We all know it: Green is the new black. One of the many manifestations of the environmentalist trend/movement is that labels and certifications designed for the environmentally-conscious consumer have been proliferating like mad. Even if you’re savvy enough to know about LEED and FSC, there are dozens of lesser-known eco-labels. It’s hard to derive information from a label you’ve never seen before, but you may be able to figure out which category of label you’re looking at – government, proprietary, or independent agency. I’m taking this week’s Is It Green to blitz through some of these and give a little context to those logos.
Lately green labels have become even more widespread and now companies have started creating proprietary labels to slap on their own products. In a previous Is It Green, I wrote about how HP is awarding some of its printers an “Eco Highlights” label outlining its environmental benefits. HP’s competitor, Canon, does the same thing – except their label’s design makes it look more like an award from an independent agency rather than a self-generated list of selling points. We decided to organize this guide into three main categories of labels to help differentiate between certifications issued by the government, industries and proprietary organizations, and independent agencies.
ENERGY STAR is a joint program between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy that certifies electronics and appliances, and now houses and buildings too. The program was started in 1992. The EPA and the DOE develop standards for energy use and award ENERGY STAR qualification to products based on data from the manufacturer, which is not independently verified. Although the program isn’t perfect, and recently took major heat in Consumer Reports, its standards are consistent and the program is generally recognized as legit.
Is It Green?: Die-hard answer: No certification without verification! Pragmatic answer: At least you know you shouldn’t buy a refrigerator that failed to be ENERGY STAR qualified.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) developed a fixed set of standards that must be met by anyone using the “organic” label in the United States. These standards were issued in December 2000, after 10 years of research and development. USDA accredits other organizations, which then certify products, so there is a verification element. “Organic” means that antibiotics, genetic engineering, and most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are out. It also means that animals must eat 100% organic feed with no growth hormones, and must have access to the outdoors (except for chickens).
Is It Green?: It is. Standards are consistent and independently verified, and strict rules about conflicts of interest are enforced. Watch out for the difference between “100% organic,” “organic” and “made with organic ingredients.”
INDUSTRY AND PROPRIETARY LABELS
Carpet and Rug Institute’s Green Label and Green Label Plus
We mentioned the Carpet and Rug Institute’s green labels in a previous Is It Green. Maid Brigade uses vacuums that have been certified by this entity. But who ever heard of the Carpet and Rug Institute, much less their green labels? It turns out that the labels refer to a carpet’s VOC and other chemical emissions. The carpet, adhesives, cushions and vacuums are tested by an “independent laboratory” using a methodology developed with the help of the EPA.
Is It Green?: Yes, although indoor air quality is a small component of the environmentally sound life. Things like sustainable material sourcing, durability, and green company practices are more important to green living.
The Future Friendly logo for household cleaning products is presented as an alliance between separate brands, but all the entities are under the Proctor & Gamble umbrella. The brands are engaged in public service campaigns that promote green practices like washing laundry in cold water.
Is It Green?: Yes. The company is making some good moves. But they are not very forthcoming about the fact that this is an in-house operation.
INDEPENDENT AGENCY LABELS
Cradle to Cradle
Cradle to Cradle certification is given out by the design and consulting firm McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), founded in 1995. The certification system evaluates products using a series of environmental and social criteria based on the principles of Cradle to Cradle design, developed by McDonough and Braungart and set forth in their book of the same name. The basic principle is that a product should be designed in such a way that it can be used for something at the end of its life – fuel, for example.
Is It Green?: Very much so. The standards are rigorous. They are publicly available. They get at the heart of the problem of sustainability for a culture of consumption.
Forest Stewardship Council
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification is for timber and wood products as well as forest management. An international organization founded in 1993, FSC accredits other agencies which certify products and companies according to the FSC’s standards. Standards for wood include: no genetic engineering, no harvesting in conservation areas, and no harvesting from conversion of natural forests.
Is It Green?: Yes, but the FSC has been criticized for conflicts of interest due to the fact that anyone can join the General Assembly that sets the rules, even if they have allegiances elsewhere. The certification has also been accused of blurring distinctions between natural forests and plantations, and shifting standards too frequently.
* This entry was eroneously listed under “government” and corrected by a commentor. Although the USGBC works closely with the government on legislation, and government buildings account for 10% of LEED projects, USGBC is a non-profit unaffiliated with the federal government.
The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council is rigorous and thorough. Although it is still being refined, and professional builders can easily find faults with it, it’s very difficult to get a LEED-certification without working hard on things like energy efficiency, green roofing and air quality. There are four levels of LEED – Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum, with each one increasingly elite.
Is It Green?: Yeah! The LEED standards are tough and their legitimacy is well-established. The program definitely encourages green design, especially the provision that awards credits for innovation. I’ve interviewed builders who were involved in LEED projects, and they were all aiming for innovation credits – for example, one builder had used mirrors on top of another building he owned to reflect light to the solar panels on the new building.
There are too many labels to keep up with, but that shouldn’t stop a determined shopper. In general, industry or proprietary labels are the most suspect, with a tossup between independent agencies whose independence is difficult to verify and government or consensus-based standards which may not be rigorous enough. A good resource is the Consumer Reports online database of eco-labels.
+ ENERGY STAR
+ Carpet and Rug Institute
+ Proctor & Gamble’s Future Friendly
+ Cradle to Cradle