How Green Is My Product?

Or: How I stopped worrying about greenwashing and learned to love EPDs
You have a product and you want to tell the world how great it is. But what if you want to make claims that it’s better than the competition? How can you do so without being slammed for greenwashing? Even in these early days of green marketing, already more than one company has fallen into that trap, resulting in considerable backlash.
Consider Cotton USA, with their claim that industrial cotton production is sustainable – even though it is an intensely petroleum and chemically-driven monoculture. Chevron’s “Will You Join Us” campaign is considered to be another big violator – the tagline itself rings patently false to anyone semi-aware of any oil company’s carbon credentials. So, how can you launch a sustainability marketing campaign and avoid the pitfalls of a greenwashing backlash?

The risk may be less than you fear. As Joel Makower noted recently in his analysis of the state of green product marketing (published by TerraChoice), “… a lot of what’s called ‚Äògreenwash[ing]’ is in the eye of the beholder. What for some consumers might be a reasonable and meaningful marketing claim can be seen by others to be a travesty of justice. Sometimes the criticism is justified; often it’s nit-picking.” So, it seems that doing nothing gets you into trouble, yet doing something risks getting you criticized by the very same folks who were encouraging you to act in the first place.
Why not just choose a methodology and forget it, then? This approach has merit if your chosen methodology has already become the de-facto standard, but this is rare in the young field of green marketing. More likely, there are multiple competing standards, and it’s unclear which one will rise above the fray. Rewind to being beaten up by another reviewer for not using their standard, rinse and repeat a few times and you can see why business is leery of claiming any green improvements until they feel they are beyond reproach – maybe 50 years from now….
What to do? Enter the EPD. Is this just another acronym in search of a problem to solve? Yes and no. In this case, the methodology behind the acronym – the Environmental Product Declaration – was created by an international consortium to compare the relative environmental performance of products in the same market space. At its core, the EPD relies on a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) to make comparisons. As different product categories have inherently different environmental characteristics, the EPD adds an additional layer – called Product Category Rules (PCR) to ensure that you really can say that your product is better than your competitors’ – and have the science to back it up. Unlike other sustainability standards du jour, the EPD’s multilateral backing and scientific grounding make it robust enough to plug into any green marketing campaign and strong enough to stand up to challenges of greenwashing.
Although EPDs originated in Europe – and are significantly more common there at the moment – that is starting to change. Some leading US-based companies, such as InterfaceFLOR and Knoll, have started to adopt EPD certifications. Why? Not only because it allows them to compete effectively in European markets, but also because it gives them an advantage in making scientifically verified environmental claims for their products in the US market.
“We were eager to create and have verified an EPD to raise the bar, move our industry and provide the model and foundation for our competitors to follow. Ultimately this will allow our customers to make apples-to-apples comparisons of carpet products. Now our competitors need to get on board and do their own EPDs,” said David Hobbs, president of InterfaceFLOR, an industry leader in environmental sustainability.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. Because EPDs are standardized, verifiable, and reliable, InterfaceFLOR can ground their green marketing claims without fear of repercussions. Could such an approach work at your company? Are there other problems with the EPD that we didn’t address here? Sound off in the comments!


fairridge logoFairRidge Group is a team of management, strategy, and change experts focused on business transformation through the practical application of sustainability for operational improvement and strategic innovation. FairRidge brings a new framework for sustainability management that integrates strategy, operations, branding, measurement and organizational development to drive profitable business transformation.
Peter Whitehead is a Principal at FairRidge Group, with 25 years of management consulting, entrepreneurial and executive management experience. Peter earned a double honors degree in Industrial Engineering and Economics at the University of Birmingham, UK.

About FairRidge FairRidge Group is a team of management, strategy, and change experts focused on business transformation through the practical application of sustainability for operational improvement and strategic innovation. FairRidge brings a new framework for sustainability management that integrates strategy, operations, branding, measurement and organizational development to drive profitable business transformation. Because of our deep business experience, we address sustainability in a way that focuses on real business needs and drivers, not passing trends or fads. Our goal is to use this unique perspective to deliver our clients the best combination of business and sustainability expertise for their particular situation. Through the domain specialists in our Expert Network, FairRidge can easily tailor our team to fit client needs. Our sustainability services are available on both a project-specific and ongoing subscription basis. Learn More About Us Here

5 responses

  1. I was actively involved in the Fair Trade coffee industry for a few years. MOST coffee roasters saw the benefit of a ‘beyond reproach’ certifying body, but a handful of personality driven businesses felt that they could do ‘fair’ better and that they could position themselves as beyond reproach. There were/are mixed results.
    The difference with environmental issues today is that there are so many watchdogs, self appointed and otherwise, who dissect every visible part of your business. Standards like the EPD will inevitably be the cost of doing business.

  2. I agree that greenwashing can be subjective and that makes it really tough on companies who can feel like they are in a lose-lose situation. There needs to be a clear path for them that avoids both patches of thorns and certification can be that path. Although you also have to look at why the certifications out there have not already achieved this and the answer is, as you stated, that a clear standard is needed rather than a confusing mess of certifications.

    Is the EPD certification the answer we’ve been looking for? The basis of the certification looks promising, but I’d love to see more details, such as if a company (or product) is judged only compared to others in its class or to its potential. (I.e. what has more value, an industry leader in sustainability that in fact isn’t doing all that much or a mid-range one that is actually doing more?)

    So the question becomes: what makes EPD’s different than the countless other certifications out there? I’m not even talking about the details of the certification here, but assuming it is has a better methodology, what is it doing differently to come to the fore and become the standard, something that every certification body was and is intending to do?

    I’m looking forward to hearing more about this, keep us posted!

  3. Great article! I am also a major advocate of LCA to EPD and am in the process of producing a few for clients. It truly is a definitive way to compare environmental attributes of two products. However, it is important to note that an EPD is not a “certification”. The produced LCA information is verified by a 3rd party (a firm or person that does not conduct the LCA) then after the EPD is designed it is registered with another organization (again, separate from the verifying organization). In a sea of confusing single attribute eco labels and certifications, the verified, registered EPD is truly a way to understand a products ENTIRE impact.

  4. Hi Peter, sorry it took so long to post… the world of EPDs and education is crazy right now. Very good article and would love to see the dialogue continue on EPDs and spreading the word. Great job by the way!

    The question of why is it different brings one major answer to mind: LCA. Most certifications programs out there use attributes that are selected based on values or some documentation that there is an identified issue within a given product category. They can be singular in focus or cover so much that it becomes confusing. Some are “lowest common denominator” in approach and others are the so high that only the best of the best can achieve them.

    Where the EPD is different is that, at its core, it doesn’t utilize someone’s or a group’s values or process to determine which criteria form the standard. The EPD is based on a Life Cycle Assessment, which takes into account the full range of impacts from cradle-to-grave/cradle. This eliminates the “did I miss an impact or attribute” type of question. The impacts are there. It also includes “additional environmental aspects” as are identified within the PCR in order to address issues such as Toxicity or Human Health that may not be covered by the LCA.

    Bottom line, if your looking to move out of an age where there are hidden agendas and a complete lack of information, EPDs are going to help. The one caution I would note here is that an EPD doesn’t itself designate a product as “good”. It provides the information for the user to make that determination based off of the situation, preferences or values of the purchasing organization.

    In the interests of full disclosure, The Green Standard is the program operator of the only US EPD program. We are also working on a collaborative effort with a formal Type I ecolabel to combine it with our Type III to provide the best of both worlds… :)

    stay tuned…

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