How to get real green from your green certifications

P2 Pathways

How to get real green from your green certifications

There's a new kind of buyer's remorse in the marketplace. It's the environmentally aware purchaser who has been tricked into purchasing something or using a service that they thought was green but is not at all sustainable; more so a product of clever marketing.

In the hopes of providing a future for our children, or maybe just saving our own hides, many of us are suckers for anything touting itself as green these days. There are so many labels, certifications and ads — how can we tell the difference between something that actually does benefit the environment and something that is the advertising equivalent of promising a more virile sex life? This recent misrepresentation in marketing has a name: Green (read: Brain) Washing.

Take it from someone who has been green-cuckolded before. As an environmental scientist, I'm not proud to admit that I have been hoodwinked when I should have known better. It's also a testament to just how careful you have to be.

There was the "green hotel" I stayed in that didn't have a single recycling bin in the whole hotel. There was the carbon offset I purchased for my car where 75 percent of the contribution went to the executives, not to any carbon projects. Then there were the green gardeners who were so cautious about impacts to the environment that they never actually did any work on the garden but still charged me for it.

New third-party programs have sprouted up to market a service or business as green. Some are all about collecting expensive fees for a window decal; others are growing their programs slowly with small baby steps; and a few are very comprehensive programs. The ones that a discerning buyer needs to be aware of are the ones that are greenwashing in green business programs, or marketing a service as green while doing very little or nothing at all.

One industry that has been quick to jump on the green bandwagon is the hospitality industry. The hotel industry can potentially earn huge returns on investment in both reduced utility bills and increased patronage by meeting certain environmental standards. Efforts such as upgrading lighting and heating/cooling systems, replacing toilets and providing recycling bins with outreach to customers can reduce their operating costs. However, there is an initial capital cost for these changes and many hotels are realizing that they can simply pay a few grand, fill out an online form and be listed as a "green hotel" with several iconic leaves next to its name. This is much easier than replacing all the toilets and doing a major lighting upgrade.

Consumers see a label on a shop window or a web listing and assume that this is a business that pays attention to its triple bottom line. There are two types of programs: self-certified programs that allow a business to pay a fee, fill out a form and gain a seal, and third-party-verified programs.

Businesses that self-certify will often err in their own favor, even if accidentally: They may think that by recycling bottles and cans they have achieved zero waste, by having fluorescent lighting they are energy efficient, and by asking patrons to hang towels to be reused they can be classified as water efficient.

If a sustainability professional were to verify the self-certification, though, they might notice that there were no convenient labeled recycling bins in the hotel, meaning that the guests would have to find the recycling bin by the dumpsters in order to recycle. They might notice that the fluorescent tubes were T-12s, an outdated, inefficient lighting model. They might also notice that the landscaping was overirrigated and that the toilets were using twice as much water as they should.

A comprehensive program stays up to date with the best available technology for conservation in a wide breadth of pollution prevention, water conservation, energy conservation and solid waste reduction.

Another example is retail stores that may submit to a variety of self-certification programs to get listed as a green business. Often, the task of filling out an online checklist falls to an administrative person with minimal experience to understand conservation or pollution prevention measures. This results in erroneous self-reporting, and in most paid certifications there is nobody following up to verify the authenticity of what the business claims it is doing.

Although these self-certifications can cost thousands of dollars — for instance, Green Globe certification can cost up to $5,000 — they are cheaper and require less time and knowledge than going through a real greening process. The irony is that the programs that result in real greening can cost a nominal fee of a few hundred dollars, and many are completely free, subsidized by government funding.

There are green business certification programs that serve small- to medium-sized service-oriented businesses and get this right, and that can be trusted. There are also programs that are working toward having more comprehensive programs. There are degrees of trust along this spectrum.

Comprehensive programs link businesses with rebates for lighting and water fixture upgrades, verify environmental compliance with government agencies, and audit a facility with checklist in hand, ensuring that the business has both understood and implemented the measures. These programs provide on-site technical assistance to bridge the knowledge gap for industries that don't typically employ sustainability professionals on their staff.

A good example is the California Green Business Program, which is funded and run by local governments that work collectively through a state-funded program. The program is a one-stop shop for all of the rebates and technical assistance for small- to medium-sized businesses. There are more programs sprouting up across the U.S. modeled after this program, helping consumers have confidence that they are indeed "voting with their dollar" for the environment when they frequent a certified green hotel, restaurant, plumber or office-supply store.

What if you are a business that has paid for a third-party certification and you want to know if it's a good one? What if you're a third-party certification program that would like to move toward a more comprehensive offering? The table below shows which third-party green certification programs follow more trustworthy guidelines than others.

While being a green consumer in the marketplace is getting easier — and becoming a greener business to meet the demand from these consumers is also getting easier — doing your homework is important for all parties to avoid that feeling of green buyer's remorse.