Understanding Labels Part 1: Are They Green or Greenwash? Yes.

Part of a series looking at green labels: what they mean and how they work. See Understanding Labels Part 2: Separating Green Building from Greenwash

Last week BuildingGreen published Green Building Product Certifications, a wonderful and useful guide with everything one needs to understand what labels actually mean and how to use them. I wish it had come out a month earlier; I had been asked to do a lecture on Labels and green product certifications last Friday at the Interior Design Show in Toronto, and this would have saved me a huge amount of work.

Labels and certification systems are complex and easily misunderstood. For my lecture I was asked, in particular, to discuss Cradle to Cradle certification, but to understand it, and its possible problems, one has to understand what certificates really mean. What follows is a series: Part 1, Defining labels, standards and certificates; Part 2, Looking at label wars; Part 3, A close look at Cradle to Cradle; Part 4, A review of BuildingGreen's Green Building Product Certifications

Image Credit Underwriters Laboratories

Labels aren't a new invention; Third party testing started in 1894 when Underwriters Laboratories tested an insulation. They published their first standard in 1903 and the UL sticker was first applied to a fire extinguisher in 1904. Now, for many products, independent third party testing is a legal requirement before they can go to market. Some important terminology:

A Standard is defined by the International Standards Organization, (ISO) as:

" a specification that establishes a common language, and contains a technical specification or other precise criteria and is designed to be used consistently, as a rule, a guideline, or a definition".

Jennifer Atlee gives a more straightforward definition in The Green Building Product Certification Report:

A standard is a set of guidelines and criteria against which a product can be judged. A Certification says that a product meets those criteria.

Then it gets a bit complicated. In Deborah Fuller's terrific discussion on ecolabels and certifications at the Green Workplace she lists the three types of certifications:


Image credit Green Workplace

But nothing is as simple as it seems. It is pretty obvious from the definitions that first party labels are pretty weak, that second are better and that third are as honest as the day is long, reputable and to a very high standard. Some examples of the different levels:

First Party Certification: Greenlist

Image credit SC Johnson

Greenlist was developed by S.C. Johnson "help consumers identify products that are environmentally responsible and deliver the performance excellence they trust and expect from SC Johnson." it is "a raw material rating system, to transform the way the company measures, tracks and advances its products to further the company's longstanding commitment to environmental responsibility."

One would think that if one bought a bottle of Windex with such a label that it would be green, and free of dangerous chemicals. In fact, it is still made of poison, the same isopropanol and ethylene glycol (and 95% water) that it was made from previously. Their even more toxic Toilet Duck toilet cleaner has the same Greenlist label, so that "you'll know you're getting not only the performance you trust and expect, but also making an environmentally responsible choice."

S.C. Johnson made up the standard and the label, while the consumer has no understanding about what it means. As I wrote in Greenwash Watch: SC Johnson's Greenlist

Green labels mean nothing if they are not independently monitored with third party evaluation, Standing up and saying "I'm green because I say so" doesn't cut it any more. Confusing consumers with yet another label doesn't do any good for anyone. SC Johnson may be proud of cleaning up their company and their material choices, but they are delusional if they think this makes this product green. Shame on them for confusing the public like this.

In fact, S.C Johnson is now defending against a class action lawsuit, from California citizens who believe they were misled into paying more for a so-called "green" product.

Second Party Certification: Cradle to Cradle

Cradle to Cradle was developed by William McDonough and Michael Brauntgart. Their company, MBDC, offers both design consulting and Cradle to Cradle certification. But it was problematic; as blogger Kevin O'donnell wrote:

There have been complaints that the Cradle to Cradle evaluation process is too opaque. Worse yet, some of William McDonough's design clients are also certification clients. This has led some to cry foul and suggest that the best way to achieve certification is to hire one of it's authors to design and certify your product.

To deal with this problem, MBDC is spinning off the certification side to the new Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, making it a third party certification system. We will look at Cradle to Cradle in greater detail in a subsequent part.

Third Party Certification

Most people think of third party certification as the gold standard, the most robust and trustworthy. Deborah Fuller of HOK tells Jennifer Atlee:

When it's a third party, a separate organization that's strictly in the business of certifying, I feel more comfort.

But even third party certification can be egregious greenwash. Take my favourite greenwash of the last decade, LG Eden countertops.

They ran an ad campaign on the tag line "when we go green, we go all the way," complete with levitating hippies, flower children, and yes, a real treehugger. Their claim to being green? "the Eden Collection is created from a minimum of 12% pre-consumer recycled material." And where do they get this material? "During the manufacturing process, LG takes an environmentally responsible approach to handling imperfect sheets by utilizing them as regrind material to be used in standard line colors versus sending them to a landfill."

So they grind up their own manufacturing inefficiencies and mistakes, stuff that should never have been created in the first place, and call that recycling.

But the remarkable thing is, they got third party certification for this from Scientific Certification Systems, one of the most reputable firms in the business. BuildingGreen's quick take on SCS is that they are "a long respected third party certifier..if SCS has a certification for an attribute, it is likely to adequately describe performance for that attribute."

So we can be pretty sure that 12% of LG Eden is made from regrinding their own mistakes, but it doesn't make it green. Third party certification means nothing if you don't look at what they are certifying.

More at Greenwash Watch: Greenwashing Your Countertop: LG Eden

Next: Understanding Labels Part 2: Separating Green Building from Greenwash

Part 3: A Close Look At Cradle to Cradle, or a Cautionary Tale.

Part 4: More information on where to learn about labels; a review of Green Building Product Certifications

Tags: Green Building

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