A Look Inside Good Housekeeping's Green Seal

It's long stated as near fact by observers of the confusing and confounding green marketplace that what's needed, once and for all, is something akin to a Good Housekeeping Seal for the environment. Good Housekeeping, it seems, represents a pinnacle of credibility and consumer confidence.

So, now that Good Housekeeping has introduced its own green seal, what should we make of it?

First, some background. The original Good Housekeeping Seal was introduced in 1909, when there was little regulatory oversight of consumer products. It represented an audacious marketing promise from its namesake magazine: If a product bearing the seal proved defective within two years, the magazine would replace it or refund the purchase price. Over the past century, the seal has endured in a world of fickle consumers and shifting brand alliances. And while its design has been updated to reflect modern times, the mission and purpose of the seal remains intact.

Last month, the Good Housekeeping Research Institute -- the product-evaluation laboratory of the magazine, which itself is part of the media giant Hearst Communications -- announced the first seven products to receive its new Green Good Housekeeping Seal, "developed to help consumers sift through the confusing clutter of 'green' claims on hundreds of products on store shelves today," according to the seal's website. The first batch of certifications include household cleaners and beauty products. Paints and appliances are expected to follow.

I sat down recently with a team from the Good Housekeeping Research Institute in its New York headquarters, including its director, Miriam Arond, to learn about the seal, what's behind it, and its promise for helping consumers make sense of the green marketplace.

I began with asking Arond to explain the process a product goes through to earn the seal. "In order to earn the Green Good Housekeeping Seal," she said, "a product first has to be reviewed for an advertisement in Good Housekeeping magazine. That means the scientists at the Good Housekeeping Research Institute evaluate the product to make sure it lives up to the advertising claims. Once a product is approved for advertising, it can apply for the Good Housekeeping Seal. We then further evaluate the product, because we want to make sure it lives up to all the claims on the website, on its packaging, to make sure that it actually performs as promised.

"Then, once a product earns the primary Good Housekeeping Seal, it can apply for the Green Good Housekeeping Seal, in which case we ask for quite a bit of data. In some cases, we are signing non-disclosure agreements, confidentiality agreements, because companies are disclosing to us a lot of data about how the product is manufactured and how it is distributed. Once we have evaluated the result, as well as verified the data, then they can earn, hopefully, the Green Good Housekeeping Seal."

I wanted to know about the criteria being used -- the standard to which Good Housekeeping was holding companies. Arond explained that the questionnaire contains 56 questions that cover a wide spectrum of a product's potential environmental impacts, from upstream materials sourcing through consumer use and disposal. (A summary of the application process is here.)

"We got a lot of input from the environmental community," Arond told me. "We brought together a host of environmental experts -- from academia, from industry, from trade associations, from NGOs -- and we basically picked a lot of people's brains to see what they thought was important.

"We knew from the start we wanted to have an evaluation that was going to be comprehensive, not look at one or two aspects of green, because truthfully some of that already exists. We think it's a little bit problematic to only cite one or two areas of greenness, so to speak. We look at a very wide range, from everything involved in the manufacturing of the product and the water usage during manufacturing and the energy usage during manufacturing, and then, of course, during the product usage. We look at distribution, we look at packaging, its greenhouse gas emissions. We wanted to take as much into account as possible. Then we ran the application by environmental experts again and we continued to hone it, and to make sure that both small and big companies were able to answer it."

I knew that my friend Michael Brown, co-founder of Brown & Wilmanns Environmental Consulting, had consulted to Arond's project. Therefore, I assumed that the criteria had something to do with life-cycle analysis -- or, more likely, a "lite" LCA, a simplified version that Brown and his partner Eric Wilmanns had deployed for other clients, including several major consumer brands.

Stacy Genovese, Technical & Engineering Director of the Good Housekeeping Institute, confirmed that her team looks at a product's full life-cycle but doesn't use a formal LCA. "We're taking certain things that you would do for an LCA into account in our criteria. But to do a full LCA analysis is quite costly, and we didn't want to make that the basis of the application, because then we're excluding people that just don't have the money to pay for a full LCA. And that wouldn't help our readers."

Arond pointed out something I would have guessed: that the information-gathering part of the certification process can be burdensome, even for big companies, requiring them to pull information from a range of different departments, suppliers, and partners. But companies need to learn how to do that, and those that do find that the more they know, the greater the opportunities to reduce energy, water, materials, toxics, and other forms of waste and inefficiency.

So, will the Good Housekeeping Green Seal help make sense of the eco-label clutter? Yes and no. On the one hand, it seems to be a well-thought-out initiative, done with rigor, responsibility, and a high sense of purpose. The bar seems to be set at a reasonable level: If a product has earned a Good Housekeeping Green Seal, it means something.

But the seal will have limited impact, if only because of its linkage to its magazine advertiser base. (Anyone can have a product evaluated by the Institute for $10,000, but such products aren't allowed to carry the seal unless they first earn the "regular" Good Housekeeping Seal, which inures only to advertisers.) That will be a barrier to all but the largest companies. Indeed, all of the seven products certified to date come from large companies -- six from Clorox, Johnson & Johnson, and SC Johnson (the seventh is from Physicians Formula, a $115 million revenue, Nasdaq-traded company). The big-company limitation will hamstring the seal's ability to gain traction among many green-minded consumers, who may prefer products from any of countless smaller companies.

Perhaps what's most valuable about the whole exercise is the audience for which this is being done. Good Housekeeping magazine boasts nearly 5 million monthly subscribers, the sixth-largest magazine by circulation last year, according to the Magazine Publishers of America. Exposing green products to that sizable mainstream audience makes the Good Housekeeping's Green Seal an important contribution, even if it turns out not to be the game-changer some were waiting for.