4 steps to evaluating products with a sustainability scorecard

Another day, another green product.

Just about every day, it seems, a new item pops up on the market claiming it’s been certified as sustainable, according to one set of criteria or another.

Many manufacturers, retailers and third-party certification programs have developed their own methods -- and definition -- of assessing whether a product is sustainable.

So how can a retailer validate a manufacturer’s claims and choose a supplier from the scores of those saying it meets the retailer’s criteria -- when each product has been evaluated using a different method?

There's no easy answer. No standardized method, approach or common list of questions and criteria determining the attributes of a sustainable product exists. So it's going to be awhile before the day when the best product can be identified and sourced using a true "apples to apples" comparison.

What’s really needed for the long haul is a standardized approach to a green scorecard or assessment system, so similar products can be compared to one another using the same measures.

Doing so will not only cut down on consumer confusion, but also save time and also money. Companies wouldn't have to spend hours answering questionnaires each requiring a different set of information about the material composition, sourcing information and manufacturing processes of their products. Instead, they would only need to complete one standardized questionnaire.

This was the conclusion of speakers who presented at “The Future of Product Scorecards for Retailers and Suppliers,” a GreenBiz Group webcast held Tuesday.

“I’d ideally like to see a set of common standards, definitions and processes -- any time industry can come together around commonalities, we’re definitely very supportive of that,” Chris Conley, director of sustainability and EHS at Johnson & Johnson told webcast attendees.

Various industries and groups are making efforts to consolidate and harmonize efforts when it comes to product sourcing, said Lise Beutel, a UL Environment senior business consultant who shared the results of her company’s effort to catalog these initiatives. One example is the joint efforts of The Sustainability Consortium and the Retail Industry Leaders Association. The pair is collaborating to develop common sustainability measures as well as a library of common questions to assess sustainability at the enterprise and product level.

But among individual retailers, it’s a different story. “UL Environment findings reveal no standard approach for greener product sourcing,” she said.

Initiatives were similarly jumbled. While some addressed one product in a single category such as sustainable seafood, other initiatives used a checklist of criteria which spanned various product types, Beutel reported. Still others combined supplier data and product claims in a “sophisticated” database with metrics and scoring, she said.

UL Environment also identified a gap between the criteria consumers wanted retailers to focus on and the criteria that retailers actually used to assess whether manufacturers’ products met green sourcing requirements.

Sustainability issues of most concern to consumers are those that are associated with human health, Beutel said. But her company’s research found that only 13 percent of the initiatives focused on chemicals of concern.

“Retailers are underrepresenting this consumer value,” she said.

Similarly, most of the initiatives UL Environment examined focused on traditional sourcing points -- materials, production and distribution, Beutel said. But just a third of retailers in the company’s research focused on the impacts related to consumer use or impacts at the end of a product’s life.

“Consumers do have expectations that companies which sell [the products] should be responsible for these products and how they are disposed of,” Beutel said, citing Shelton Group market research showing 74 percent of consumers think a company has some responsibility for a product’s end-of-life disposal.

Photo of plain wooden matryoshka dolls provided by norgen via Shutterstock

Next page: Tips for companies and retailers on how to develop, sell green products