The Fairtrade Labeling Organization International (FLO) is an international nonprofit association of fair trade organizations that have created common standards for certifying fair trade products. Transfair USA is the U.S. representative of the FLO. Fair trade certification assures that products were created by companies that deal directly with the people who produce them so as to assure a fair price for the product. They must meet environmental standards as well as provide wages and services that enable producers and their families to meet basic needs for health and education.
Green-e certifies that companies selling renewable energy are delivering the quantity and type of product advertised and that companies who claim to use renewable energy are, in fact, doing so.
The United States Department of Agriculture certifies organic food as well as some cleaning and cosmetic products, assuring that certified plant and animal ingredients were grown without use of chemicals, pesticides, or antibiotics. Processed foods must contain 95% purely organic contents in order to receive the USDA organic label.
Wood and Paper Products
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certifies that wood and paper products were created in a manner that does minimal damage to forest ecology and neighboring local economies.
Some certification programs establish standards, but initially allow companies to determine through their own procedures whether their products meet these standards. Then the certifying organization periodically audits the company to verify their results. Energy Star uses such a system to rate the energy efficiency of products and is backed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy.
EPEAT uses a system similar to that of Energy Star to certify the environmental quality of computers and monitors.
Healthy Child Healthy World is a nonprofit that is dedicated to the protection of children, and evaluates the health and safety of products, foods, materials, and chemicals used in the home. Businesses that meet the organization’s health, environment, and social responsibility standards can become certified Alliance Partners of Healthy Child Healthy World.
Questionable Claims to Certification
Unfortunately, the green consumer needs to also be wary of certification labels that are of questionable value. A number of “certification” labels are emerging that suffer from lack of third-party verification. For example, JC Penney has a new Simply Green label which assures the consumer that a product is “made from organic, renewable, or recycled materials.” However, this label can be placed on products made from 30% non-organic cotton, or made from 75% non-renewable material or 75% non-recycled material. Moreover, this sort of labeling may direct our attention to one “eco-friendly” aspect of a company’s product, while other aspects, such as emissions or energy used in the production process, are ignored. In addition to creating a “fox watching the henhouse” problem, a proliferation of eco-labeling by companies is likely to make it more difficult for the ordinary consumer to know when a green label signifies third-party assurance that a product is a good environmental choice. Self-labeling may dilute the value of meaningful, independent certification labels.
Third-party certification schemes of questionable value are emerging as well. Stamped Green offers companies “free certification” that “takes just a few minutes.” A business can pass as green if it recycles, encourages carpooling, turns off its computers and office equipment at the end of the day, enables energy saving and sleep modes on its computers, plants flowers, “corrects workers who engage in environmentally unsound practices,” and is not in violation of any environmental code or facing litigation. So long as it does these things, your local Hummer dealer can now get “Stamped Green.”
The Consumer Reports Green Choices site has created a tool to help you distinguish relatively reliable and unreliable certification labels. However, expect some lag time between the initial appearance of such labels and their inclusion in the Consumer Reports database. At the time this article was written, neither the JC Penny label nor the Stamped Green label were included on their site. But if their research does a reasonable job of keeping pace with the growth of these programs, it will be a helpful resource.
Limitations of Certification
Although legitimate and reliable certification is an important resource for guarding against greenwashing, it does have its limitations and drawbacks. One of the inherent limitations of even the most thorough life cycle assessment is created by the problem of floating variables. This means that the environmental impact of a product will in some cases depend upon factors that do not remain constant, such as when and where the product is used. For example, two studies were conducted on the relative environmental impact of electric cars versus standard gasoline-powered ultra-low emission (ULEV) vehicles.2 One of the studies assumed that the cars would be driven throughout the U.S., and the second assumed that they would be driven in southern California. The first study found that electric vehicles emit more of certain pollutants, such as NO2 and sulfur oxides, than their gas-powered counterparts. However, the second study found that the electric vehicles generate far less of these emissions. The reason for the difference is that electricity generation in southern California is a cleaner process than in other parts of the country. So in this case, the answer to the question of which vehicle is cleaner is “it depends.” It depends both on what you mean by “cleaner” and where the car is being driven.
We see another example of the problem of floating variables with the case of bamboo. If bamboo is gathered in Vietnam and transported to Massachusetts, the environmental gain from using a rapidly renewable resource may be outweighed by the environmental cost of transporting it so far. Moreover, if bamboo is used to make fiber for clothing, the gains from using a rapidly renewable resource may be outweighed by the environmental costs from using caustic chemicals to process it. These complexities cannot be resolved in the simple either/or option that is involved in certification labeling (either it is certified and gets the label, or it does not). Therefore, the green consumer cannot rely on certification labels alone to resolve all questions about which products are better for the environment. Additional information and education are sometimes needed.
Another limitation upon certification is that there are a number of green products and processes that are not yet covered by highly reliable, life cycle assessment certification. It remains to be seen whether innovation in certification programs can keep pace with the rapid daily development of new green products and services.
However, the biggest limitation imposed by certification may be cost. As a general rule, the more thorough, informative, and reliable a certification process is, the more expensive it will be. For example, at the time this article was written, EcoLogo charged between $1500-$5000 for an initial audit, $250-$2000 for subsequent verification for additional products, and an annual license fee from between .5% of product sales ($1200 minimum) up to $35,000 for a premium plan. Green Seal said that they charge between $2500-$9500 for an initial evaluation and $2300-$6700 for monitoring in subsequent years. Many small or start-up businesses understandably feel that they cannot afford these costs. This raises the question of whether the consumer can tell the difference between reliable and unreliable certification labels and will be willing to pay more for reliably certified products. There currently does appear to be an important role in the green economy for less thorough, but also less expensive, screening processes, such as that offered by Co-op America. They provide at least modest credentials for small green businesses.
1Allen, D. T. and Shonnard, D. (2001): Green Engineering: Environmentally Conscious Design of Chemical Processes. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, ch. 13, p. 4.
This article was originally entitled Certification of Green Products and is reprinted here by permission of the author.