Apple puts spotlight on proliferation, value of eco-labels

Apple puts spotlight on proliferation, value of eco-labels

Apple's abrupt decision to abandon and then re-embrace the EPEAT green technology certification over the last 10 days focuses heightened attention on the value of eco-labels, especially as certification possibilities mature.

That maturation process is seeing more businesses embrace third-party programs that harmonize a range of industry-wide considerations rather than opt for their own green labels, said sustainability experts.

"We are moving toward radical transparency," said Will Sarni, director and practice leader within the sustainability and climate change practice at Deloitte Consulting. "There is consensus building around certain standards, and the notion that an internal one might have more value is waning."

Still, there's a dizzing array of choices.

The latest count by EcoLabel Index puts the number of programs that qualify products according to various environmental or sustainable resource credentials at 433 across 246 countries.

A separate database maintained by chemical company BASF, called SELECT (for Sustainability, Eco-Labeling and Environmental Certification Tracking), is tracking 270 programs, almost tripling the number that it followed last year.

Pat Meyer, senior product steward for BASF SELECT, said he expects a stronger push for independent scientific validation and credibility assessments around these programs. "The best case scenario would be harmonization and standardization," he said.

"At some point, there will be a culling of methodologies and certifications down to the ones that really matter," Sarni echoed.

Why Label?

For some industries, green labeling increasingly is not an option, one thing that made Apple's decision to remove its products from EPEAT (aka the Electronic Products Environmental Assessment Tool) all the more puzzling.

That's because many government agencies and corporations use the registry as a guideline for IT procurement. In Apple's case, high-profile clients such as Kaiser Permanente, McKesson and HDR would have been unable to buy its monitors, laptops, or desktop computers.

Image of green eco labels courtesy of Jozsef Bagota via Shutterstock.

Apple's decision to rejoin EPEAT came in response to a flood of feedback from "many loyal customers," according to the statement it posted about the decision on its Web site. That's not surprising, considering the heightened level of consumer interest in green labels.

Amy Hargroves, manager of corporate responsibility for Sprint Nextel, which has backed development of a green certification for mobile phones that is managed by the UL Environment certification body, said consumers increasingly are shying away from designations defined in a vacuum by individual companies.

"There is less reason for consumers to trust them," Hargroves said.

Yet there are more reasons than ever for sustainability managers to make eco-labels core to their strategy.

Aside from procurement requirements, businesses increasingly need to satisfy the interests of supply chain partners such as retailers or shareholders who would like to see a company's branded aligned positively with sustainability issues.

If there isn't an existing standard in place or the one that exists isn't credible, sustainability managers should advocate one, but make sure any claims are relevant and verifiable.

"If there is a decision to make a claim, either at the enterprise level or product level, make sure it is generally accepted and grounded in data," Sarni said. "My advice is to ensure that any claim is transparent, publicly available and independently verified."

What's in a Label?

When Sprint Nextel began developing green evaluation criteria for the phones it sells for its wireless networks more than five years ago, there was no industry metric in place, Hargroves said.

That's why the company set out with UL Environment to define one. The result is UL-ISR 110, which considers energy management, sensitive materials, packaging, recyclability and other criteria.

By handing the criteria off to UL Environment to manage, Sprint Nextel hopes to encourage other mobile carriers and handset manufacturers to help define it. "We would like to back out of this to some extent," Hargroves said.

Ultimately, eco-labeling experts offer several recommendations to sustainability teams grappling with whether and how to eco-label.

  • Seek diversity of opinion, but also strive for consensus: If your company decides to develop its own crteria for marketing purposes, consider looking externally to have it managed. When considering an external certification to attach to your own brand, make sure consensus is building around what's being included, for now and for the future.  
  • Avoid industry certifications that focus only on one special interest group: While industry associations are valuable, consumers are often suspicions of labels that represent a manufacturer-only point of view. One example that comes from the pulp and paper industry is the challenges that have been faced by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, which has been perceived as too tied to industry. Likewise, tread carefully with NGOs and non-profits that aren't willing to collaborate.
  • Go for credibility. Take a pulse to see which labels already have meaning for your customers. Ally with ones that already have marketing momentum and visibility.
  • Consider picking more than one. Certifications will have different weights in different geographies. That's one reason Sprint decided to designate several different recycling partners for its electronic waste management initiatives, Hargroves said.
  • Encourage supply chain partners to follow suit. If your business partners are already using certain eco-labels or green certifications, your team will gain traction more quickly by aligning with those. On the flip side, your team must be prepared to defend and evangelize its eco-label strategy if top-tier partners aren't moving as quickly. 

How many eco-labels will exist in the future?

Experts believe the move toward fewer, more widely accepted labels is already beginning. "It would be better for consumers if we could settle on a few," Hargroves said.

But if your company wants to define which ones they are, it needs to be involved in the eco-labeling conversation.