Dear EarthTalk: How can I tell if the green certifications and labels on all kinds of products these days are legitimate or just ‘greenwashing’? —Paul Bass, New York, NY
As sustainability becomes more mainstream, more and more products today advertise their green credentials—with many displaying third-party certifications on their labels. But how can consumers know which certifications are legit?
Americans’ confidence in green labels reached a low in 2011 when the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) busted “Tested Green” for selling unverified environmental certifications backed up by unqualified “experts” at supposedly independent firms that were actually owned by the same person. Tested Green used its website and mass e-mails to drum up more than 100 customers—and six figure revenues—falsely claiming to be the “nation’s leading certification program with over 45,000 certifications in the United States.” According to the FTC, the company never tested any of the companies it certified and instead awarded use of its label and a link to a “certification verification page” on its website for any customer willing to spend $189.95 on a “Rapid” certification, or $549.95 for a “Pro” certification.
Tested Green is far from the only such case the FTC has pursued. The agency has investigated thousands of cases of misleading green labeling and works hard to ferret out and shut down offenders.* “It’s no secret that consumers want products that are environmentally friendly, and that companies are trying to meet that need,” says Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “But companies that don’t have evidence to support the environmental claims they make about their products erode consumer confidence and undermine those companies that are playing by the rules.”
The FTC also hopes to stem the rising tide of greenwashing through publication of its free Green Guides, which help companies understand the general principles that apply to all environmental marketing claims, how consumers are likely to interpret particular claims and how to substantiate such claims, and how to back up claims to avoid deceiving consumers. First released in 1992 and revised most recently in 2012, the latest version incorporates guidance on the use of third-party certification seals and claims about carbon offsets and “renewable” materials and energy sources.
For their part, consumers should investigate any green certification labels they see on products to ascertain whether or not they are valid. Some of the certifications we know we can all trust include the federal government’s USDA Organic label for organically produced food, the ENERGY STAR label for energy efficient electronics and appliances; independent agency certifications from Cradle to Cradle for manufacturers, the Forest Stewardship Council for timber and wood producers, and the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program for construction and building.
Perhaps the granddaddy of all third-party eco-certifications is Green Seal, which has certified thousands of businesses, government agencies and nonprofits since its inception in 1989 and essentially started the green labeling movement. While some regional, industry and proprietary labels may be valid as well, buyers should be wary of any certifications they haven’t heard of or can’t verify via a quick check online.
CONTACTS: FTC Green Guides, www.ftc.gov/news-events/media-resources/truth-advertising/green-guides; Green Seal, www.greenseal.org.
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*Editor’s Note: (4/20/16): This sentence was amended to remove erroneous mentions of two companies