USDA Certification Raises the Bar for Biobased Products

By Mark Eisen and Jacquelyn Ottman

With carbon footprint and energy independence on everyone’s minds, many marketers are looking to capitalize upon their product’s biobased content. But not all biobased claims are alike. The scientific rigor of an ASTM standard combined with the credibility of the USDA raises the bar for the industry and makes the USDA Certified Biobased label a new source of competitive advantage within the consumer and government procurement markets for brand owners who make the effort to get their biobased products certified.

What is “biobased?”

There is no Webster’s definition of biobased.  So, marketers have tended to define it loosely or link it to perceptions of biobased as anything biological, living, natural, renewable or even biodegradable.  Some do not reveal the amount of, or basis for, claiming biobased content, making comparisons difficult.  This can even represent greenwash when biobased content levels are insignificant. Many questionable biobased claims have emerged, including several official-looking logos with no third party backing. With over 25,000 biobased products on the market, clearly there’s a need to clear up the confusion.

Enter the USDA Certified Biobased Label

The USDA Certified Biobased label introduced one year ago this month now helps to level the market for biobased claims by providing a clear definition and an internationally recognized test standard backed up by the credibility of the USDA. Over 500 products have already been approved to use the label , and applications in the pipeline for at least 400 more.

Not just any biologically derived product or package can qualify for the label. Certified products must meet three key criteria: they meet the definition of biobased as written into the 2008 Farm Bill, they must contain minimum levels of biobased content set forth by the USDA and be verified by the ASTM D6866 test standard (minimums are determined on a category by category basis and are pegged to performance and other criteria), and they must represent alternatives to petroleum-based materials introduced after 1972. So, products that were on the market before 1972 made from natural fibers or forestry resources such as cotton tee shirts, office paper, or a 2 x 4 made of pine would not qualify. And neither would products whose biobased content did not meet minimum levels. (Visit for more details.)

Translating biobased content into marketing benefits

The label, with its sun, sea and crops motif was designed to help communicate that biobased products can be derived from the sea or forests — not just grown from plants. For transparency, it requires that the exact percentage of biobased content be listed on the label for the product and/or package. Thus, marketers are provided with a level playing field and consumers have an easy way to identify legitimate biobased products, as well as to compare and trust in their stated content levels.

Marketers can use the label to support a range of benefits including energy independence, alternatives to petroleum, carbon cycle management, enhanced farm and rural economies, and green jobs. Related and specific product environmental benefits as applicable, including renewable, biodegradable, natural, or compostable, must be supported and substantiated with scientific evidence.

Credibility is key

The USDA biobased certification process is administered by Iowa State University, an independent third party. Only accredited independent laboratories conduct testing. Since the certification only measures carbon content, no proprietary formulas have to be disclosed. Unlike most other certifications, there is no upfront fee, licensing or royalties, so even the smallest businesses can take advantage of the program. Only a $500 lab test is required – a small price to pay for a potentially big competitive advantage.

Seventh Generation leads the pack

Seventh Generation has already certified over 35 of their household and personal care products; their motivations: to promote transparency, to avoid greenwash, to allow consumers to make side-by-side comparisons, and to change the way the industry talks about “natural.” In the words of Julia Walker, Associate Scientist of Seventh Generation, “Our consumers want to know where their products originate without being ‘greenwashed.’ The USDA Certified Biobased label enables us to disclose the percent renewable carbon in our products, telling consumers how much carbon comes from plants versus petroleum. The credibility of the method will give consumers the confidence they deserve to make conscious choices about their purchases and the products they bring into their homes.”


Jacquelyn Ottman and Mark Eisen are colleagues at New York City-based J. Ottman Consulting, Inc. They advised USDA BioPreferred on the launch of the USDA Certified Biobased label during 2011 and are now working with labelers on capturing the value of their participation in the program. Ms. Ottman is the author of The New Rules of Green Marketing: Strategies, Tools and Inspiration for Sustainable Branding (Berrett-Koehler, 2011), named a Top 40 Sustainability book by Cambridge University. Mr. Eisen is the former environmental marketing director at The Home Depot.  They are co-authors of The Rise of the Biobased Economy — Why Brand Owners Need a Strategy in 2012.

Copyright © 2012 J. Ottman Consulting, Inc.

image credits: via Flickr cc (some rights reserved)

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4 responses

  1. Re: “USDA Certification Raises The Bar For Biobased Products”
    Many years and many products prior to Seventh Generation there were predecessor companies actively promoting the Biobased Certification Logo program.  All of the early participants in the Biobased Certification and Biopreferred FB4P program going back to 1998 and even before during the Clinton Administration with the first Farm Bill, will want to note that several companies including GEMTEK, Franmar, EnviroLogic, Interchem, Soy Clean, Vertec, Cargil, Dupont and a few others led the way to the present iteration of the Biopreferred (Biobased Certification) program with the evolution of the Iowa State University BEES Analysis, biobased product research and other testing to qualification standards of minimum biobased content and even the correct spelling and use of the present word “biobased” which before had variously been spelled bio-based (with and without a hyphen) until as recently as 2006 by most federal and state agencies. 
    These mostly industrial and institutional chemical companies participated in the public discussions of product classifications and categories and other issues of the FB4P evolution with members of the USDA Agricultural Research Service and led the way for biobased I&I and retail chemicals by promoting the concept of biobased content and actually selling the differences (sustainable, non-toxic, readily biodegradable, chlorine-free, green cleaning and similar) long before the other consumer retail brands jumped on board.  It is the early work of these stakeholders that is taken for granted today.  You may note that the circular seal Biobased 100 (intended to range from 50% to 100%) image shown in the article is one developed as a model by GEMTEK and the Biobased Manufacturers Association for use by the entire biobased manufacturing community.  The 501c3 Biobased Manufacturers Association, which I founded in 2003, was an early attempt to promote the same content information for the entire range of industrial, commercial and consumer products as the current decidedly agrarian-looking Biobased Certification Logo does today. 
    While we are all delighted that Seventh Generation saw fit to adapt to and qualify to the USDA Biobased Certification Logo for their products marketing program, it was the efforts of other mostly small business leaders in the biobased industry that the credit should go to and indeed they were the very first to be certified to and again recently recertified to the same content standards now evidenced by the Biobased Certification Logo.

    Kim C. Kristoff,

    1. Hello,
      I have few questions about USDA’s role in developing biopreferred program and what is recent concern of USDA in program. And also How did BMA’s certification label affected USADA’s certification label development. One final question that how and when did the BMA’s certification label was prepared in the beginning. 

  2. Regarding Mr. Kristoff, the Pace Group only existed from approximately 1986 to 1987 when it was sold to an unfortunate architect and then was forced into bankruptcy. Mr. Kristoff transferred all the real estate partneships to Tandem Development and Kim C. Kristoff Irrevocable trust. He continued with Tandem Development for years, but, went into a personal bankruptcy in 1991, $26,000,000.00 bankruptcy and even discharged his divorce lawyer. The bankruptcy continued until 1993, but, he was investing $1.5 million into Gemtek on the opposite side of the country starting in 1991. He also discharged his former Pace Group heads, his former wife, real estate partners, designers, banks, etc. but, continued to retain all real estate partnerships, and now you know how he financed Gemtek.

  3. Regarding Mr. Kristoff, the Pace Group only existed from approximately 1986 to 1987 when it was sold to an unfortunate architect and then was forced into bankruptcy. Mr. Kristoff transferred all the real estate partnerships to Tandem Development and Kim C. Kristoff Irrevocable trust. He continued with Tandem Development for years, but went into a personal bankruptcy in 1991, $26,000,000.00 bankruptcy and even discharged his partners, former Pace Group heads, his wife, his divorce lawyer, designers, banks, etc. The bankruptcy continued until 1993, but, he was investing $1.5 Million into Gemtek on the opposite side of the country starting in 1991. He continued to retain all real estate partnerships and now you know how he financed Gemtek. He stated on his Zoominfo bio that he was Chairman of Biobased Manufacturers. On former website he stated he had a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, but he never did. He also states, in the left column, that he was President of The Pace Group Companies. He never was President. Carl B. Amthor was President of The Pace Group, but, unfortunately has passed away. He states that in 1973 he started his solar involvements. This is not true. He was a draftsman and renderer for an interior design firm in the Washington, D.C. area. In 1978, he became partners with Clyde Hurst, solar mechanical engineer, and partner in Hurst & Associates, Civil Engineers, Falls Church, VA, Washington Post article, “Living”, 2/22/81. In 1979, he became a partner in RWK (Rancorn, Wildman & Krause, Newport News, VA and Rancorn, Wilson & Kristoff, Washington, D.C.) The Pace Group was only a consulting company started in 1985 and dumped RWK by takeover then, and Mr. Kristoff discharged RWK in bankruptcy in 1991. He started Tandem Development secretly so that he could sit in on developer meetings as an architect and learn their trade. His seed monies came from absconded seed monies from his first real estate agent wife of 18 years. He had a secret love child while married to his first wife with his secretary also married, formerly Sarah Schectel Darcey. All the Pace Group heads resigned one month after their child was born in 1987 and the demise of the Pace Group was then. And now you know how Mr. Kristoff financed Gemtek. Also, just a side note, his Phoenix Art Lab site states he was a courtroom illustrator for the Washington, Post, also the site where it states he was a Green Pioneer. This is not true. Mr. Kristoff never was a courtroom illustrator. And he is more of a Yellow Pirate.

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