Labels and Certifications

Greenwashed marketing claims have increased to the point where the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is updating its published Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims that address “environmental claims included in labeling, advertising, promotional materials, and all other forms of marketing, whether asserted directly or by implication, through words, symbols, emblems, logos, depictions, [and] product brand names.”

The FTC Guides currently require “every express and material-implied claim that the general assertion conveys to reasonable consumers about an objective quality, feature, or attribute of a product or service must be substantiated.” Here’s where labels and certifications come in.

In performing your extended research about certain products, you’ll find there are different types of information resources that can aid your search. Directories are plentiful; these “yellow pages” of existing green building products can serve as a starting point to figure out what your options are in a certain product category.

If you want some form of substantiation of product content or performance, then you’ll be looking for labels and certifications. Labels are simple systems, often based on a single performance attribute like energy or recycled content, in which a blanket label is applied to all products. Certifications, on the other hand, are complex assessments that rely on multiple, science-based criteria for determining whether or not a product qualifies.

Though differentiating between labels and certifications can be tricky, I generally classify systems that only consider a single performance attribute as “labels,” while “certifications” assess multiple product attributes. For example, Energy Star, which is the oldest third-party label in the U.S., uses energy as the primary attribute for rating washing machines, but the label is not associated with water use reduction, which would contribute to it being a multiple-attribute rating. Sometimes looking at a single product attribute is helpful, but if you’re looking for a designation that assesses products more holistically, look for a certification—or multiple labels.

Depending on the product category, certifications vary widely in which performance criteria they include. Some certifications focus very deeply on chemical components or indoor air quality (e.g., Greenguard), while others include everything from raw material extraction to end-of-life issues (e.g., Cradle to Cradle); a few even include information about the corporate sustainability commitments of the product manufacturers themselves (e.g., SMaRT).

Given the many considerations certifications include, you still need to ensure that a product will perform its most important function and meet the priorities you’ve set for your specific project and application. Then, you can review the added benefits of the other attributes to further inform your decision-making process. You’ll find it’s much easier to find multiple-attribute certifications for certain types (e.g., carpet, floor coverings, cabinets, furniture, and wood) than for others. Over time, more and more product categories will join this group.

Levels of Independence

In addition to considering what a label or certification includes, you’ll also want to know who is backing up these green product claims. There are three levels of independence when it comes to evaluating labels and certifications.

Claim Check
Click here for a guide to certifications and labels referenced by NAHB and LEED, as well as resources for making green-product selections.

“First-party” certifications are claims made by the designer, manufacturer, or other party directly associated with the creation and sale of the product in question. These are also called “self certifications.” All green claims are made directly by the party who creates or sells the product.

“Second-party” certifications are assertions or labels applied by an outside organization or individual that has financial or other interests in the manufacturer pursuing product certification, such as trade associations, investors, or direct consultants.

“Third-party” certifications are the highest level of assurance for verifying independent product claims; they are made by an independent, unbiased third party. Third parties have no connection to manufacturers except the fee paid for the certification process. Green Seal and Greenguard, among many others, fall into this category.

Sometimes knowing where a product certification comes from and everything it considers is still not enough to make a concrete decision. That’s when you should take a look at its compliance with other larger standard creation bodies like the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO)—two bodies that certify the certification organizations themselves. Certifications created according to ANSI or ISO standards must meet high levels of quality, consistency, public comment and review, and accessibility in both the creation and maintenance of their certifications.

If you’re looking for multiple-attribute third-party certifications, a good place to start if you’re trying to figure out what product certifications are out there is the NAHB’s Model Green Home Building Guidelines (which served as the basis for the National Green Building Standard) and the USGBC’s LEED rating system. While neither of these green building rating systems certifies products, both reference a host of product labels and certifications. If you use, trust, and/or are a big proponent of either (or both) systems, it might be helpful to at least start exploring the certifications that these and other green building rating systems reference, as they mostly point to third-party labels or certifications that are trusted by many green building industry stakeholders within the green building industry.

If you’re especially diligent about how and why you specify green products, you know that choosing a multiple-attribute third-party certification is not enough, especially since they’re not all equal. So it is worth repeating that you need to trust the source of your information, which means you need to trust the organization that awards the product certification.

If you don’t understand what’s behind the certification’s logo and everything a manufacturer has to do to get it, how can you justify your product choices? I encourage you to take the time to go beyond the certification, visit the certifying body’s Web site and download the relevant standard.

Final Answer

So, which one’s the best? Unfortunately, there is no overarching answer to that question. Trying to select or specify a green product is the same as selecting a non-green product. It’s just that in addition to all the important criteria you are used to evaluating, now you have many environmental and social considerations to include in your decision-making process. Luckily, you can use multiple-attribute third-party labels and certifications to help you navigate the world of green building product claims. For product categories where no certification programs exist yet, you’ll need to rely on your greenwash radar and filter out unrealistic or improper claims.

The green product market may not be as easy to navigate as we’d like, but it’s a lot better than it used to be and getting better. The system of independently verified green product claims has not yet sorted itself out, and it will take some time to mature. One thing you can do now is to let manufacturers and suppliers that are making unfounded claims know that you won’t trust or accept them without independent substantiation. Your reputation and theirs will depend on making verifiable and realistic product claims.

Aurora Sharrard, Ph.D., LEED AP, is research manager for the nonprofit Green Building Alliance (GBA) in Pittsburgh.www.gbapgh.org.

Compare Certification Programs

Check out the Green Building Alliance’s latest Green Product Labels and Certification (pdf) chart to compare programs.