There are a lot of products in the building and construction sector claiming to be “green”. And as greener building practices become more popular, more people and products jump into this category. But are they really eco-friendly? And how do you tell which products are legitimate and which ones are investing in pure and total “greenwash.” I often run into products that claim to be green until I read the fine print or ask the right questions. It shouldn’t be that way. A consumer shouldn’t have to intimately know an industry in order to question the claims a product makes.
Third party eco-labelling is one way of determining whether a product is legitimately “green” or not. The organization doing the certification is independent, unbiased, and has a goal of raising an entire industry’s standards of production. That organization has the challenging task of setting an industry’s environmental standard at an achievable but still challenging level. EcoLogo is one example of this kind of organization (other organizations include WaterSense, EnergyStar and GreenGuard).
North America’s largest environmental standard and certification mark. EcoLogo provides customers – public, corporate and consumer – with assurance that the products and services bearing the logo meet stringent standards of environmental leadership. EcoLogo certifies environmental leaders covering a large variety of categories, helping you find and trust the world’s most sustainable products. (source)
EcoLogo develops rigorous environmental standards against which products are reviewed. Scott McDougall, President of Terrachoice, the company responsible for EcoLogo, told me, “We know we’ve got the standard right when none of the stakeholders are happy.” On a basic level it means that the environmentalists believe the standard isn’t tough enough, but the manufacturers think it’s too challenging. Standards are reviewed every three years and may be revised if most of the industry has achieved them. Again, the goal of this kind of third party certification is to improve an industry’s environmental impact as a whole, and usually with the blessing of government, but without the “stick” of increased minimum standards. In fact, Scott told me that government policies usually follow behind third party standards to get the laggard companies to comply with what has become the norm.
One caveat to the EcoLogo or any third party labelling system, is that while all products that carry the Ecologo symbol can be deemed as being environmental leaders in their industry, it’s important to remember that there are eco-friendly products out there that opt not to go through the EcoLogo certification process. Often it’s because the company that makes it is smaller or just starting out. There is a certain amount of time and expense involved in becoming certified that some companies don’t feel is necessary. However, that being said, when a product has undergone the certification process, you can count on it to meet rigorous environmental standards. So it does beg the question “How do you know whether a product is really green, if it isn’t certified?”
Scott is the author of the report The Sins of Greenwashing, the latest edition (2010) examined four industries to determine the extent of greenwashing. Greenwashing is still prevalent although declining in more mature green industries such as building materials. As consumers become more demanding of better labelling, companies become more honest and transparent about their environmental claims. So I asked Scott if there were any catch phrases consumers should be wary of when looking at environmental claims made by companies. He responded:
In TerraChoice’s 2010 Sins of Greenwashing study, we examined a total of 729 building and construction products in five DIY big box retail stores and found them to be making a total of 1,726 “green” claims. TerraChoice has observed very strong “green” growth in building and construction products, with 108% more green products in 2010 than in 2009. Use of legitimate eco-labels was also strong in this category. 31.7% made use of credible certifications including ENERGY STAR, GREENGUARD, UL Environment and EcoLogo.
The latest research suggests that catch-phrases consumers should be most aware of include:
– Unexplained general claims such as “environmentally-friendly”, or “green”. All or most of these, if unexplained, are exaggerations.
– Claims of “BPA-free” or “phthalate-free”.
– Suggestions that the product or company has always been green. (Such as “green, as always”.) These appear to be on the rise.
We did find that “hidden trade-offs” were unusually common among building and construction products by focusing on only one good environmental accomplishment (air quality, energy, and recycled content were the most common of these single-benefit claims) while not focusing on other potentially more harmful impacts – or claiming to be green just on the strength of that single environmental benefit.
The bottom line is, you still need to do your homework when buying eco-friendly products, but third party labeling helps, whether your goal is energy efficiency, low levels of volatile organic compounds, or overall environmental footprint. When a product has an EcoLogo, you know that everything from its manufacturing practices to the materials used have been measured against a set of rigorous environmental standards.
For more information about Terrachoice and EcoLogo, visit the website. (Update: Terrachoice was bought by UL in 2012, so the company has been brought into the UL Environment department.