Signaling Sustainability Through Eco-Certifications

Helping Clients Signal Sustainability through Eco-Certifications by Cheyenne Chapman, JD, LLM.

An industrial sector trade association recently created a confidential work group to assist industry (suppliers, brands, retail, media, and consumers) to achieve practical awareness of relevant existing and emerging legislation, standards, labels and frameworks related to chemical and product safety, and environmental performance.  Why?  Because there are hundreds of labels purporting to guarantee that a product is “green” or sustainable but many are unverified claims.1 As Fast Company succinctly put it, “We’re Drowning in Green Label Glut”2 referring to an infographic published in The Washington Post related to a survey that identified about 600 labels that denote an “environmentally friendly” process or product.3

Market forces and regulation both provide incentives for business to more fully understand and evaluate eco-certification opportunities, as well as to signal – and document – that the business and product is genuinely green, and not engaging in greenwashing. Signaling sustainable practices and products is a strong driver for eco-certifications.  Eco-certifications may apply to internal operations and corporate practices of an organization, and may apply to environmental impacts or attributes of products.

From the industry, supplier and business perspective it may be difficult to determine what eco-certifications are available and which are most suitable.  From a purchaser and consumer perspective it is difficult to know what a particular eco-label actually means and whether the claims made are documented.  There are several types of resources available to help identify and evaluate eco-certification programs.

Government regulation: In the United States eco-certification related issues are handled by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) under laws protecting against misleading advertising.  The FTC has adopted the FTC Green Guides at 16 C.F.R. Part 260 that address some aspects of eco-labeling.4 Originally adopted in 1992 and updated in 1998, the Guide is currently under accelerated review for another update in response to the growing need to address greenwashing.

Greenwashing refers to eco-labels and advertisements that promise more than they deliver by way of environmental benefit. Enforcement actions may be initiated by the FTC.5 Both consumers and competitors have initiated complaints, and several consumer initiated lawsuits are now underway.

Eco-certification Issuers: Eco-certifications can be issued by a wide variety of entities, including governments, academic institutions, industry trade associations, and nonprofit organizations.  One criterion to use to check a nonprofit organization that issues an eco-certification is membership in the Global Ecolabelling Network (GEN).  GEN is a network of 26 nonprofit organizations around the world that issue various environmental performance labels, recognitions and certifications to volunteer applicants.  Membership in GEN is an indicator that the issuing organization subscribes to the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) codes of practice for eco-labeling.

Reports on Eco-labels: TerraChoice Environmental Marketing provides independent third party research and reporting on eco-labels around the world including recent publication of “The Seven Sins of Greenwashing”6 and the “Eco Markets Summary Report.”7 Consumer Reports maintains the Eco-Labels Center.8 Greenpeace offers evaluations of eco-certification groups and eco-labels. There is even an iPhone application Good Guide to help consumers find ratings and select products.  A variety of online tools are being developed to help compare eco-certifications for specific product categories.

Documentation and Transparency: In addition to carefully evaluating eco-certification opportunities, there are other steps a business can take to document efforts to provide responsible environmental management, prevent pollution and achieve sustainability.  Thomas P. Lyon, business professor at the University of Michigan, suggests incorporating an Environmental Management System (EMS) under the ISO standards.  “When a company has an EMS in place, you have a greater expectation that they actually do know what their environmental results are.”9 A business can also provide accountability and transparency through publication of a company sustainability report under the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) or other measures to indicate corporate social responsibility (CSR) intent and progress.

Signaling environmentally preferable practices and products is likely to remain a high priority. Eco-certifications are proliferating, as are resources devoted to independently evaluating them.  While the future may bring more standardization and coordination to the field, in the meantime businesses and consumers both are responsible for accomplishing their own due diligence when claiming or relying on an eco-certification.  Lawyers can play a key role in reducing the green label glut and ensuring maximum effectiveness of eco-certifications for industry, suppliers, business, media and consumers by assisting clients in their due diligence10 or by challenging greenwashing claims.

Cheyenne Chapman is the Executive Director of Zero Waste Alliance (  ZWA, a nonprofit organization, is an alliance of professionals dedicated to helping organizations and society become more sustainable. ZWA focuses on standards development, education and training, and applied solutions. Founded in 1999 by Larry Chalfan, ZWA is a program of the International Sustainable Development Foundation (ISDF).
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1 See Jeff Rodgers, New Website and Survey Look Behind-the-Scenes at Ecolabels’ Environmental Claims, World Resources Institute, July 1, 2010 (describing new database from survey of 340 ecolabels in 42 countries), .
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2 Suzanne LaBarre, Infographic of the Day: We’re Drowning in Green Label Glut, Fast Company, May 4 2010, .
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3 Bonnie Berkiwitz & Laura Stanton, Eco-friendly Labeling, The Washington Post, May 3, 2010, .
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5 Vanessa O’Connell, ‘Green’ Goods, Red Flags, The Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2010, (Rash of Earth-Friendly Claims Spurs Rising Number of Lawsuits and FTC Actions); Gabriel Nelson, FTC Moves May Signal Start of ‘Greenwashing’ Crackdown, Greenwire, Feb. 3, 2010, .
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9 Quoted in Richard Dahl, Green Washing: Do You Know What You’re Buying? Environ Health Perspect, June 1, 2010, .
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10 See, e.g., Beveridge & Diamond, P.C., Making Sense of Eco-labels: A Primer on “Green” Seals of Approval, Feb. 23, 2010, .
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