At the ABC Kids Expo, I found striking the prominent display of many seals and certifications. One booth displayed a whole row of seals across the back of their booth, the sign looking a bit like a scouting sash full of badges. You’ve probably noticed a similar collection of badges on product packaging in the store.
There is a proliferation of green seals and certifications in the marketplace. I’ve seen estimates as high as 400 eco-seals, but surely that doesn’t take into account the many awards and other types of seals.
At one end, with so many small certifications looking at one aspect of a product, you have to become informed about a huge variety of standards in order to find any meaning in the seals you see. At the other end, with broader certifying systems, you put your trust in one organization to tell you what is of value in products.
You can’t spend a whole day deciding what to spend 5 minutes buying, but most of us want to be responsible for our choices. How do you navigate all of the assurances in all of their forms? How do you choose?
What are the seals for?
We want to understand where things come from. We want to know provenance. When we are face to face with producers, we can ask. In a global marketplace, we need a substitute for personal trust. We transfer our trust to the certifying organizations and, eventually in some cases, to the seals themselves.
Without education and guidelines to understand what all of the seals mean, we’re lost.
What does the certification mean?
If you see a seal on a product, ask yourself what it means. Is it just a membership in an organization? An award? A note that they signed a pledge or petition? Or maybe a certification of rigorous testing to meet exacting standards?
- Memberships are not necessarily certifications, though they do show you where a company’s priorities or marketing intentions are.
- Awards often come from independent organizations, most of which had to take time to establish the credibility of their awards. The value of an award depends on the reputation of the award-giving body. Is it a venerated nonprofit or a blog that started last year?
- A pledge or petition can be another sign of a company’s values. If a body care company pledges not to use certain ingredients that might be harmful but have not yet been recognized as such or banned by certifying bodies, the value depends on whether you are persuaded by the proposition of the pledge or petition.
- Certifications can be made by public, private, or trade organizations, all of which usually make their standards available for the public to see. Certifications can be made by second-parties (the certifying body itself) or through third-party testing (perhaps more independent and neutral). What is often most interesting is what is left out of the standards for certification.
A certification might address: labor, environmental impact, lifecycle analysis (LCA), energy use by end user, functional safety, water use, sustainable forestry, professional training, performance, supply chain, production, or even office practices of the business that makes the product.
When you see a seal or certification claim, ask these questions.
- WHO is the certifying body?
- WHO are the certifiers? Is the decision in the hands of one person, an organization with an agenda, a panel of experts, a third-party?
- WHAT is being certified? Certification can be single-attribute or multiple-attribute. It can apply to a product or a business.
- HOW were the standards developed? Is the process open and transparent? If not, how can you be sure that the certification means what you think it does?
When you are dealing with environmental claims, there is always a danger of greenwashing—though some companies will be accused of greenwashing just because the certifications they receive don’t take into account the measures others might want them to. Just because a plastic product has a certification that says the plastic can be recycled doesn’t make it fair trade. Yes, I know you know that. That’s just simple, right?
It isn’t necessarily obvious to people, though. Some people won’t notice that we’re comparing apples to oranges. Some will just see a seal that is green in color and it will trigger a response. They don’t ask, do I want that green thing?
Grand Systems of Sustainability Measurement
What if you could compare apples to oranges? What if there were a way to compare each product in a massive store to every other product in the store and place them on a scale of sustainability? The world’s largest retailer is trying to do just that. Walmart’s new Sustainability Index attempts to compare the environmental impact of an apple, an orange, a wide-screen TV, and every other product in their store. This is a first pass at a universal eco-labelling system. It is a complex measure of everything their experts tell them matters for sustainability.
- What about labor? Is it a part of sustainability to ask how much workers in the field and factory earn for their labor?
- What about local solutions? Is it part of sustainability to ask whether a one-size-fits-all global corporate answer provides a better solution than the small and the local?
It all depends where you put your values. We don’t all look for the same measurements of goodness when we make choices for our families. Fair Trade certification might be more important to you than energy efficiency. Even if universal systems of measurement emerge to compare selected attributes of products, there will always be outliers asking, “What about. . . ?”
If seals and certifications are a substitute for personal trust, we may also need to ask whether we trust the certifier. In some cases, the certifying body or the global corporation sponsoring the index may be fighting against a deficit of trust. What does it take to come back from such a deficit in the eyes of consumers to reach a position of trust? Is that even possible?
How do you choose?
Backing off of some of the bigger issues of trust for a moment so you don’t become paralyzed into inaction, how do you choose which products to buy or whether to buy at all?
In the end, your choices will be very personal just as your values are very personal. There are some choices that will be clearly better than others when we consider environmental impact, at least I hope that will be the case when we start to see the results of a very extensive (if not exactly global) index. But as with all broad answers, there will have been compromises made. Some will be happy living with these compromises. If one particular aspect of sustainability isn’t included in the measures and this is very important to you, what good is the global index for you?
In order to make your choice, you need to become conscious of why you are choosing. Cost? Renewable resources? Energy consumption? Local? Labor? Know your important measures then which seals and certifications share your values.
If you have a choice between picking an apple off the tree in your backyard then eating it tonight and buying an orange picked in a grove in Brazil a few weeks ago then shipped to your town, which will you pick? Are they comparable?
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