“Energy Star,” “all-natural,” “biodegradable” and, of course, “organic” – these are just a few of the environmental claims and labels that consumers navigate as they do their everyday shopping.
“There are lots and lots of labels out there,” says Scot Case, director of markets and development for UL Environment, which provides validation for companies’ environmental claims. “One website has tracked just north of 400 different environmental labels used worldwide. That can be overwhelming and confusing for the typical consumer like my mom, as well as professional purchasers.”
TriplePundit has been delving into the issue of environmental labels – and the evidence backing up their assertions – in our “Setting the Standards” series. But we thought we’d back up and take a fresh look at the basics of green labels: What kinds of labels are currently in the marketplace, and how can consumers be sure their promises are accurate?
Types of eco-labels
Eco-labels can generally be categorized into three types, according to Case, who has worked in the environmental standards and verification field for over 20 years. First are issue-specific labels that focus on one environmental claim such as the product’s percentage of recycled content, biodegradability or energy efficiency. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star label, which identifies products that meet federal energy efficiency standards, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic seal are two of the more recognizable issue-specific labels.
The second kind – multi-attribute labels – tracks the hidden health, environmental and social impacts of a product across its entire lifecycle, from mining and manufacturing to consumer use and disposal, Case says. Green Seal is one such label for products, services, hotels and restaurants, as is UL’s own ECOLOGO program that certifies products, services and packaging.
Finally, there are broader informative tools, such as the GoodGuide, Case says, which provides ratings of a product’s environmental, health and social impacts – allowing consumers to compare the sustainability of similar products for themselves.
Another way to think about eco-labels, according to Case, is to divide them into two groups: pass/fail or graduated standards. For example, appliances and electronics either meet Energy Star standards and receive the label, or they don’t; it’s a simple pass/fail test. But in a graduated standards program like Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED), homes and commercial buildings can achieve various rankings – Silver, Gold or Platinum – based on the amount of sustainable elements they incorporate.
The truth behind the eco-label
How can consumers ensure a product or service lives up to the green assertions it makes?
“You want to make sure you find claims that have been validated by an independent third party,” Case says. “What happens in this space, unfortunately, is a company will make an environmental claim that turns out to be not quite accurate.”
Case points to a recent example in which a plastic lumber company exaggerated the recycled content of its products. Engineered Plastics Systems advertised its tables and benches as “made entirely of recycled plastic lumber” and “all recycled plastic design,” but the company offered no independent proof of this statement on its product packaging or website. It turned out that Engineered Plastics Systems’ products contained, in fact, only about 70 percent recycled plastic – a discrepancy that got the company in trouble with the Federal Trade Commission.
When evaluating green labels, you should also look for some kind of leadership standard, Case says. For example, a paint manufacturer may declare that its product emits 100 grams of volatile organic compounds per liter; that could be an accurate environmental claim, Case says, but it’s meaningless to the average consumer. What’s more useful to consumers is to know that a product met a tough leadership standard – that the paint has a GREENGUARD label, UL’s indoor air quality emissions certification program for flooring, electronics, insulation and other products.
“For consumers, what’s important is not just that there is a label [on the product,] but the substance behind the label,” Case says. “By substance, I mean independent, third-party testing based on actual scientific standards. And typically, you’re looking for a label that has some history to it and is widely recognized by consumers.”
Image credit: 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