A New Guide to Sustainable Certification Marks

If you’ve been taking eco-labels for their word, it might be time to re-evaluate your process for finding and specifying sustainable products.

Original Publication: Interiors & Sources

By Erika Templeton


Is any one person able to wrap their head around the 400-plus green certification labels on the market today? Perhaps, but for those of us who haven’t been studying our eco-flash cards for the past decade, making sense of it all can be a daunting challenge.

Fortunately, the green marketing world is taking big strides to make those labels more valuable and easy to understand. Much of this change is occurring thanks to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Green Guides, which were updated on October 1, 2012. For the first time, the guide warns marketers against making broad environmental claims without explaining what they mean, or plastering eco-labels on their products without explaining where they came from.

In short, the FTC is now demanding sustainability with greater substance.

“The entire industry is moving towards life-cycle orientation and total transparency,” says Jacquelyn Ottman, founder and principal of J. Ottman Consulting Inc., and author of “The New Rules of Green Marketing: Strategies, Tools and Inspiration for Green Branding.” “Previously, it was OK with the FTC if you used words like ‘green’ or ‘environmentally friendly.’ Now the FTC is saying, ‘Forget it, folks. You can’t do that anymore. Show us the life-cycle-based data.’ And chances are nobody has it.”

A year after the updated FTC Green Guides have been released, labelers are still working diligently to make changes—even those devoted to doing green certification right. Take the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association’s (BIFMA) level® certification mark, for example. According to Ottman, “they have looked at it from a complete life-cycle basis. It is totally consistent with ANSI. It provides a lot of transparency, and it’s just the right way to do it.”

And yet, the level mark is still not up to snuff with the new FTC Green Guides, which now classify certifications and seals as endorsements, and advise that all eco-labels should clearly convey who created the mark, disclose any material connections between the manufacturer and the certifier, and explain the basis for the certification and its environmental benefits.

“In retrospect, I see our level mark and realize that an uninformed consumer looking at that wouldn’t know anything. It doesn’t even say furniture on it,” says Tom Reardon, executive director of BIFMA. “So we’ve made some changes. Without that push from the FTC we wouldn’t have a more informative label.”

As the industry continues to work toward an ideal framework for conveying environmental product information, here are a few useful pointers for designers sifting through the information today.

1. Look for multi-attribute certifications with clear explanations.
Single-attribute certifications offer a view of only one environmental impact, and relying on these alone can lead to some misleading assumptions about a product’s overall sustainability.

“As much as I love Energy Star or Biobased, just because you have a product certified under one of those marks doesn’t mean you can call it a ‘green’ product,” Ottman says. “What about water efficiency? What about mercury?”

In fact, whether a product label represents a single-attribute or multi-attribute analysis, the word “green” should always send up a red flag. This is a gross oversimplification and does not comply with current FTC Green Guides.

“What manufacturers need to do is simplify and be specific. It could say ‘my light bulb is 20 percent more energy efficient than the leading brand,’ or ‘meets Energy Star standards for energy efficiency,’” Ottman explains. “But they also need to provide levels of information, whether it’s downloadable PDFs, web pages or what have you.”

A product label can only hold so much information, so consider the certification mark a quick guide, and follow up with more in-depth research to confirm that the attributes measured actually align with the sustainability goals of your project.


2. Consider the source. 
When you see an eco-label, ask who created it. Did the company pay for it to be on their product? Did the certifier have something to gain? Here’s an easy way to remember first-, second- and third-party certification:

First Party: Versteel makes a task chair, and says that it is sustainable based on its own research and knowledge.

Second Party: Versteel is a BIFMA member. BIFMA says Versteel’s task chair is sustainable as measured by the ANSI/BIFMA e3 Furniture Sustainability Standard (e3).

Third Party: Third-party certifier SCS Global Services licenses certification marks to products meeting certain standards. SCS Global tests and confirms Versteel’s chair complies with the e3 standard, and licenses the level mark to Versteel.

Third-party certifications will always be the most rigorously tested and verifiable, but ultimately it’s up to you to decide which marks are most important—oftentimes, that comes down to what standards they reflect.

3. Know your ANSI standards (and others). 
A certification mark is only as good as the product standards it is based on, so understanding the evolution of product standards is critical to understanding the meaning of sustainability claims.

“As we look ahead, the aim will be to do independent evaluations to refine certification standards over time and pin down which aspects are going be the most important for companies to pay attention to,” says Linda Brown, senior vice president and co-founder of SCS Global Services. “We need to see whether those products that met the highest tiers of their standards represented true environmental benefits and by what scale. Which portion of those metrics made the most difference?”

Additionally, a manufacturer may have products that meet certain standards, but opt not to get them certified. By following the underlying thinking behind the certifications, you can make sustainable choices without feeling beholden to packaging and labeling. Which leads to our fourth point:

4. Remember that standards do not equal certifications.
A major factor driving the proliferation of eco-labels is that multiple certification bodies license out marks based on the same standards.

“We saw that with GREENGUARD, SCS Indoor Advantage, MAS Certified Green and all these other indoor air quality programs,” says Reardon. “They’re all certifying product to the same criteria and the same test methods, but they’re spending money promoting their own brand against the others. The customers were confused.”

Now all products meeting BIFMA’s e3 standard will receive the same level mark, regardless of which certification body a manufacturer chooses to work with. It is a solution that appears in other industries as well, such as the Association of Contract Textiles’ (ACT) NSF 336 sustainability standard, and the Tile Council of North America’s (TCNA) Green Squared® program.

Look for more unified labeling to emerge as time goes on, but don’t expect to find one that can span across product categories. For now, the standards are simply too disparate, and groups like BIFMA, ACT and TCNA have found it impossible to unify under a single mark.


5. Don’t cross-compare LCAs and EPDs
If comparing a eco-label for textiles to a eco-label for furniture is apples to oranges, then comparing Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) to Life-Cycle Analyses (LCAs) is like comparing Granny Smith to Golden Delicious. They may look the same at first glance, but when you analyze them to a finer level of detail, the differences outweigh the similarities. Using LCAs and EPDs for comparative analysis is a “real risk” and “a misuse,” according to Reardon.

“What set of product category rules did the manufacturer use to base its LCA on? What protocol? What LCA methodology did they use? What data sets did they use? There are so many permutations, they’re just not comparable.”

Designers should also be careful to consider the effects of their particular situation, says Ottman. After reviewing LCAs and EPDs, ask yourself three questions:

  • How is the product being sourced and delivered? Shipping an energy-saving product halfway around the world, for instance, may defeat the purpose.
  • How will the product be used and what are the demands of the environment? Wear and tear, cleaning solutions, sun exposure, room temperature and moisture can significantly affect a product’s sustainable performance.
  • What happens when the product is ready for disposal? If a manufacturer offers recycling and end-of-life services, make sure your project stays within the boundaries of their infrastructure. Otherwise, the product may still end up in a landfill.

6. Ask critical questions.
Linda Brown offers a series of helpful questions designers should ask when evaluating product labels:

  • Does the label address the issues that seem to be most important for the products you’re looking at?
  • What’s the importance of the issues being addressed by the labels?
  • Are there areas of potential hidden environmental trade-offs?
  • How transparent is the information that the labeler provides and the company that’s making the claim?

The good news is that while you fine-tune your certification investigation skills, the manufacturers and certifiers are also working diligently to improve the current system.

“There are some really important improvements to LCA methodology that are coming down the pipe,” says Brown. “They are being captured through this standardization process to fill in the remaining gaps and make it fulfill its promise as a truly rigorous, comprehensive assessment method.”

And of course, as the system improves, so will the products themselves.

“EPDs are really a tool for the manufacturer to look at the hotspots in their product and process that have the most negative environmental impact,” says Reardon. “And they’re going to get better. You don’t go through all that research to find out where the hotspots are and then not do anything about it.”

SCS Media Contact

Linda Brown | Senior Vice President
SCS Global Services
To find out more, contact Linda Brown, or call 510.452.8010.