On a recent Sunday afternoon, Denise Culver stood motionless, hands on her hips, surveying the towering array of choices in the cleaning products aisle at her local Wal-Mart Supercenter in Broomfield, Colo.

A working mom with three boys, Culver wants to buy “Earth-friendly” products, as she puts it. Instead, she often goes home with the “old stuff that’s probably bad for you.” Like millions of other consumers, Culver isn’t sure if the products tagged as green really are.

And who could blame her?

On one end of the aisle, a Green Works dishwashing liquid sports both an EPA Design for the Environment seal and a Sierra Club logo. A few steps away, the Nature’s Source toilet bowl cleaner assures customers it’s adhering to the “Greenlist” process. And Palmolive’s Eco-plus dishwasher detergent claims it’s “better for lakes and streams.”

“I’ve tried this before,” says Culver, motioning toward the Scott Naturals toilet paper (“green done right”) on the other side of the aisle. “But it’s only 40 percent recycled, so I’m not sure if that’s good.”

Recycled. Organic. Natural. Biodegradable. Non-toxic … welcome to the murky and largely unregulated world of green marketing, in which manufacturers tag their products with a hodgepodge of highly-regarded terms.

According to Ecolabelling.org, there are nearly 90 different eco-labels in North America alone. They cover dozens of product categories and take wildly varying approaches to determining whether a product is environmentally worthy.

Standard-setting programs such as the Forest Stewardship Council, National Organic and Energy Star isolate a single component of a product’s environment impact. Others take a more ambitious, life-cycle approach, seeking to measure everything from the raw materials that go into a product and the energy used to ship it to the item’s eventual disposal.

While some labeling systems have rigorous, science-based standards that were developed in collaboration with reputable outside experts, others are not so picky.

“With some labels, they’re just saying, ‘Send me $100 and I’ll give you a sticker,’” says Scot Case, executive director of EcoLogo, a third-party certification system for sustainable products run by consulting firm TerraChoice. In 2008 and 2009, TerraChoice researchers surveyed more than 2,200 products in the United States and Canada and found that more than 98 percent were guilty of “greenwashing”—in the form of everything from vagueness and irrelevance to downright fabrication.

This messy label landscape has been called a “tower of ecobabble” and a source of “green fog,” generating a looming sense of disaster among many in the green marketing community. “All it takes is a few big scandals about something not being very green—after it was promoted as green—and consumers will stop trusting,” says Anastasia O’Rourke, co-founder of the research firm Big Room, Inc.

Already, the Federal Trade Commission has charged four textile manufacturers with falsely claiming that their rayon clothing and other textile products are “100 percent bamboo fiber,” with bamboo’s antimicrobial properties. And, this past summer, the agency went after manufacturers of “biodegradable” plates, wipes and dry towels, stating that most of these products end up in landfills where they do not biodegrade.

“This issue has to be resolved before consumers just give up,” says Case. “It could kill a big business opportunity.”

Fortunately, efforts toward a unified authority on what’s green, both for the consumer and industrial marketplaces, are now in progress. Such an über-label would be publicly available and developed in a transparent way.

A frontrunner of these efforts is Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Consortium, which has convened an impressive roster of more than a dozen Fortune 500 manufacturers, as well as various environmental groups and universities.

“Wal-Mart’s got the best chance of doing this because they’ve got the market power,” says Tim Smith, director of the NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. “If they don’t succeed, we’re set back another 10 years. If Wal-Mart doesn’t do it, no one will—the challenge being, can we live with Wal-Mart’s rules?”

Jay Golden, an assistant professor at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability and co-director of Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Consortium, says the group is working on developing “a common language and a common set of rules” that companies can use for free. The resources will be available via Earthster and other open-source technology platforms to assess the environmental life-cycle impacts of their products. Rather than award labels or certifications, the consortium will let manufacturers share the results of their assessments to both retail customers and consumers as they see fit.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.”