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Transparency and Certification: The Yin and Yang of Sustainability

3p Contributor | Thursday July 3rd, 2014 | 6 Comments

ul-environment-logoBy Scot Case

Tastes great. Less filling. Tastes great. Less filling. Like the beer advertising campaign that ran for more than 30 years, manufacturers of greener products are debating whether customers want them to “label the greener products” or “share the eco-data.”

Label the greener products

Some manufacturers believe that their customers want a respected third-party label to identify the greener products. The label identifies the product as “greener” than others because it has specific environmental features or because it meets an environmental leadership standard.

Manufacturers are working with independent third-parties to validate specific environmental claims such as minimum recycled-content percentages, energy efficiency or water efficiency claims, indoor air quality emissions or bio-based content claims.

They are also using labels to make broader environmental or human health leadership claims by certifying products to environmental leadership standards like UL’s GREENGUARD and ECOLOGO, Green Seal, IEEE1680, or others.

The advantage of the “label the greener products” approach is that it is a simple, effective way to communicate a customer-facing environmental message. It does not require customers to spend time determining for themselves what defines a greener product. All a customer needs to do is look for products with a respected “green” label.

Share the eco data

Other manufacturers believe their customers want more information than a product label can convey. They believe customers want to decide for themselves what defines a greener product rather than relying on someone else’s definition. They prefer to share actual eco-data rather than relying on a label.

These manufacturers view sharing the eco-data as a more dynamic approach because eco-data can be updated faster than environmental labelling standards can be revised. Rather than relying on standards or labels, they think customers prefer to see the raw data.

Manufacturers who prefer to share the eco-data rely on outside third-parties to develop environmental product declarations (EPDs), which are similar to the nutrition label on a box of cereal. An EPD summarizes the full environmental footprint of a product based on a published lifecycle assessment (LCA). The LCA is, in turn, based on internationally agreed upon product category rules (PCRs) that define what aspects of an environmental footprint must be evaluated.

Unlike most environmental labels, EPDs do not make any value judgment about the relative “green-ness” of a product. An EPD instead provides relevant environmental data based on a more extensive examination of the complete environmental footprint of a product. It is up to individual customers to determine whether the product, based on the EPD data, is green enough for their needs.

Leverage the strength of both

Interestingly, the “label the greener products” and the “share the eco-data” approaches are not mutually exclusive. Some companies, like Owens Corning, are recognizing that the two approaches are complementary and even symbiotic. Owens Corning is adopting a “both-and” approach that includes certifying products to environmental leadership standards like UL’s GREENGUARD and ECOLOGO while also publishing Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs).

Part of the rationale for adopting both approaches is that each approach is appealing to different types of customers.

Environmental labels, including both validated claims and certifications to leadership standards, are appealing to customers who seek quick information about the relative environmental benefits of a product. They might be concerned about a specific environmental issue – recycled content, energy efficiency, water efficiency – or they might just be looking for independent, third-party validation that the product they are buying has met a respected authority’s definition of a greener product.

Other types of customers, including professional purchasers, retail buyers, architects and engineers, might want more specific information. They don’t want to know that a product meets someone else’s definition of green. They want to review the data and decide for themselves.

yin_and_yang

The yin and the yang

Manufactures supplying the greener products market are recognizing that both approaches are important. Others are too. They are recognizing that “label the greener products” and “share the eco-data” are two sides of the same coin, the yin and yang of environmental communications.

One of the most significant changes to Version 4 of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED standard for greener buildings, for example, is the additional credits available for products that provide EPDs. Older versions of the LEED standard relied almost exclusively on environmental labels. The newer version also encourages EPDs.

The most recent revisions to the IEEE1680 series of standards for greener electronic products also encourage the use of EPDs. It appears EPDs will become more and more important in some industry verticals.

EPDs remain too complex for the average consumer who typically lacks the expertise to use an EPD appropriately, but can be very useful for institutional purchasers and retail buyers. Similarly, traditional environmental labels do not provide enough information for professional purchasers who want to make their own independent assessments about the environmental benefits of a product, but can be very useful for the average consumer.

The information contained within an EPD can be further summarized in an environmental label to make it easier to explain environmental benefits to consumers. And an environmental label can enhance the value of the information if it is connected to a more comprehensive EPD.

Both approaches are stronger together than they are on their own.

Just as the same beer can be both “less filling” and “taste great,” manufacturers can choose to both “label the greener products” and “share the eco-data.”

Images courtesy of UL Environment

About the Author: Scot Case has been researching and promoting effective green marketing and responsible purchasing since 1993 and was co-author of the original “Sins of Greenwashing” study and advisor to subsequent editions. He is the Market Development Director for UL Environment. Contact him via Twitter: @scotcase, email: scot.case@ul.com or in Reading, PA, at 610-781-1684. This article represents the views of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the views of UL Environment or its affiliates or subsidiaries. This article is for general information purposes only and is not meant to convey legal or other professional advice.


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  • jenboynton

    Customers come on a spectrum, right? All the LOHAS (lifestyles of health and sustainability) folks are going to want labels, but the deep green folks may also want access to the eco-data. The label gives you an indication that a product might be worth investigating further. Are there groups that really only care about eco-data?

    Great food for thought Scot!

    • Scot Case

      Thanks, Jen. I agree completely. Customers are on a continuum. In public presentations, I refer to it as customers along the Sustainability Communication Curve. (Maybe the topic for a future article?)
      Interestingly, there are a few customers that only care about eco-data. Some architects and engineers are deciding that labels do not provide enough information so they are requesting EPDs. There are also a number of retailers that are interested in the raw sustainability footprint of products (based on metrics defined by the retailers). The retailers are collecting the information and using it to make business decisions, but they have not yet figured out how to share the information with their customers.
      Personally, I think someone like my mom will always prefer the simplicity of a label. I think the data-based approach will be reserved for true eco-geeks like myself and a few professional purchasers or retail buyers with specific interests.
      Great question.

  • frances edmonds

    Love the yin yang analogy- well said Scott

    • Scot Case

      Thanks, Frances. Love the panda bear.

  • Regina Ryerson

    Thanks, Scot, for this encouraging news! I own and operate a cleaning service for health-minded customers. Among the many hats I wear is product screener. I strive for sustainability, but find eco-certifications limiting. So maybe an EPD can help.

    I need to know instantly if a product is made, for example, with synthetic or petroleum-based ingredients. Or if any bio-based ingredients are sourced from factory farms (think antibiotics, pesticides and hormones, for starters). Eco-certifications don’t give me that info, or at least not instantly. So I normally use Dr. Bronner’s Pure Castile Soap. The major ingredients are made from fairly-traded USDA Organic plant oils. The product is free of ingredients made from petroleum or factory farms. I also use USDA Organic vinegar, along with baking soda.

    Then there are the many cleaning tools I use. I’ve reduced my use of plastics and such, and hoping EPDs can help me make more progress.

    • Scot Case

      I love it, Regina. You’re exactly the kind of customer that companies need to better understand. Your customers might only want to see an environmental certification mark, but you need more information than that to make the kinds of decisions you want to make. And, interestingly, I think companies need to understand the role you play in educating your customers about which products they should be using. I doubt your customers will ever want to know as much as you do so EPDs might not be appropriate for them, but your recommendation or a third-party certification probably go a long way with them.