This week, at a gala dinner in Washington, D.C., the environmental standards and labeling organization Green Seal celebrates 25 years of trying to transform the marketplace. It’s been a long road with lots of twists and turns, and more than a few detours.
I attended Green Seal’s organizing meeting in D.C. in 1989. Great promise was in the air. Earth Day 1990 was months away and it promised a media and public extravaganza unlike anything the environmental movement had seen. A “green consumer” movement was taking shape in Europe, spurred in part by a bestselling paperback, "The Green Consumer Guide." I had been tapped to write the U.S. edition, to be published in early 1990, with the hopes for a similar outcome. “Every time you open your wallet, you cast a vote, for or against the environment,” I wrote back then. It seemed pretty straightforward and easy.
Like the green marketplace itself, Green Seal’s quarter-century journey since then has been anything but straightforward or easy. The organization shifted its sights from consumers to institutional buyers, where it was easier to drive demand for environmentally preferable products. It encountered a slew of competitors — from nonprofits, government agencies, entrepreneurs and large retailers — not to mention ups and downs in market interest in greener products and services. Five years ago, the venerable Good Housekeeping Institute launched its own green certification, although it never became much of a market force.
But Green Seal endured. Today, it is older, wiser — and as determined as ever. It has made great strides in raising the bar, environmentally speaking, in several markets, particularly institutional cleaning, where Green Seal standards have become the de facto national standard for green cleaning products and are even required by law in several states. Its other standards address everything from printing paper to motor oil.
On the occasion of its 25-year milestone, I recently spoke with Arthur B. Weissman, Green Seal’s president and CEO since 1996, about the organization’s journey. Weissman is also author of "In the Light of Human Nature," a semi-autobiographical book that weaves personal narrative and philosophy to tell the story of the green economy. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Joel Makower: First of all, congratulation on 25 years. Not a lot of environmental organizations get to say that. How are you celebrating?
Arthur Weissman: Thanks. It’s a chance to look at and improve what we’re doing. I know a lot of companies do that. Nonprofit organizations have to do the same thing.
We looked inside. We improved our efficiency, our effectiveness, and I think we've come out stronger. That's not to say that things are back to where they were before because everyone's more cautious now, including companies, in terms of their putting funding or marketing toward sustainability.
Makower: Let's back up a bit. When Green Seal was launched 25 years ago, the one-liner about it was that it would be “the Good Housekeeping Seal for the environment.” What's the one-liner you use now?
Weissman: What you're getting at is the fact that when Green Seal was launched 25 years ago, our founders saw this entirely as a consumer eco-label. They didn't have any knowledge that there was anything called an “institutional market” — business-to-business and business-to-government. They thought it made a lot of sense to have a seal to guide consumers in their purchasing. They didn't realize how adversarial the U.S. consumer market was — and is still — in terms of multinationals protecting their market share and their brand equity.
So, we had to shift about a half a dozen years after we were founded, in the mid-1990s, having hit our head against the wall so many times. It's hard to remember, but back then there wasn't social media or the Internet or much e-mail. In order to get to consumers you had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for advertising. So, we shifted our focus more to the institutional market as we began to understand and appreciate that one-third of the economy was government purchasing primarily, but also other large institutions like universities, multilateral organizations, things like that.
And that's what we did. Starting in the mid-1990s, we had a program that we launched as an alternative to certification in order to stoke the demand of institutional purchasers. We called it the Environmental Partners Program and had a couple of hundred members at one time. We put out guidance on how to buy green products and services, even though we didn't have a lot certified, but what look for under as “categories.”
We have had a number of consumer-oriented product standards and a few service ones as well, right from the beginning, but they haven't had much impact on the market the way our institutional work has. At this point, 25 years later, consumer spending is what we see as the next big frontier, because that's two-thirds of the economy. So, if we're really trying to turn the economy around and make it more sustainable, it's kind of hard to do that with just one-third of it.
Makower: What have you learned about consumers along the way in terms of just their willingness to engage? Do you understand them better than you did 25 years ago?
Weissman: I think we do. As you know, it's hard to categorize them as one monolithic group, or that they have one particular characteristic. There are many things and they're all contradictory. They're apathetic. They're interested. They couldn't care less. They vitally care.
There are many different segments but overlooking at them as a whole, it’s clear that right now, still, even 25 years later, they're not the driving force that they could be and I think should be in order to really move the market.
There's just still this great lethargy in the consumer market on everyone's part — not just the consumer, but also the retailers. They're waiting for the manufacturer to come through with the greener products. And manufacturers are waiting for the consumer to rise up and say, “We demand this.”
I think we've been doing it the wrong way. We've been expecting consumers to make all the technical choices. That's absurd. What we know now, 25 years later, is how complicated it is to make a great product or service. It's not impossible, but it is complicated. And asking a consumer to do it in the 20 seconds that they have to make a choice in the aisle with the limited information they have — it's just totally absurd.
Makower: Do you hope that something will change that will lead to some tipping point where consumers start getting engaged?
Makower: So, what's that tipping point?
Weissman: I sure hope it isn't because of some horrible crisis, like another Katrina. I don't want that to happen. But I think something needs to galvanize people's attention, and not in a guilt kind of way but just to kind of wake people up that it's time to really turn this thing around.
And everyone could do it simply by asking, demanding, requesting — making it clear that this is something they care about because they see this as the future of their world and of their children's world. It's really that simple.
Makower: It doesn't strike me as being simple at all because, as you tease that out, then you have, “Well, what do we care about and how do I determine what's a good product or what's a good company?" And that's where Green Seal is supposed to come in.
Weissman: It's always been a chicken-and-egg thing for us in terms of manufacturers only caring about doing this if they see consumer demand, but not being able to get the consumer demand unless there are green products for them to actually buy.
When you take away the multinational kind of negativity or the trade groups’ negativity toward any leadership standard, you see a general consensus by the people who have the technical knowledge about what constitutes a more sustainable product or service. I don't think that is the fundamental issue. When that's brought up, I think it's largely a red herring.
And if you can get enough people in the consumer market to show that they're concerned, then the question is, “Okay, how do we ensure that what is promoted as green or more sustainable is truly more sustainable?” And yes, that's where Green Seal comes in.
I'm not saying the whole process is simple. What I'm saying is, from the consumer's point of view, what I would like them to do is relatively simple as opposed to what we've seen in recent years, so many people or so many efforts to get consumers to make very difficult, technical choices about products, which they're really not equipped to do. It's just like asking them to run a power plant or something. It gets to the point of absurdity.
Makower: Let's move over to the B to B side because in some ways, that — at least from my perspective — feels more hopeful. What have you learned about what it takes to transform the market for a given product or product category?
Weissman: The main thing that we've learned is that you have to be very careful about which market you get into. You have to get to know the players. And you have to get to know the technical and the market issues in that sector. You can't just blithely decide you're going to do a standard for any particular category and put it out there and expect it's going to be taken up.
That's something we just really didn't know much about in the early years. And we've learned more and more about it and we still learn about it. We realized that we have to do always more than we think we do to get into a particular market segment.
Makower: Where have you tried to change the market and struggled? And what did you learn from that?
Weissman: Green Seal has had a lot of uptake in the institutional building maintenance area, and particularly, the janitorial maintenance. We decided to complete the portfolio of our standards in that we would do a standard for laundry products. Well, it turned out, that's actually a whole different set of players than in cleaning products. And different trade associations, different conferences.
We got some of them involved when we developed our two standards there — GS-48 and GS-51 — but we didn't do enough. And we've had to do a lot of catch-up in the last year or so to try to learn and get involved with these people because if they're not really informed about Green Seal and what we're trying to do, they're going to see us as sort of outsiders who are coming in and imposing something that they don't really understand or appreciate. They just think that we're creating problems for them.
Makower: You’ve also had a decent reception in the hospitality sector.
Weissman: We do have some good programs going. We have one in Chicago with the city. We have one currently in Los Angeles with more and more properties certified. It's the Los Angeles Green Lodging Program. It has been a sort of beacon for hoteliers who really want to go to the highest leadership level.
Makower: So, looking forward, where do you see Green Seal going in the next few years?
Weissman: We've been thinking about that quite a lot. What we see is, first of all, continuing very strongly in the institutional market, where we have pretty good influence, though we want to strengthen that. And, as I alluded to earlier, we want very much to start making some headway in the consumer market.
Another thing we're doing is to try to be much more open to innovation. You've probably heard that canard that eco-labeling programs stifle innovation. We don't really believe that but we do believe that it's important to demonstrate and continually apply innovation in our programs. Last month we came out with a proposal for something called the Green Seal Standard for Environmental Innovation (PDF), which gets to one of the oldest problems eco-labeling programs have had: there are so many different categories of products and services out there, how do you develop standards for all of them? And this basically says, if we don't have a standard but it's an innovative kind of product — not just a greener one but an innovative one — we'll take a look at it and we'll use a life-cycle approach to determine whether it could be certified as such.
Makower: Sounds like there's a heck of a lot more to do. Are you still having fun?
Weissman: We're never bored here.