Eco labeling – Fact or fake
As consumers are becoming more aware of environmental issues, they are also becoming more informed as to how the items they purchase can make a real difference in the big picture. We are bombarded from all sides with product information and advertising concerning the health and environmental benefits of all types of goods and services. The question must be asked of whether or not these claims and seals of approval are always honest or if they are just a marketing tool.
According to the Oxford dictionary, Eco labeling is the practice of marking products with distinctive labeling to show that their manufacture conforms to recognized environmental standards.
Greenpeace provides a definition of Greenwashing as the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service. In other words, greenwashing is when a company, manufacturer or organization spends their money advertising and marketing their product or service as “green” rather than investing their money in research and development to actually minimize that product’s environmental impact.
Eco – labeling has been used worldwide since the late 1970’s. There are over thirty different labels and logos in use and the majority of organizations awarding labeling and certification are run on a voluntary basis. These third parties review, test and evaluate products and services to determine if they meet the criteria they have established before bestowing their certification or approval. Germany’s “Blue Angel” eco-label, the first national program in the world, was introduced in 1977. Green Seal, a non-profit organization in the United States was established in 1989.
The list of products that may carry an eco label or green certification is long and varied. It includes, but is not limited to beauty products, cleaning products, clothing, paints and varnishes, electronic items, building materials and furniture, gardening supplies, household appliances, paper products, vehicles, food and even tourist locations and lodging.
There is no established list of world-wide standards for third party evaluation and private organizations like Green Seal and Blue Angel have no actual authority to establish standards to be used in certifying products and services as green or environmentally friendly. However, they do operate under the international guidelines set by the IOS, the International Organization for Standardization whose business it is to develop and publish international voluntary standards for all aspects of technology and business. The “ISO” began in Switzerland in 1947 and has since issued over 19,000 standards.
The ISO defines a Type-1 eco labeling organization as one that is voluntary, one whose standards address more than one environmental criteria and one who must apply that criteria across the entire life cycle of the product or service being reviewed. And most importantly, in order to be classified as an ISO Type-1 eco labeling organization, they must be completely transparent in their research and development processes and they must employ independent, third party verifiers. In other words, the certifications may not be purchased or sold. A fee can and most often is charged to have your product reviewed and compared to the standards, but the fee must only be an amount equal to what is necessary to perform the evaluation.
The Global Ecolabelling Network is a non-profit association which serves Type-1 eco labelling organizations by coordinating and promoting the credibility of certification programs worldwide. They act as an information exchange between their members and provide advice and technical assistance. At the end of 2013 GEN had 26 members in 50 countries.
In the United States organizations such as Green Seal may choose to be members of larger bodies like GEN in order to bolster their credibility, however ultimately they are subject to the rules and regulations set forth by the Federal Trade Commission with regards to truth in advertising and often the EPA with specific claims or criteria.
The Federal Trade Commission Act very simply says that advertising must be truthful, it cannot be deceptive, it must be fair and the company doing the advertising must possess evidence to validate any claims that they make. The FTC’s definition of a deceptive ad is one that contains information that is likely to mislead the average consumer who is acting under reasonable circumstances or one that contains or fails to contain important information that could be used by a consumer when making their decision to buy or use the product. On the subject of using words like “biodegradable”, “recyclable” or “environmentally friendly” the FTC is very particular about these words being used honestly and receives numerous claims and complaints against advertisers that must be investigated. In addition, there are two different sets of rules that pertain to advertising, one set for print or television/radio media and an entirely different set for items of advertising that are sent through the mail that may contain false or misleading statements.
The FTC issues an endorsement Guide that addresses the use of seals and certifications. Their rules state that if there is a connection between the product or service and the organization providing the certification then it must be disclosed. If a seal or endorsement is used that does not clearly represent to the consumer how it pertains to the item, then an explanation must be included. If the seal or endorsement is obtained based on attributes that are too numerous to list, then a phrase stating that must be included plus a method the consumer can use (such as a website) to discover which attributes were used. And finally, the FTC states that a marketer with a third-party certification still must substantiate all express and implied claims.
As part of its mission to protect human health and the environment, the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, also develops criteria, standards and a set of eco labeling programs. Probably the best known program is the Energy Star program, but they also operate WaterSense, Design for the Environment and several others. The Energy Star program is actually a joint program of between the EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy. The Energy Star is used to identify energy-efficient products and practices that can help consumers save money and protect the environment at the same time. WaterSense is a program whose goal is to protect our nation’s water supply by educating people about water use efficiency and promoting the market for water efficient products. The Design for the Environment program is one that works directly with the manufacturers who create household and commercial chemical products like cleaners and detergents, to make them safer for people and safer for the environment.
The EPA states that part of their mission is to be an example of Federal leadership in advancing energy efficiency and green chemistry and to demonstrate the EPA’s commitment to objective, fact-based decision-making which is grounded in scientific reasoning and principles while using the best data available. In addition, the EPA also works with many non-governmental standard developers to coordinate voluntary consensus standards for environmentally preferable goods and service.
Not only does the government participate in establishing standards and laws governing the marketing and selling of products and services labeled as green or earth friendly or energy saving, they appear to be taking the growing trend of organic food very seriously. In order to use the term “organic”, the USDA has outlined very specific meanings and regulates their use carefully. For example, a product that is made with at least 70% certified organic ingredients may print the phrase “made with organic” on their label, but if they want to display the USDA’s actual green “Organic” seal, the product has to contain a minimum of 95% certified organic ingredients. Unfortunately, the US American Food and Drug Administration, the FDA, currently has no guidelines or laws governing the use of the phrases “natural” “all natural” or “100% natural”.
The United States Department of Agriculture, the USDA, runs a program called NOP, the National Organic Program as part of its agricultural marketing service. At the end of 2013, the USDA had 18,513 certified organic operations in the United States. Compared to figures in 2002, that is a 245% increase. According to the map on their website, it appears that the majority of the organic operations are located on the west coast, in New England and in the upper Midwest.
Wal-Mart announced that they will begin to stock the Wild Oats Marketplace Organic food line. They state that they will offer a line of almost 100 products and they will be sold for far less than other retailers typically sell organic products. The Wild Oats Company began in Colorado in 1987 and was purchased by Whole Foods for $565 million in 2007.
There is obviously big money to be made by both the retailers and the manufacturers in selling products and services that appeal to consumers as being healthy and environmentally good and as the trend is growing it looks as though there are many private and public organizations who are attempting to establish a uniform of standards and keep everyone truthful. Yet, there will always be a certain number of individuals who participate in greenwashing in order to boost their revenues.
As in everything, consumers need for now to be their own watchdogs. They need to do their research and become familiar with the different labeling and certifications in order to make certain that the items they purchase are truly what they believe they are buying.
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