It’s no simple task. The consortium’s data will span hundreds of products, while the group evaluates a profusion of existing labels and certification programs. The goal is to decide which ones can be incorporated into the consortium’s final product and which categories will need new standards.
EcoLogo’s Case predicts that Golden and his team will need to create a lot of new green standards. Despite the growing ranks of green labels, there are still many categories for which no reliable assessments exist. Nobody, for instance, certifies baby products, mattresses or cell phones. Case estimates that existing eco-labels cover only 10 percent of product categories. He says EcoLogo, which certifies everything from paints to cleaning and paper products, is just now developing standards for toys.
Another Herculean challenge facing the Sustainability Consortium is actually convincing manufacturers to adopt new sets of environmental rules and standards. Across the consumer landscape, manufacturers have largely shunned third-party, life-cycle-based labels, embracing only a few single-attribute programs like Energy Star and Fair Trade. Most companies have opted to fashion their own criteria.
“Companies often feel that using a third-party certifier like ourselves borders on regulation, so there’s a lot of hesitation and backlash,” says Linda Chipperfield, vice president of marketing and outreach at Green Seal. “They want their own brand to be the one that’s known as green.”
This widespread reluctance is understandable. Research shows that most consumers don’t distinguish between products that have gone through an actual certification and those where the manufacturer decided to slap a few trees on the packaging and call it earth-friendly.
Initially, the Sustainability Consortium’s efforts could create more confusion before they do any good. The group’s first initiative, a standard for green electronics, will eclipse much of the work of the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT). EPEAT, which has been successful among government and industrial buyers, is now making progress in the consumer marketplace. Currently, Buy.com, Best Buy for Business and TechDepot identify EPEAT-qualified products on their Web portals, with more retailers to come.
So, in some areas, the Sustainability Consortium may be trying to reinvent the wheel, says EPEAT Executive Director Jeff Omelchuck. “Lots of people have worked to develop these standards. If they wanted to they could use EPEAT for free, so it makes some of us wonder why they don’t.”
Golden says the Sustainability Consortium’s electronics standard will incorporate EPEAT, but will go beyond it to include things like the labor conditions under which computers are manufactured.
The good news: There’s an unprecedented awareness that the eco-label problem needs to be fixed. The Keystone Center, a nonprofit headquartered in Keystone, Colo., has convened a roundtable of manufacturers, trade associations, environmental groups and certifiers to look at how the cacophony of labels can be harmonized. And the David and Lucile Packard Foundation is underwriting an extensive study that will assess how much green standards like the Marine Stewardship Council and Fair Trade are impacting both consumer buying patterns and producer practices.
The not-so-good news: It’s going to take several years before we reach a productive conclusion. “It’s a long haul, but I’m confident it will get sorted out,” says Big Room’s O’Rourke.
Until then, shoppers like Denise Culver will have to proceed through the fog with caution. Let’s hope a standard emerges before green fatigue sets in.
This feature originally appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of Momentum magazine, Ensia’s predecessor, as “Certified Confusion.”