Navigating the ‘Wild West’ of Eco-Labels: Science-Backed Tips for Consumers

Doctors in laboratoryThe Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) and Department of Energy’s (DOE) Energy Star program is one of the most recognizable and trusted environmental labels in the marketplace – but it wasn’t always that way.

Launched in 1992 to help consumers find the most energy-efficient products, the program initially allowed companies to sign up to use the Energy Star logo by self-reporting their products’ energy savings; the EPA and DOE would perform only occasional spot-checks on items carrying the eco-label. But a federal audit in 2010 revealed that some Energy Star products did not live up to their energy-savings claims. Worse, the program even accepted several fictitious products created by the Government Accountability Office to investigate Energy Star’s certification process like a gasoline-powered alarm clock the size of an electric generator.

Since the scandal, the EPA and DOE changed the way the energy-efficiency initiative approves new products, now requiring companies to have their products – and energy-savings claims – tested at independent laboratories.

The case of Energy Star illustrates the dilemma consumers face when they come across a product with a label boasting environmental responsibility: Can consumers trust that the claims these eco-labels make are true?

The legal landscape

When a shopper finds an environmental claim on a product – especially if it’s an official-looking label – he may think this stamp of approval is endorsed by the government, but that’s not necessarily the case. In 2012, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) strengthened its regulations on environmental marketing claims – or “Green Guides” – as a host of such assertions flooded the marketplace, due to growing consumer demand for eco-friendly products.

“The FTC Green Guides clarified the rules of the game,” says Scot Case, director of market development for UL Environment, which conducts testing, certification and validation for companies’ environmental claims. “Before the FTC Green Guides it was the wild, wild West … Now it’s just the Wild West.”

While government oversight of environmental claims and labels has improved, there are still cases of “greenwashing” in the marketplace. This year alone, Case says, a plastic lumber company exaggerated its products’ recycled content, a plastics company made false claims about its products’ biodegradability and a diaper company misled customers into believing its diapers were fully compostable and biodegradable. Fortunately, these companies and their false advertising were caught by the FTC, but what about greenwashing cases that slip by?

Tips and resources for consumers

The EPA has several key recommendations for shoppers looking to purchase more environmentally-friendly products: Look for eco-labels backed by widely-respected, trusted organizations and claims that have been verified by an independent third-party. A label should also be based on a set of standards, the EPA says, and that criteria should be readily accessible to the public – for example, published online.

The FTC agrees, writing in its “Shopping Green” guide for consumers: “Seals or certifications can be useful, but only if they’re backed up by solid standards and give you enough information to understand what they mean. A package also should tell you about any connections the company has to the organization behind the seal, if a connection might influence your opinion about the certificate or seal.”

For example, the nonprofit Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) purports to certify palm oil that was grown without contributing to deforestation. But environmental groups like Greenpeace have criticized RSPO’s verification program due to the palm oil’s industry heavy-handed influence over the group.

As with most types of research these days, it seems consumers’ best bet is to go online to investigate a green label they encounter. I recently noticed a Cradle to Cradle seal on my bottle of Method shower cleaner, and while I’m familiar with the term, “cradle to cradle,” I didn’t know much about the certification program. After a quick Internet search, I discovered that this standard to recognize a product’s overall environmental impact seemed reliable: It is based on a strict set of standards, it requires independent testing and it does not seem to be under any undue corporate influence.

In addition to simply looking up eco-labels one at a time on the web, consumers can get Consumer Reports’ opinion on environmental claims through its GreenerChoices.org database of labels. For example, the database tells us that the phrase, “100 percent biocompatible,” essentially has no meaning and no standard behind it, whereas the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic label is highly meaningful and is verified.

The EPA lists its green labeling programs, such as Energy Star and WaterSense, on its website, and the FTC’s “Going Green” consumer guide explains green marketing claims such as “non-toxic,” “ozone-friendly” and “recyclable.” UL’s Scot Case also recommends consumers check out Ecolabel Index, an online directory that is currently tracking 459 eco-labels worldwide.

If it’s not easy to find information about a label online, Case says, consider that to be a red flag; it may not be a reliable claim.

“Don’t use a label unless you understand it,” Case says. “Look for independent, third-party validation, and complain loudly if you don’t get it.”

Image courtesy of UL Environment

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for Bay Area cities and counties. Connect with Alexis on Twitter at @alexispetru

Alexis Petru

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for various Bay Area cities and counties for seven years. She has a degree in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley.