The Lowdown on Labeling: The Green Guides & Certification Groups

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by Valerie Kosheleff
Published by the U.S. Green Chamber of Commerce, January 11, 2011.
Article Link: The Lowdown on Labeling

Still unsure what “natural”, “biodegradable”, “compostable” or “ecofriendly” truly mean? No worries, so is everyone else. Fortunately, 2011 shows great promise for integrity in environmental labeling. Not only has the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) taken steps this past year to revise its Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims (called Green Guides for short), but several of the world’s largest vendors of consumer products have also made great strides to establish common definition of what it means to label a product as “green”.

FTC Green Guides
The Green Guides advise on the gamut of environmentally friendly claims from labeling to advertising to symbols, be it in print or online, for items of personal or commercial use. A claim needs to clearly state which part of the product or service it refers to and to what degree it is applicable for the average consumer, or may be deemed a deceptive claim. After being available for public comment for 60 days, and having received over 300 responses, the new version of the Green Guides is due out mid-2011. While claims’ guidelines about carbon offsets, and the use of renewable materials and renewable energy are currently being updated, below are a few examples of what to expect from the Green Guides.

Example 1: A trash bag that claims it is biodegradable may be deemed deceptive if the biodegradation tests of that trash bag were conducted in a manner clearly different from the way the average consumer would dispose of the trash bag. Specifically, a trash bag that degrades after a few months of being buried in the soil (the test conducted by the company), but doesn’t degrade in a landfill (the usual resting place for US trash bags), would be deemed deceptive as it is not common place for the average consumer to bury their trash bag in soil.

Example 2: A claim that a coffee filter is compostable is acceptable if the filter will break down in a home compost pile without releasing any toxic chemicals as it degrades. However, packaging that states it is compostable yet can only be composted in a municipal or institutional composting facility needs to clearly state that or will be deemed deceptive.

Example 3: A product’s packaging elaborates that it is environmentally friendly because it was produced without using chlorine in the bleaching process, yet fails to indicate that the new production process releases other harmful chemicals into the atmosphere would be a deceptive claim.

Example 4: A claim that is reasonable and would not be deemed deceptive to the average consumer would be that a paper grocery bag is reusable. It is expected that the common consumer would understand that the paper grocery bag is durable enough to be reused a few times, but will eventually fall apart.

Supply Chain Sustainability & Certifications
Besides redefining their Guides, in the last two years the FTC has also filed seven suits against companies making false claims about their product’s eco-friendliness. This may have sparked companies such as Walmart to take the initiative to create transparency in its supply chain. In 2009, Walmart began its ongoing project to create the Sustainability Index. The three phases of this project include surveying its suppliers regarding their sustainability practices, developing the Sustainability Index Consortium (a consortium of universities contributing to a global database of product’s lifecycles), and informing Walmart customers of the sustainability of the products available.

Of course, thousands of small businesses deserve standing ovations for initially taking the lead by basing their businesses on sustainable supply chain products from the get-go, such as selling organic T-shirts, biodegradable household cleaners, reclaimed furniture or eco-tourism. The extent of sustainability of these company’s services do not usually need an ecolabel or certification as their sustainability practices are the foundation of their product or services, and not just a byproduct of social pressure. Groups such as the Green Products Roundtable and the Sustainability Consortium, are working to improve the integrity of ecolabels as well. According to Inhabitat.com, over 400 environmentally-friendly certifications exist in the US. Although that might sound excessive to non-greenies, the diversity of products in need of certification may very well merit the impressive number. A few common certifications you should be familiar with by now include Green Seal, Energy Star, LEED, and USDA Organic, Cradle-to-Cradle, and the seven plastics recycling symbols.

Websites for further reading on topics addressed in this article:
FTC Green Guides: http://www.ftc.gov/green
Walmart’s Sustainability Report:http://walmartstores.com/sites/sustainabilityreport/2010/
Inhabitat.com’s Ecolabel list: http://inhabitat.com/demystifying-eco-labels/

January 11, 2011