Labels and standards are a touchy and confusing subject. Who sets them? What do they cover? TreeHugger readers have seen companies just calling themselves green, companies inventing their own labels (like SC Johnson), Companies going to third party labels-for-hire to certify what they think is important but may not be, (Like LG Eden and SCS) Labels that cover only one aspect (like Energy Star and Greenguard), and labels that let the manufacturer submit data for claims without verification (
like EPEAT-see comments).
Then, for the last hundred and sixteen years, there have been Underwriters Laboratories. They are a pain. They are expensive if you have a product you need certified. They are expensive if you want to buy a copy of a standard. They are rigorous and thorough and slow and did I mention expensive? But when a product has a UL label you know it has been put through the wringer. And now they are going to certify products and tell us if they are truly green.
Image: How Stuff Works
ULC is going to operate in two ways: in their traditional fashion where a standard is set and the product must meet it (like in the stove in the picture above, which might have to withstand certain established kinds of abuse and number of cycles before getting approval). This is the critical link that has been missing: an established set of standards that everyone agrees to, and third party testing that ensures that it meets this standard. Products that pass the testing will be able to display the classic UL label.
But such testing is time-consuming and yes, expensive. In certain industries, like construction materials or with electrical appliances subject to the building or electrical codes that demand UL certification or its international equivalents, it has been accused of impeding innovation and change.
So they will also be starting an Environmental Claims Validation (ECV) program, where manufacturers can verify claims made by manufacturers. According to UL's press release,
These claims are often subject to greenwashing: exaggeration, distortion, or lying. "If the customer comes to UL and says, 'This is what the advertising says about our product,' that is what we'll test," explained [Marcello] Manca. [VP at UL] Relevant claims include energy efficiency, recycled-content levels, volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions, and avoidance of banned substances.
Referring to Federal Trade Commission guidance for environmental marketing claims, UL will determine what tests it must perform to validate a given claim and will carry them out. If a claim is validated, it will publish the results in an open database. "We like to think the end point will be certification to industry standards," said Manca, noting that he considers ECV a "bridge to certification."
I am not crazy about ECV certification; that is what other companies like Scientific Certification Systems do. Essentially if you go to an ECV certifier and say "my product is insulated with sustainably harvested baby seal fur" they will check to see if yes, it is made of baby seal fur and yes, baby seals are harvested sustainably. Then they give you a certificate.
My favourite example of greenwashing with ECV certification is LG Eden countertops, which markets itself with the tag line "When we go green, we go all the way," while proudly waving their SCS certification that shows that they recycle exactly 12% of their preconsumer cutoffs, production waste and mistakes, and yet thanks to the ECV certification feel comfortable calling themselves green. Other than UL not permitting the use of their logo with such claims, I cannot see how their ECV certification is much different.
But the Classic Certification Program? Where the industry agrees to an open, transparent standard and a reputable testing organization puts their feet to the fire? That is big news.
Labels in TreeHugger
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Seventh Generation Makes Reading Product Labels Easier
Green Product Labeling: Is It Valid and Does It Matter?