Green certification: Is it worth the hassle?

Green certification: Is it worth the hassle?

Getting a business green-certified can be resource-intensive, so business owners and sustainability executives should make sure the eco label they're pursuing is the best fit.

As the owner of a small media and e-commerce company that not only has earned green certification but also relies on eco labels to select quality products for its retail business, I’m happy to share my lessons learned about the different labels out there and the process of getting certified.

Some key questions to ask are: Which labels are most reputable and unbiased? How “independent” is the third party issuing the eco label? Does it have a vested interest the products being certified?

As a business owner or sustainability executive spearheading this effort, you'll need to make three primary decisions about which eco label -- or labels -- you want to obtain: whether the eco label is general or industry specific; what type of organization is the issuing party; and whether the label/certification applies to the entire company or just specific products.

General vs. industry specific

This decision depends on whether your company carries a wide range of products or if it is a manufacturer in a specific industry. Eco labels that cover a general range of products include Green Seal, Cradle to Cradle, Green America and EcoLogo.

Since my company, EcoPlum, is a retailer carrying eco friendly products from a range of industries, we elected to pursue the Green America certification. Manufacturers, though, should get certified by the “experts” in their field. So if your company makes personal care products, for example, then your products should be listed in the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database. Likewise, car manufacturers will want to be listed favorably in EPA’s Green Vehicle Guide; makers of industrial and household cleaners may want to pursue the USDA Biopreferred seal of approval; and carpet manufacturers should be evaluated by FloorScore. For a more comprehensive list of eco labels by industry, please see this guide to eco labels.

Which certifier?

Next, where should your company obtain its eco label? Should it be issued by the government, a non profit organization or some other third party organization? Most government-issued labels require adherence to very specific standards, carry hefty fines for misuse, and require certification and testing of operations and products by an accredited certification agent.

Two of the most well known are the USDA Organic and Energy Star logos. Other government issued labels include the Green Vehicle Guide, Design for Environment, and WaterSense programs from the EPA; the USDA BioPreferred program; and the Canadian EcoLogo program. While the amount of paperwork and higher costs associated with obtaining these government labels may seem prohibitive, the benefits to getting approved by Uncle Sam include getting your company/products listed on government websites, use of the logo on products, and providing your customers with more peace of mind.

Non-profits and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) also play an important role in ecolabeling. Some of the better known NGO labels are GreenSeal, Green America, Fair Trade USA, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, EPEAT, and the US Green Building Council’s LEED certification program. All these programs have rigorous standards products and companies must meet prior to earning the use of the seal or label.

In some cases, the companies “self report” their compliance with these standards to the NGO, and there is little to no verification by the NGO. While this may make some people nervous, there is not a lot of room for abuse, as the NGOs monitor the companies closely for customer complaints and their reviewers are quite experienced in spotting the shadier applicants. Some of these organizations run random audits and site visits to maintain integrity. The advantage to getting certified by one of these types of organizations is that expenses may be lower than for government issued eco labels, and the process may be somewhat less cumbersome.

Among corporations and other third parties issuing certifications, the leader right now is probably UL Environment (ULE), with its 2010 acquisition of TerraChoice, a sustainability consulting firm and manager of Canada’s EcoLogo program. Another well-known label is Cradle to Cradle, from MDBC, also a sustainability consulting firm. In 2011, MDBC transferred the actual certification responsibility to a new, non-profit entity called the Cradle to Cradle Innovation Institute.

These companies all require audits and verification of standards, and also provide the advice and consulting services to bring their clients into “compliance” with their standards. These additional services may help guide your company and employees through the process, but of course there is a higher price tag associated with them.

What should be labeled?

Finally, should your business select a company-wide or product-specific label? There are pros and cons to each of these types of certifications. Green America, B-Corporation, Fair Trade Certified, Green Seal and ULE all provide company-wide certification. Green Seal and ULE also provide product-specific labels.

When the entire company is certified, in most cases the issuing organization looks beyond product attributes such as material, energy use, etc. Green America, for example, reviews the labor practices, fair trade practices, community involvement, transparency and communication, employee treatment, and charitable giving practices of the company. So when a consumer shops from a Green America Gold Certified company, he or she knows that the entire corporate culture is dedicated to sustainability and social responsibility.

On the other hand, when labeling occurs at the product level, as with the Energy Star program, one only knows that the exact product that being purchased meets very specific environmental criteria. But since the entire company has not been reviewed, it is possible that the manufacturer may have sweatshops in China or be a big contributor to the coal lobby, for example.

Where does all this leave us? Is certification worth the hassle? My answer is a big resounding yes! Obtaining an eco label “seal of approval” shows customers that your business is serious about sustainability, while also providing you and your employees with a good sustainability education along the way.

[Note: the EcoPlum Online Boutique carries only eco friendly products that have been certified green, have a third party eco-label, or are made of recycled/upcycled materials.]