Green Certifications: Familiar Seals

half-leaf-300A new report shows that consumers do look for familiar eco seals. What are you looking at when you see that merit badge sash of seals? What do these familiar seals mean, and how will they help you make green choices? We’ve separated the list into four types of seals:

  • Memberships
  • Awards
  • Pledges & Petitions
  • Certifications


Memberships

Memberships often let you know what community or professional organizations the website belongs to. For manufacturers and retailers of baby products, you will find a variety of memberships from community review directories like The Babywearer and Diaper Pin to Real Diaper Association and Miracle Diapers, both charities dedicated to cloth diapers, or the Real Diaper Industry Association, a cloth diaper industry trade association.

When do memberships help you make greener choices? Green America Business Network has members who also go through a rigorous screening process before they can display the business seal of approval. Green America looks more at the impact of the overall business than the individual products, but this seal is a great start in your search for greener products.


Awards

You may notice that a lot of cloth diapers and baby carriers are described as “award-winning.” What are the awards, and what do they mean? Below are some of the awards you will find on baby products.

iparenting media awardFor the iParenting Media awards, a manufacturer submits a product and pays a $300 fee. Then, paid reviewers put the product through their evaluation system. If chosen, the product is then promoted by iParenting Media.

For the Mr Dad Seal of Approval, a manufacturer submits a product and pays an evaluation fee of $129.95 to cover administrative costs. Those products chosen for approval then carry a seal from “America’s Most Trusted DadTM,” who is a newspaper columnist and radio host on fathering topics.

PTPA Media, Parent Tested Parent Approved, also requires manufacturers to submit product and pay a $400.00 to cover administrative and promotional costs. The product is reviewed by four reviewers and PTPA Media. If chosen, the product can carry a seal and will be included in promotion and media.

Great Gear of the Year Award from Shape You for sports, health, and fitness products requires a $75 submission fee. If the product is not chosen for award, it will still be featured on the website for one year.

Best Product Award by Orca Communications Limited (PR firm) is found in their Best Products for Babies & Kids Media Guide. They gather images and information about new products so media don’t have to do separate research.

Book or magazine endorsements often carry the logo of the publication. Whether these products are submitted for review or chosen by the editorial staff varies.

None of these awards listed tells you whether the product itself is lower impact than any other. Many product awards are marketing opportunities that don’t give you the kind of information you need to make greener choices. As alluring as the words “award-winning” can be, don’t be misled into thinking that awards give you information beyond meeting criteria that are not always made public.


Pledges & Petitions

I Took The Handmade Pledge! BuyHandmade.orgHave you seen bloggers and website owners declare I Took the Handmade Pledge from BuyHandmade.org? Or, maybe you have seen a blog with a badge that says My Blog Fights Climate Change from the 350 Challenge. Pledges can give site visitors an indication of commitments, while petition seals and banners are often posted in order to activate visitors to become signers.

Among the seals you might see on natural parenting websites are breastfeeding petitions like the Canadian Breastfeeding Protection Petition from the Infant Feeding Action Committee and the Breastfeeding Petition to President Obama from the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee (a 501(c)(3) nonprofit).

Another common seal within the past year has been support for handmade toys linking to a petition to save micro-businesses from heavy-handed U.S. regulation at Save Small Businesses from the CPSIA from the Handmade Toy Alliance. Similar petitions have circulated for other children’s products, such as CPSIA Impacts on Children’s Apparel Industry.

While pledges and petitions won’t tell you about products specifically, they can give you an indication whether your values and those of the business owner align.


Certifications

energy-starA certification mark is a kind of trademark that carries a legal assurance. Not all certification seals are certification marks. There are a lot of eco-labels and certifications for green building, but there are only a few eco labels that conscious consumers have become quite familiar with to the point that they actually seek out these labels. Energy Star, for example, from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is a mark consumers look for.

While a seal from the Better Business Bureau has nothing to do with green or environment, it does show that the business has been accredited and adheres to the BBB standards and code of business practices. This is a great baseline for good business practices.

One of the most common certifications you are most likely to see on children’s products is an organic seal. Certified Organic varies by country. In the U.S., the Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program oversees organic certification. In Canada, organic certification on a national level is new this past summer. Cloth diapers and baby carriers can be made with certified organic materials, and whole products can be certified organic. Beyond organic is Demeter biodynamic certification.

Eco Logo is a Canadian government certification for sustainable products based on lifecycle. Green Seal uses science-based sustainable standards and is most often found on building and facilities-related materials. You might find it on household cleaners. More likely on products for home and family is a common seal like the Green Goodhousekeeping Seal.

Another kind of certification that isn’t about environmental impact so much as a generally healthy environment for you and your family is the Asthma and Allergy Friendly Certification, which can be given to any product that is marketed allergy-friendly.

Certification seal and certification marks give you the kind of substitute trust you need when you are far removed from the producers of the goods you use. Legal guarantees, standards, and third-party certification gives people reassurances. They should not, however, be substitutes for building trusting relationships with producers who are engaged in their communities and working to lower their impact in ways very much like you are.

See also:

Image © Budda | Dreamstime.com

Green Certifications: Comparing Green Apples to Oranges

half-leaf-300At 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?


Greenwashing

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?

See also:

This post is for the Green Moms Carnival on Green Standards hosted this month by In Women We Trust.

Image © Budda | Dreamstime.com