Business & Policy Corporate Responsibility The Treehugger Guide to Sustainable Certifications A handy visual guide to the world of eco-friendly seals and logos By Starre Vartan Writer Columbia University Syracuse University Starre Vartan has been an environmental and science journalist for 15-plus years. She founded an award-winning eco-website and wrote a book on living green. our editorial process Starre Vartan Updated April 05, 2021 Share Twitter Pinterest Email Business & Policy Corporate Responsibility Environmental Policy Economics Food Issues In This Article Expand General Certifications and Programs Agricultural Certifications Building and Home Certifications Chemical Safety Certifications Animal Welfare Certifications Appliance Certifications Forest Product Certifications Textile Certifications Why Trust Treehugger It’s a very good thing that there are so many sustainability labels in the world, although it may feel confusing at first. These certifications are proof positive that lots of people care about how workers are treated and that they want products that are made without hurting animals or the ecosystems we all depend on. There are many of us willing to vote for less-harmful products with our spending. But with the plethora of certifications, marks, and labels, it can be hard to know what means what, and sometimes there's more than one organization seeking to guide consumers for a given product area. Sometimes this is because certifications began in different parts of the world, but then became large enough to cross borders — and sometimes it’s because two groups came up with a similar mission but have a different perspective on what they think is important. This means that some of these labels are stricter than others. Some organizations see stringency as a top priority, while other groups want to bring together as many companies under the umbrella of sustainability and guide them to greener choices over time. Then, of course, there are some of these organizations that have been accused of greenwashing. We’ve indicated where there is controversy on this issue. We hope this listing will be useful as you shop — or if you're just curious about what a certain certification means on something you’ve already bought. Keep in mind that in quite a few cases, these standards or certifications do change over time, with quite a few organizations on this list regularly updating their criteria, so to get more specific info than is presented here, you can always go to the website of the label or standard you’re curious about. General Certifications and Programs Below, we look at a number sustainability certifications and programs that most businesses could participate in, including those that ensure good labor practices. Certified B Corporation Also Known As: B Corp What It Certifies: companies More than 3800 companies in 74 countries are certified as B Corporations: That means they must achieve a minimum score on the organization’s B Impact Assessment, which includes what they call a “rigorous assessment” of the company’s impact on environment, workers, community and customers. For each company, this information is verified and posted on the B Corporation website. In addition, those companies who are Certified B Corporations must change the governing documents for their company so that the board of directors’ mission reflects the B Corp mission of “balancing profit and purpose.” Cradle to Cradle Certified Also Known As: C2C What It Certifies: clothing , textiles, fashion accessories, building products, home decor, personal care, cleaning products The Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute was founded by Wiliam McDonough and Michael Braungart, coauthors of the book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Ways We Make Things. The design principles laid out in that book were the foundations of the Cradle to Cradle Product Standard, which has gone through several iterations which are determined via a stakeholder engagement process that includes input from the public, as well as technical experts and market leaders. The Cradle to Cradle Certified label is meant to be a “measure of safer, more sustainable products made for the circular economy.” Towards that end, each Certified product is assessed in five categories, “material health, material reuse, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.” Each products is then assigned one of 5 levels (Basic to Platinum) for each category, and all details are available on the organization’s website. Disclosure: The author of this article worked for the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute for four years but was no longer employed there when she wrote this article. Green America's Green Business Certification What It Certifies: businesses This certification is for a variety of businesses and is less product-driven than others on this list but is more about certifying a company which adopts “principles, policies and practices that improve the quality of life for their customers, employees, communities, and the planet.” The certification is awarded to those companies that actively use their business as a “tool for positive social change;” source, market and manufacture their products in an environmentally responsible way; are committed to practices that are socially equitable and have “extraordinary” practices that benefit workers, the community and the environment; and businesses that function with radical transparency. Businesses must apply for certification and there are a host of requirements depending on what kind of business the company applying is involved in, from candlemaking to banks, from electronics to resorts, to packaging companies and many more. 1% for the Planet What It Covers: any company can participate This organization was founded in 2002 by Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia and Craig Mathews, founder of Blue Ribbon Flies. It aims to fund a diversity of environmental organizations by connecting them with companies which promise to give the equivalent of 1 percent of their gross sales (which can be money, in-kind, and promotional support) directly to environmental charities. The 1% for the Planet Organization facilitates the connection and certifies the companies’ giving, so they can use the seal or logo on their products. Over $250 million has been given via the organization so far, and they recently launched an option for individuals to give 1 percent of their salaries through a separate program. Although 1% for the Planet business members are often engaged in various sustainability efforts, participation in this giving program does not necessary mean that all of a business' products are eco-friendly. Fair Trade Certified Also Known As: Fair Trade USA What It Certifies: clothing, food, beverages Fair Trade Certified is the global brand of Fair Trade USA, the nonprofit organization. There is a reciprocal agreement with Fairtrade International (see below). That means that producers who have the Fair Trade Certified seal might have certification via Fair Trade USA or Fairtrade International standards. The idea is to discourage duplicate audits of the same product. Fair Trade USA has different certifications that can cover an “entire product, an ingredient in the product, or the facility where that product was made.” Fair Trade Certification requires all businesses that work with them to be held to standards that include “income sustainability, community and individual well-being, empowerment, and environmental stewardship.” That includes requirements, which are updated regularly, around worker’s rights, fair labor and sustainable land management. Fairtrade International What It Certifies: clothing, textiles, food, tea, coffee Fairtrade International runs the Fairtrade mark, which is different visually from Fair Trade Certified, but with which they have a reciprocal agreement (see above). More than 30,000 products carry the Fairtrade mark, and the standard is a combination of social, economic, and environmental criteria that “support the sustainable development of small producer organizations and agricultural workers in the Global South.” Environmental standards are set so they both reduce impact on the planet and also meet the realities of local populations—but they do include a ban on certain pesticides and GMO seeds. Economic standards are designed around more equitable distribution of profits, traceability, and transparency. The Social standards cover working conditions, enable worker organization, and ban exploitative child labor, and discriminatory labor practices. Agricultural Certifications These certifications independently verify that certain agricultural practices are being followed. Non-GMO Project Verified What It Certifies: food, beverages, personal care products This label rigorously verifies that all ingredients are GMO free in a product that bears this label. That includes testing of ingredients that might be cross-contaminated. The Non-GMO Project is the only organization that has such a thorough and well-developed vetting process (they are into the 16th iteration of their detailed standard) to determine this information, although other labels include GMO foods as part of their screening process. USDA National Organic Program Also Known As: USDA Organic What It Certifies: Food, drink, personal care, textiles The United States Department of Agriculture manages the USDA organic certification. It details the requirements for the types of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers that are allowed to be used on crops that can be labelled USDA Organic. The program has an allowable list of these substances, as well as specific amounts and circumstances where they can be used. The standard also disallows genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge. The seal is overseen by certifying agents authorized by the USDA National Organic Program. Building and Home Certifications The following certifications ensure that a range of buildings are constructed or renovated with health and/or sustainability in mind. Environmental Protection Agency Lead-Safe What It Certifies: building interiors The US government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) certifies construction and repair companies with this seal. To get it, contractors must take a one-day training course to understand how and why lead paint is harmful to human health and how to remove it/abate it properly. Any renovation or repair contractors that work in pre-1978 homes, schools, or day care centers (and disrupt more than six square feet of lead paint) are required to become EPA Lead-Safe Certified. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Also Known As: LEED What It Certifies: buildings, cities, communities The United States Green Building Council runs the LEED certification, which aims “help people, and the communities and cities they reside in—safely, healthily and sustainably thrive.” The certification looks at the health and environmental impacts and social benefits of materials used for construction or reconstruction. They do this by certifying buildings via an independently verified points system—for each project, green building strategies and their impacts are assessed. Those points then indicate whether a project is Certified LEED, Silver, Gold, or Platinum. There is also a LEED Zero certification for projects with net zero goals in carbon and/or resources. The LEED Cities and Communities Pilot program measures and manages a city’s “water consumption, energy use, waste, transportation and human experience.” Well Building Standard Also Known As: WELL Certified What It Certifies: buildings This standard is applied to building interiors and its overall aim is to use scientific research to “advance human health through design interventions and operational protocols and policies and foster a culture of health and wellness.” It takes into consideration ten main strategies, including air, water, light, movement, nourishment, thermal comfort, sound, materials, mind and community — and within each of those are features, so the certification is incredibly detailed and looks at a variety of aspects of building health. To keep track of these details, the certification works on a points-based system with 110 points available for each project. Parts are weighted based on possible impact. WELL is currently used in over 60 countries by more than 4,000 projects. Chemical Safety Certifications There are a number of third-party organizations that verify that consumer goods are free from toxic ingredients, residues and other chemicals of environmental concerns. Some of these certifications also ensure eco-friendly manufacturing processes. Below are some of the most common. eco-INSTITUT What It Certifies: construction products, flooring, mattresses, bedding, furniture, furnishings This Germany-based label specifically looks at how products used in homes offgas, which affects indoor air quality. They label low-pollutant and low-emission products with their label, based on “extensive lab tests” which focus on emissions testing (AKA offgassing) and they analyze compounds based on select parameters including heavy metals, pesticides, and others—what they test for depends on the product. Environmental Working Group Verified Also Known As: EWG Verified What It Certifies: skin care, personal care, hair care, cleaning products The Environmental Working Group is a non-profit that tracks chemical safety. They employ scientists and rely on peer-reviewed research to look into water safety, agricultural chemicals, and consumer product ingredients. The organization’s EWG Verified mark has been given to over 1700 products and is an offshoot of their popular Skin Deep database where consumers can find details on over 70,000 personal care products. The EWG Verified mark indicates that those products that have the label are free from EWG “chemicals of concern” and that they product meets the organization’s strictest standards for health. The list of “unacceptable” ingredients includes any with “health, ecotoxicity, and/or contamination concerns.” The mark also means that Verified products have to be transparent, listing all their ingredients. GreenGuard What It Certifies: building materials, furniture, electronics, cleaning products, certain medical devices The majority of chemical exposures most people have are via the air in their own homes, offices, or schools, GreenGuard exists to certify products with lower Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) — since VOCs offgas into the air, contributing to poor indoor air quality. VOCs are incredibly common, found in products for building and maintaining buildings, interior furniture, cleaning products and personal care products. The idea is that consumers can look for the GreenGuard certification and know that they are helping to reduce indoor air pollution. Made Safe What It Certifies: apparel, bedding, personal care, childcare items, menstrual products Over 6500 chemicals are banned from being used in any Made Safe certified product. The organization’s goal is to ensure that products are made with “safe ingredients not known or suspected to harm human health.” They do this by asking companies interested in certifying their product to send them a list of ingredients (including sub-ingredients), which the organization first runs against their list of banned chemicals. If it passes that process, then ingredients are put through the organization’s toxicant database screening which may verify some chemicals as permitted. Other chemicals are checked for bioaccumulation, environmental persistence, soil and water toxicity, human health effects, and more. Then a report is issued. Animal Welfare Certifications In this group of certifications, we look at various standards that seek to ensure better animal welfare. Some of these standards certify that animal products are collected in humane ways, although the product (like down) may be the result of animals being killed. Others, like Certified Vegan, ensure that no animals are used in the process of creating a product. If you are a vegan, it’s worthwhile to know the difference. Downpass What It Certifies: pillows, down products Downpass is an animal welfare standard that aims to independently verify products the goose and duck down found in bedding products and clothing. In order to qualify for the standard, the origin of down and feathers must be proven, and on-site inspections of farms and plants are included. Announced and unannounced visits by auditors several times a year monitor the “rearing conditions and keeping of the animals.” Material from foie-gras farms or farms that live-pluck is prohibited. Each product audited to the Downpass standard can be traced with a verification number on the label. Global Traceable Down Standard Also Known As: Global TDS What It Certifies: down, feathers and products that contain them This standard is focused on ensuring that down and feathers are made without causing “unnecessary harm” to the animals that provide them. Those producers that use the label must follow local animal welfare laws and best practices based on the International Finance Corporation Good Practice Note on Animal Welfare in Livestock Operations. The label doesn’t allow live-plucking of animals, nor feathers from foie gras producers. The welfare of the animals in the standard are evaluated by “visually inspecting animals and verifying handling practices with veterinarians and others directly in contact with the animals.” The Global TDS follows the chain of custody so that all parts of the supply chain are verified, to ensure that conventional down and certified down aren’t mixed together. Leaping Bunny What It Certifies: cosmetics, household products Over 2,000 companies are Leaping Bunny Certified, which indicates that not only is the final product not tested on animals, but no ingredient, formulation, or product from a third-party supplier is either. Even if animal testing is required by the regulatory agencies of other countries, the product cannot be certified. The certification requires that companies have a supplier monitoring system. Companies with the seal must re-commit annually. Note that the Leaping Bunny seal does not guarantee that a product is vegan. Responsible Down Standard Also Known As: RDS What It Certifies: feathers, down and products that contain them Textile Exchange manages this standard, which seeks to ensure that down and feathers come from “animals that have not been subjected to any unnecessary harm.” The standard both monitors current practices and seeks to reward better treatment of animals by incentivizing humane treatment by producers. RDS also provides a format so that consumers know the claims made about the down or feathers used in their clothing or bedding are accurate. Live-plucking and force-feeding practices are not allowed, the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare must be followed, and third-party audits of all of the above are a part of certification. Only products that are made with 100 percent certified down or feathers can carry the logo. Responsible Wool Standard Also Known As: RWS What It Certifies: wool yarn, apparel made from wool Also run by the Textile Exchange, the Responsible Wool Standard can be attached to wool that comes from farms that have progressive land management and have respect for animal welfare —like the RDS, that includes adherence to the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare. All entities in the wool-creation process must be certified by RWS, including the farmer, traders, yarn, fabric, and final garment. Vegan Certified Also Known As: Vegan What It Certifies: food, drink, personal care, textiles, clothing, shoes, bags, accessories, mattresses, pillows, linens The Certified Vegan logo is on products worldwide, but they must come from companies in the United States (and US territories), Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Currently over 1,000 companies and tens of thousands of products include the logo, and it is used on products that don’t contain animal products or byproducts—and those that haven’t been tested on animals. That includes insects and insect-derived products (like honey) or silk or silk derivatives, or any animal-derived GMOs, as well as sweeteners filtered with bone char, or liquids clarified with animal-derived products. The certification is managed by the nonprofit organization Vegan Awareness Foundation (AKA Vegan Action). Electronics and Appliance Certifications The following certification programs help shoppers find appliances that use resources like water and energy wisely. Energy Star What It Certifies: home appliances, new apartments, homes Energy Star is a labelling program run by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy to promote energy efficiency in American homes and businesses. For appliances, meeting the Energy Star standard means the product meets a standard for energy savings over other similar machines or products (specifics on savings vary by the product category) . Appliances included in the Energy Star program include washers and dryers, refrigerators, pool pumps, light bulbs, and more. For new homes or apartments to qualify for Energy Star labelling, they must be at least 10 percent more energy efficient than homes built to code. The program also works with buildings and industrial plants on who want to acquire an Energy Star label. Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Also Known As: EPEAT What It Certifies: electronics Managed by The Global Electronics Council (GEC), the EPEAT ecolabel is the leading environmental certification system for electronics including TVs, computers, servers, mobile phones, solar panels, and more. The organization provides third-party verification of the products listed in its registry, which is updated daily. The materials criteria for each type of electronic is different, and the standard is regularly updated. It includes criteria to address a product’s entire lifecycle, including energy conservation, toxic materials, product longevity and what happens to it when it has reached its end of life. The aim is to reduce greenhouse gasses, hazardous waste, and solid waste. WaterSense What It Certifies: toilets, sinks, urinals, shower heads, sprinklers, irrigation controls The WaterSense logo is the EPA’s label that indicates a product is at least 20 percent more efficient than average products. Labelled products must also perform as well or better than their less-efficient competitors. Builders can also be certified by the WaterSense program if they are constructing homes that “meet the WaterSense specification for homes.” The label is verified by independent, third-party certification partners who test and verify products for efficiency, performance and specifications. Forest Product Certifications Global deforestation is a serious issue, which threatens to damage biodiversity and speed up climate change. The following certifications aim to ensure that products aren’t contributing to forest loss, but some programs have come under significant criticism. Below, we look at these different programs. Forest Stewardship Council Also Known As: FSC What It Certifies: paper, sanitary paper products, wood products The Forest Stewardship Council’s Certification promotes more sustainable forest management practices and labelling to indicate that some or all of a product’s ingredients are from such forests. The forest management standards include preserving biological diversity and benefiting people local to the forest, including economically. The FSC tracks certified material “from the forest to the consumer” and includes processing, manufacturing, and distribution. There are three FSC labels: 100% Products contain material only from FSC certified forests; Mix Products contain material from FSC certified forests and recycled material; and Recycled Products contain post-consumer material and pre-consumer content. Rainforest Alliance Certified What It Certifies: food, beverage, personal care, forestry products, tourism businesses The Rainforest Alliance seal indicates that the product (or ingredient in another product) was made in a way that supports social, economic, and environmental sustainability. This is verified by independent, third-party auditors, who evaluate producers in those areas. The seal varies in its more specific requirement depending on the product: Agricultural products are certified according to their specific standards and/or the UTZ Code of Conduct. For herbs and spices, they recognize the Union for Ethical Biotrade (UEBT) standard, combined with additional requirements. For forestry products, the FSC standard is used (Rainforest Alliance is a founding member of FSC), and the applying business is a part of Rainforest Alliance’s Forest Allies Initiative. For tourism businesses, certification is via: “Preferred by Nature's (formerly NEPCon) Sustainable Tourism Standard, recognized by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.” Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil Also Known As: RSPO What It Certifies: palm oil (used in food and personal care products) As palm oil has grown in popularity for food manufacture (especially for snack/junk foods), it has been implicated in the rapid deforestation in Malaysian Borneo, Indonesia and elsewhere. Often, palm oil plantations were created on land that was formerly the forest home to endangered animals like orangutans, tigers, elephants, and rhinos. The RSPO certification works to prove that a palm oil is produced sustainably. All parts of the supply chain, from plantation to collection ports, refineries and manufacturers are audited to ensure that RSPO-certified palm oil isn’t mixed with non-sustainable products — and that supply chain is traceable.This label has also come under fire for being too lenient with palm oil plantations that have more recently been converted from forested land. Studies have found that some of the RSPO plantations were forested land that was home to elephants, orangutans, and other animals as recently as 30 years ago. The idea that forest can be razed for palm oil plantations and then be certified as sustainable makes it a “meaningless certification” according to researcher Roberto Cazzolla Gatti. Sustainable Forestry Initiative Also Known As: SFI What It Certifies: wood, paper products, other forestry products The Sustainable Forestry Initiative is a non-profit organization that aims to inform consumers that fiber in a product “is certified to the SFI 2015-2019 (Extended through December 2021) Fiber Sourcing Standard, or comes from recycled content, or from a certified forest.” They state that all fiber must come from “non-controversial sources,” and all certified forests must go through independent audits of forests via accredited certification bodies. There are significant criticisms of SFI’s practices and some environmental organizations consider it a significantly less-robust label than FSC Certification (detailed above), due to lower transparency and standards, and the fact that it was founded by logging industry groups. Some critics even go so far as to allege that the label is an example of greenwashing. A 2020 article in the journal Forests also finds SFI to have comparably lower standards than other forest certifications. Textile Certifications Have you ever wondered if clothes or furniture you buy is sustainable? The following certifications let you know which products are made with eco-friendly fabrics. blueSign What It Certifies: clothes, textiles BlueSign is an independent verification system for sustainability in textiles. In order to carry the blueSign label, a piece of clothing or product must include at least 90 percent blueSign-approved textiles and 30 percent approved accessories. The goal is for the company to work toward 100 percent for each product. Since textiles go through a complicated supply chain, including raw materials, processing, dyeing, finishing, each step of the process must be assessed. This is to ensure that there are no “missing links in sustainable materials and work steps — from raw material to finished product,” according to the bluesign website. Global Organic Latex Standard Also Known As: GOLS What It Certifies: latex products, mattresses, pillows The Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS) is seen most often in the sleep-products sector (mattresses and pillows) but can also be found in other types of furniture, like couches and chairs, which use latex padding. To achieve the standard, a product must contain more than 95 percent certified organic raw latex. Qualifying products may have other polymers and fillers, but the finished product is subject to emission tests and there are specific limits to harmful substances. Both rubber plantations, where organic latex is extracted from the trees, and processing units, including the final retailer of a product, can be certified. The standard tracks this via transaction certificates at every sales point along the supply chain. Global Organic Textile Standard Also Known As: GOTS What It Certifies: clothing, home textiles, mattresses, fiber products, yarns, fabrics, food-contact textiles, personal care products The GOTS standard was developed in 2006 by a working group of four organizations: The International Association Natural Textile Industry, the Japan Organic Cotton Association, the Organic Trade Association, and the Soil Association. This widely used certification has two levels: Labelled organic for products that contain 95 percent or more organic material, and another for those that have 70 percent to 94 percent organic material, in which case they have to disclose the percentage on the GOTS label. The label certifies the entire process the material travels through, not just the final product. The entire supply chain, including processors, spinners, weavers, dyers and other manufacturers, and textile traders must be certified. This process must be transparent and reported to the independent certifying body who approves the label for use. As part of the labelling requirement, in addition to the GOTS logo, the license number (or name) of the certified supplier database must be included, so consumers can look up the information for the item they have purchased. OEKO-TEX What It Certifies: textiles, leather There are three OEKO-TEX certifications: Made in Green, Standard-100, and Leather. The Standard 100 is the most well-known, and it means that every part of a finished piece, including threads, buttons or other accessories, has been independently tested for “harmful substances and therefore is harmless to human health.” The Leather standard also has a specific test for chemicals that are harmful to human health. The Made in Green Label can be applied to all textiles, including leather and non-leather goods and goes beyond the Standard 100 and Leather certifications. This label indicates that in addition to the chemical standards, an item with the label is also guaranteed to have been manufactured “using sustainable practices and under socially responsible working conditions.” Every Made in Green-labelled product also has a traceable code so consumers can find out more about that particular item. Why Trust Treehugger? For nearly two decades, Treehugger has been dedicated to driving sustainability mainstream. During that time, we've followed the development of new sustainability certifications closely. To compile this list, a team of our editors identified common certifications that we encounter in both our daily lives and reporting. Author Starre Vartan has been an environmental and science journalist for more than 15 years. She specializes in stories about health, animals, design, technology, space, and conscious consumption.