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Shop Your Values: What Does 'Sustainable' Really Mean?

Jan Lee headshotWords by Jan Lee

Walmart Sponsored Series

Setting The Standard
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How do you measure sustainability? Most of us would have two to four quick answers: Energy usage, quality of materials, longevity or carbon footprint.

Now, how exactly do you quantify that? In other words, how do customers figure out if a clothes dryer is going to use an affordable amount of energy and be worth the purchase? How do they know if that lotion or conditioner they bought is really made of ingredients that are not only healthy but okay for the environment once rinsed down the drain?  What if they need construction materials that are mold resistant and won’t create allergens or decompose from humid weather?

The answer, says Scot Case, director of Market Development for UL Environment, is the same approach we have, for years, relied on to ensure that toaster in the kitchen is safe to use, or the inspection that was used when your office was wired for lighting: validation and certification that sets thresholds and manufacturing standards.

“So if someone wants to make recycled content claim,” says Case, “[UL Environment] can validate that claim. If they want to make an energy efficiency claim, or a biodegradability claim, or a compostability claim, we can validate those specific environmental claims [as well].”

In fact, UL Environment isn’t one broad-ranging certification program, but a composite of specialized processes that, as a whole, strives to address as many environmental concerns as possible. Its GREENGUARD label is one of its more unusual examples.

GREENGUARD has made substantial strides in recent years in developing markers that help us verify and quantify potential chemical emissions in our homes, what are called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Through laboratory testing, researchers are able to measure those VOCs and, for example, determine the safety of a particular infant mattress or the paint a consumer is planning to use in the nursery. It’s able to establish safety thresholds and performance standards that 30 years ago may have seemed more like fiction than plausible science.

“So we can actually get detailed information about what [is] off-gassing from the product” (being emitted as VOCs) explains Case.  “And that is proven to be particularly important in the green building sector, where they are trying to avoid sick building syndrome.” And it’s been particularly important to consumers who often want data before they buy a product.

Interestingly, the challenge that UL Environment often sees in the sustainability sector, says Case, is the confusion over what the ‘sustainability’ label means – and what it doesn’t.

“I think in its simplest form, the big challenge is that sustainability is a big, huge complex, interconnected subject,” says Case. “And most consumers only understand a narrow slice of it. Unfortunately, different groups of consumers understand different slices of sustainability.” Often that understanding may be determined by what the customer sees as most important to their environmental concerns.

“[Some] consumers understand things like recycled content, other consumers understand things like energy efficiency. Other consumers might be really focused on no GMOs [genetically modified organisms], or no adverse chemicals. Other consumers look to combine those kinds of issues in some way.”

And oftentimes, the same confusion exists on the side of the manufacturers, says Case. “Manufactures understand these things slightly differently. So you have a group that only understands things kind of partially, communicating with another group that only understands things partially. So there are huge opportunities for miscommunication.”

The result is what some call “‘the power of eco-babble,' with a bunch of people speaking past each other, just generating additional confusion,” says Case.

And that’s why validation and sustainability standards are essential. “Because once you have things like environmental standards and verification protocols that provide clarity in the space, then you can actually have effective communication.”

The ECOLOGO label, which initially was part of Terrachoice prior to 2010, is an example of the expansive breadth of UL Environment’s focus. Case describes it as a “multi-attribute environmental standard” that is able to address needs across multiple industries, from building and construction to electronics.

The program also offers validation of recycled, reclaimed or rapidly renewable materials, which all point toward their ability to redirect materials or products from the landfill.

And perhaps one of UL Environment’s more surprising coups recently is its Zero Waste validation, which backs up businesses that attain 80 percent or more diversion from the landfill. It takes considerable effort for a company to reach that marker.

“We have a roofing materials company that has actually managed to get a close to zero-waste claim,” Case explains. “And then we have a tire company, a manufacturing facility that has managed to do that as well. So it is interesting to see the companies and fascinating how hard they have to work to get there.”

And like many of UL Environment’s validation programs, it’s proof that sustainability matters both to customers and to those who strive so hard to ensure their mark counts for the next generation.

Image courtesy of UL Environment