How companies can navigate through the eco-label maze

Don’t judge a product by its green label -- at least for now.

With more than 400 eco-labels out there, it’s becoming more and more difficult for consumers to trust the sustainability claims made by a manufacturer. A lack of third-party certification, dishonest manufacturers and limited tools to assess a product’s environmental impact are just some of the challenges facing the eco-label market today. The issue is of particular concern to the architecture and design (A&D) community, whose decisions to use a particular product can have long-term consequences.

“There’s a lot of green noise,” said Paul Bates, training and education program manager at UL LLC, a product safety and certification organization, during a recent GreenBiz webcast about the challenges of eco-labeling. “The A & D community is running up against a lot of claims that are not certified or validated.”

The need for a third party to independently assess the validity of a company’s claims is becoming increasingly important, he said.

A database that helps companies find the right products to meet their requirements would be helpful, said Kirsten Ritchie, principal and director of sustainable designer at Gensler, a design and architecture firm, during the webcast. Currently, her firm has to rely on internet searches to verify product claims. But wading through hundreds of different eco-labels is a time-consuming process, she said.

“We don’t have a lot of time to do it,” she said. “This takes too long, it’s too disparate, we need some cohesion in this information.”

For Jane Rohde, principal at JSR Associates, the key is finding a way to compare product information using the same set of criteria. Rohde said a useful tool is CSI Greenformat, a directory that stores information about products and manufacturing in one location. The directory, developed by the Construction Specification Institute, allows firms and consumers to compare various products using the same format.

Sometimes manufacturers can be of help, Rohde said. If a firm has a good relationship with a manufacturer, it can be relatively easy to verify a product’s claims. But manufacturers’ knowledge about their own products varies.

“A lot are very well-versed with what is going on with their products,” said Rohde. “But then I find other manufacturers don’t have a clue.”

This needs to shift, said Ritchie, especially regarding the health and chemical concerns of their products. 

“There needs to be a sea change,” she said. “There are a lot of manufacturers that need to learn a whole more about their products from an environmental perspective.”

Photo of maze provided via Laszlo Halasi/Shutterstock

Next page: Handling misleading claims