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'Sustainable Products' to Get a Boost from the EPA

Even as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency just announced the transition out of its popular Climate Leaders Program, it looked to get more involved with "sustainable products."

The EPA announced last week that it's currently defining its role and developing a strategy to further the development, manufacture, designation, and use of sustainable products. Organizations impacted by this new EPA effort may include those that "manufacture, distribute, label, certify, verify, and purchase or use ... products that may be considered as 'green,' 'sustainable,' or 'environmentally preferable.'"

The EPA seeks individual stakeholder input regarding this process. The deadline for commenting is October 19, 2010. Among two other broadly framed questions, the Agency asked specifically how stakeholders see its role in:

  • Assembling information and databases.
  • Identifying sustainability "hotspots" and setting product sustainability priorities.
  • Evaluating the multiple impacts of products across their entire life cycle.
  • Defining criteria for more sustainable products.
  • Generating eco-labels and/or standards.
  • Establishing the scientific foundation for these eco-labels and/or standards.
  • Verifying that products meet standards.
  • Stimulating the market.
  • Developing end-of-life management systems (reuse, recycling, etc.).
  • Measuring results, evaluating programs.

I think there's a lot the EPA can do to help all of the parties involved in a real win-win-win, including manufacturers, existing third-party certifiers and consumers. The agency itself has already acted in a similar role with such programs as its Design for the Environment, EnergyStar and WaterSense programs.

Defining criteria, generating eco-labels or standards, and verifying products most struck me -- presumably any such efforts would work in conjunction with the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) recent efforts to update its green guides and its enforcement efforts. The  EPA's new efforts may end up helping companies in their ability to substantiate their claims -- a key to staying in the FTC's good graces. Moreover, there's been interest in a federal eco-label program for a while because of the problems inherent in the current wild-west of eco-labeling, with over 300 separate certifications and growing, and increasing confusion on the part of even the most sophisticated consumers and business buyers.

As with the FTC's upcoming revised green guides, those likely to be most impacted would be third-party eco-labels and labelers. Some of those that provide eco-labels seem especially likely to take issue with the EPA infringing upon their domain.

Most everyone else seems likely to stand to benefit from EPA efforts to assist with sustainable products in these potential ways.

Whatever your position, be sure to join in by submitting comments as directed on the Federal Register site. And let us know what your initial thought are in the comments below.

Perry Goldschein is a founding partner in SDialogue, LLC, an award-winning sustainability communications & marketing firm that's helped such clients as Ben & Jerry's, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Johnson & Johnson, National Geographic, and Yale University since 2003.

Supermarket photo CC-licensed by vauvau.

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