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It’s Biodegradable! Or is it? How to Distinguish the Green from the Greenwash: Part II

3p Contributor | Thursday May 10th, 2012 | 2 Comments

By Gia Machlin

EcolabelsThis is Part II of a two part post on how consumers can use ecolabels to distinguish the green from the greenwash.  Read part I here.

Last time I wrote about how easy it is for marketers to “greenwash” by claiming their products are “eco friendly,” “green,” and “natural” with very little regulation and enforcement around these claims. I introduced the importance of the ecolabel: a “seal of approval” that is given by a government agency, a non-profit or an independent third party when a product or company meets certain predetermined environmental standards. With over 400 ecolabels floating around out there, how do you know which ones to rely on for your purchasing decisions? Which ones seem to be the most reputable and unbiased? Of course, as with most things in life, it is hard to know if any of these organizations are truly “independent” and have no vested interest in making the claims they make, but the best we can do is rely on their transparency, track record, and reputation. So, with this caveat, please read more about those ecolabels that, at least based on my research and experience, seem to be the most worthy of consumers’ trust.

One can categorize ecolabels in a number of ways: who issues them, whether they apply to the entire company or just specific products, and whether they are general or industry specific. Let’s start with the type of issuing organization.

Are they issued by the government, a non profit or another third party organization?

Two of the most well known ecolabels are the USDA Organic and Energy Star logos. No doubt you have bought some food labeled USDA Organic or an appliance with the Energy Star seal of approval. These are government issued labels that require adherence to very specific standards, carry hefty fines for misuse, and require certification and testing of operations and products by an accredited certification agent. Other government issued labels include: the Green Vehicle Guide, Design for Environment, and WaterSense programs from the EPA, the USDA BioPreferred program, and the Canadian EcoLogo program.

Non-profits and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) also play an important role in ecolabeling. Some of the better known NGO labels are GreenSeal, Green America, Fair Trade USA, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, EPEAT, and the US Green Building Council’s LEED certification program. All of these programs have rigorous standards that products and companies must meet prior to earning the use of the seal or label. In some of these cases, the companies “self report” their compliance with these standards to the NGO, and there is little to no verification by the NGO. While this may make some people nervous, there is not a lot of room for abuse, as the NGOs monitor the companies closely for customer complaints and their reviewers are quite experienced in spotting the shadier applicants. Some of these organizations run random audits and site visits to maintain integrity.

Of course, this wouldn’t be America if we didn’t have our share of for profit companies in the ecolabeling space! The leader right now is probably UL Environment (ULE), with their 2010 acquisition of TerraChoice, a sustainability consulting firm and manager of Canada’s EcoLogo program. Another well known one is Cradle to Cradle, from MDBC, another sustainability consulting firm, although in 2011 the actual certification responsibility was transferred to a new, non-profit entity called the Cradle to Cradle Innovation institute, so technically they are part for-profit and part non-profit. These companies all require audits and verification of standards, and also provide advice and consulting services to bring their clients into “compliance” with their standards.

Next, you should know if the label applies to a specific product or to the entire company.

Company wide or product specific – there are pros and cons to each of these types of certifications. Examples of company wide certifications are Green America, B-Corporation, Fair Trade Certified, and in some cases Green Seal and ULE. When the entire company is certified, it often means that the issuing organization has looked beyond product attributes such as materials and energy use. Green America, for example, looks at the labor practices, fair trade practices, community involvement, transparency and communication, employee treatment, and charitable giving practices of the company. As a matter of fact, when EcoPlum first applied for Green America certification in 2009, we were turned down due to not having all these policies in place. (This, of course, made our obtaining Green America Gold certification in 2011 all the more coveted!) So, when you buy from a Green America Gold Certified company, for example, you know that the entire corporate culture is dedicated to sustainability and social responsibility. On the other hand, when labeling occurs at the product level, as with the Energy Star program, you know that the exact product that you are purchasing meets very specific environmental criteria, but the manufacturer may have sweatshops in China or be a big contributor to the Coal lobby, for example.

Finally, you should know if the label is specific to a certain industry or product type or if it is a general “green” certification.

Some of the ecolabels that cover a general range of products are Green Seal, Cradle to Cradle, Green America and EcoLogo. However, the majority of ecolabels are industry specific. So, if you are looking for safe cosmetics, then the EWG’s Skin Deep database is the place to go, but if you are buying a new car, check out the EPA’s Green Vehicle Guide. If you want a biodegradable cleaner, go to the USDA Biopreferred database, but if you want an eco friendly carpet, look it up in FloorScore. Yes, this is a lot of information, and if your head is not spinning yet, download our FREE GUIDE TO ECOLABELS here!

[Note: the EcoPlum Online Boutique carries only eco friendly products that have been certified green, have a third party eco-label, or are made of recycled/upcycled materials.]

Gia is the President and CEO of EcoPlum, Where it Pays to Buy Green®.  EcoPlum is the green shopping rewards site with eco friendly products and green living ideas that make it fun, easy and rewarding to go green. Under its loyalty program, buying green at EcoPlum online earns EcoChipz rewards points, good for coupons in its shop or donations to environmental causes.


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  • Mark

    The 400 ecolabel figure is often quoted, but it pertains to those listed on ecolabelindex.com, which includes obscure international labels; there are many less ecolabels in the US.  Scientific Certification Systems is also a major player in the field and its SCS green cross/globe logo is found on a lot of products. 

  • http://www.ecoplum.com/ Gia

    Thanks for the information on SCS, Mark – and thanks for reading the post!