A New Guide to Sustainable Certification Marks

If you’ve been taking eco-labels for their word, it might be time to re-evaluate your process for finding and specifying sustainable products.

by Erika Templeton

Is any one person able to wrap their head around the 400-plus green certification labels on the market today? Perhaps, but for those of us who haven’t been studying our eco-flash cards for the past decade, making sense of it all can be a daunting challenge.

Fortunately, the green marketing world is taking big strides to make those labels more valuable and easy to understand. Much of this change is occurring thanks to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Green Guides, which were updated on October 1, 2012. For the first time, the guide warns marketers against making broad environmental claims without explaining what they mean, or plastering eco-labels on their products without explaining where they came from.

In short, the FTC is now demanding sustainability with greater substance.

“The entire industry is moving towards life-cycle orientation and total transparency,” says Jacquelyn Ottman, founder and principal of J. Ottman Consulting Inc., and author of “The New Rules of Green Marketing: Strategies, Tools and Inspiration for Green Branding.” “Previously, it was OK with the FTC if you used words like ‘green’ or ‘environmentally friendly.’ Now the FTC is saying, ‘Forget it, folks. You can’t do that anymore. Show us the life-cycle-based data.’ And chances are nobody has it.”

A year after the updated FTC Green Guides have been released, labelers are still working diligently to make changes—even those devoted to doing green certification right. Take the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association’s (BIFMA) level® certification mark, for example. According to Ottman, “they have looked at it from a complete life-cycle basis. It is totally consistent with ANSI. It provides a lot of transparency, and it’s just the right way to do it.”

And yet, the level mark is still not up to snuff with the new FTC Green Guides, which now classify certifications and seals as endorsements, and advise that all eco-labels should clearly convey who created the mark, disclose any material connections between the manufacturer and the certifier, and explain the basis for the certification and its environmental benefits.

“In retrospect, I see our level mark and realize that an uninformed consumer looking at that wouldn’t know anything. It doesn’t even say furniture on it,” says Tom Reardon, executive director of BIFMA. “So we’ve made some changes. Without that push from the FTC we wouldn’t have a more informative label.”

how to judge by the cover
As the industry continues to work toward an ideal framework for conveying environmental product information, here are a few useful pointers for designers sifting through the information today.

1. Look for multi-attribute certifications with clear explanations.
Single-attribute certifications offer a view of only one environmental impact, and relying on these alone can lead to some misleading assumptions about a product’s overall sustainability.

“As much as I love Energy Star or Biobased, just because you have a product certified under one of those marks doesn’t mean you can call it a ‘green’ product,” Ottman says. “What about water efficiency? What about mercury?”

In fact, whether a product label represents a single-attribute or multi-attribute analysis, the word “green” should always send up a red flag. This is a gross oversimplification and does not comply with current FTC Green Guides.

“What manufacturers need to do is simplify and be specific. It could say ‘my light bulb is 20 percent more energy efficient than the leading brand,’ or ‘meets Energy Star standards for energy efficiency,’” Ottman explains. “But they also need to provide levels of information, whether it’s downloadable PDFs, web pages or what have you.”

A product label can only hold so much information, so consider the certification mark a quick guide, and follow up with more in-depth research to confirm that the attributes measured actually align with the sustainability goals of your project.

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