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Green Seal at 30: What we’ve learned

Seven things you should know about ecolabeling.

As Green Seal celebrates its 30th anniversary, we have been looking back at our history and the role we have played in the wider story of the sustainability movement. We’ve also been digging into our archives to unearth information about the state of the green market 30 years ago, and to reveal key moments where Green Seal catalyzed economy-wide shifts toward safer, greener products. You can see it all in our interactive timeline here

Here are seven things we have learned from 30 years of pioneering the ecolabeling movement:

1. Healthy green products are the new normal

When Green Seal launched, at the onset of the green consumer movement, about 10 percent of the products on store shelves claimed to be green. In 2018, it was 22 percent and rapidly growing (Nielsen expects it to be 25 percent by 2021). Green products are flourishing today, driven by a rising tide of consumer demand, especially among those now steering the economy. A full 78 percent of millennials believe sustainability is important and say they make sustainable choices — higher than any generation before them. 

These surveys aren’t soft: Consumers today are putting their money where their mouths are. NYU Stern’s Center for Sustainable Business did in-depth research into U.S. consumers’ actual purchasing from 2013 to 2018 and found that a full 50 percent of the growth in consumer-packaged goods came from sustainability-marketed products.

Even more stunning: Products marketed as sustainable grew 5.6 times faster than those that were not. Consumers are voting with their wallets to make sustainability a priority, and companies sitting on the sidelines will have to get in the game or lose more ground. 

2. Standards are powerful

Green Seal’s 1992 standard for towels and tissues was the first benchmark for sustainable paper in the United States. It required products to be made from 100 percent recovered material with at least 10 percent to 20 percent coming from post-consumer content sources — and it catalyzed a movement toward recycled-content paper for the away-from-home market. Similarly, Green Seal’s 1993 paint standard transformed the market by setting a limit for VOCs.

When Green Seal launched in 1989, there was nothing like it in the United States. Today, people face a very different challenge: They have too many ecolabels to navigate.
While we want producers to certify their products to Green Seal’s standards, simply having the standards in the public domain pushes the market forward. A number of products haven’t gone through the certification process but that formulate to our standards anyway, because our standards are cited by state and local governments and by green building certification programs such as LEED. In fact, Green Seal’s paint standard has eliminated 500,000 pounds of VOC emissions in 120,000 million square feet of LEED certified buildings. That’s one example of the power of leadership standards, and its why Green Seal always will make our standards open and accessible to the public. 

3. Manufacturers don’t always know all the ingredients in their products

Companies make household products with raw materials they source from outside suppliers, and they often don’t have access to those suppliers’ ingredient information — sometimes because the supplier considers it confidential. Essentially, that can mean that a company that makes a product doesn’t know what’s in it, or how hazardous it might be.

This is not the case for Green Seal-certified products, because we work with companies’ raw material suppliers to track down every ingredient before we will certify a product. New state ingredient transparency laws — such as one in California for cleaning products — will compel manufacturers to search out this information and encourage them to weed out the toxic ingredients they don’t want on their labels. 

4. Concentrates are going mainstream

Sustainability features that have long exclusively applied to commercial products are starting to make their way to household consumers: for example, concentrated cleaning products. Green Seal’s standards for commercial cleaning products always have encouraged products to be in concentrated form to cut down on packaging and to avoid the unnecessary energy use and carbon emissions from shipping large volumes of water.

Concentrates are a practical choice for commercial cleaning operations that store and transport an arsenal of products. But increasingly, household consumers are showing they’re willing to forgo the ease and familiarity of ready-to-spray and ready-to-pour products for more sustainable concentrates that reduce their plastics footprints. This is a promising indicator that consumers in the age of climate change are motivated to break stubborn habits and reward companies that offer them outside-the-box sustainable options. 

5. The proliferation of ecolabels is holding back the movement

When Green Seal launched in 1989, there was nothing like it in the United States: a nonprofit organization committed to independently verifying the sustainability of products. We pioneered ecolabeling to address the confusion springing up in the marketplace from the onslaught of unregulated, misleading marketing claims, and to give consumers a simple way to identify a proven-greener product.

Today, people face a very different challenge: They have too many ecolabels to navigate. Now, meaningless ecolabels allow companies to self-certify, and single-attribute ecolabels examine only one product feature and ignore serious tradeoffs that result in significant environmental impacts. At what point will we need an ecolabel for ecolabels? Thirty years after we started this movement, people still want to know what is good from an authority they can trust.

6. Everyone should spend more time thinking about toilet paper

For the conscious consumer searching for a way to make an impact, we have some advice: Buy 100 percent recycled toilet paper. Toilet paper made from non-virgin sources has half or less the climate impact of virgin paper and is dramatically better for forests and waterways. This choice would have an exponential impact in the United States, which consumes more than 20 percent of the world’s tissue products despite having less than 5 percent of the world’s population. 

Green Seal-certified sanitary paper saves 3.8 million metric tons of CO2 emissions each year — the equivalent of taking 800,000 cars off the road. Most major brands currently only offer recycled-content toilet paper for the away-from-home market. Consumers have an opportunity to make a significant impact on carbon emissions by demonstrating demand for these products at home, too.

7. Green products play a huge and sometimes hidden role in sustainable supply chain management

From office supplies to cleaning products to sanitary paper, corporate procurement of essential products plays an outsized role in an organization’s environmental footprint. Procurement is the cornerstone of Goal 12 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), "Responsible Consumption and Production." Green Seal-certified products not only count toward the SDGs but also can create a healthier, more productive work environment. A recent survey conducted by the U.S. Green Building Council found that employees are happier and healthier in a LEED Certified building, and 80 percent say the enhanced air quality improves their physical health and comfort.

Many enhancements in air quality in LEED buildings come from the use of low-emitting interiors and green cleaners. While companies that lease their spaces may not be able to control their building infrastructure or maintenance, they can make a significant impact simply through their own operations and purchasing decisions. That’s why, in addition to our certification programs, Green Seal has a Green Office Partnership Program that offers straightforward steps for achieving sustainable workplaces whether companies own or lease their office space.

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