March 01, 2012

Is it green enough?

Lisa Comer

Over the last two decades, the U.S. green products marketplace has become a confounding place for manufacturers, retailers, standard-setters, institutional purchasers, and consumers, alike. A multitude of players, hundreds of labels, and exhausting claims all color the “green” world a confusing shade of grey, creating a nearly impenetrable and entangled space. The resounding question for any interested buyer is: “What is a green product—and how can I tell?” For manufacturers or retailers, the complexity in this space is equally telling. The absence of a widely accepted definition for green and the myriad of associated standards and labels spell out uncertainty in the manufacturing of and investment in green products. Recognizing that all products, no matter how green, impact the planet in some way, achieving clarity around choosing the “right” green product for both consumers and companies is not a simple task.

Strolling through the neighborhood grocer or local megastore, today’s consumer is bombarded by a potpourri of “biodegradable, eco-friendly, sustainable, bio-preferred” claims covering products from detergents to light bulbs, diapers to refrigerators—and nearly everything in between. Few green terms enjoy the rigor of being described by rule or regulation; furthermore, a commonly shared understanding of how to define, measure, verify, and enforce green claims is also lacking. Even where regulatory definitions do exist, environmental trade-offs vary within and across a product category (e.g., products have different “hot spot” impacts). From a definitional (but not regulatory) perspective, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provides that “sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, [sic] that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.” Generally speaking, the term sustainability refers to the interrelationship among the three pillars of environmental, social, and economic concerns. From a practical perspective, however, purchasing “green” is anything but simple. Purchasers find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to determine the validity of any one product’s degree of sustainability or “greenness”—let alone to compare goods across a product category. For instance, how legitimate are green claims associated with any one brand of office paper and how does any one brand of paper compare with other brands (e.g., across their life-cycle impacts, commonly referred to as life-cycle analysis)?

Adding another layer of complexity to this marketplace, individual buyers are not the sole audience that manufacturers and retailers of goods tune into; corporate and other institutional purchasers, such as the U.S. government, also greatly influence the demand for green products. Some of the nation’s largest and most influential corporate leaders participate in The Sustainability Consortium, an independent body of global businesses, academics, governments, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working collaboratively to drive innovation into sustainable products and supply networks. In 2009, Walmart initiated the launch of The Sustainability Consortium, partnering with the likes of Best Buy, Safeway, and Disney, not to mention international affiliates. The Sustainability Consortium is currently exploring the use of web-based reporting and assessment tools to build a transparent, scalable, science-based approach for communicating and comparing products’ sustainable profiles (based on a life-cycle analysis). The Keystone Center’s Green Products Roundtable is another multi-stakeholder working group, counting among its membership manufacturers (e.g., Weyerhaeuser), retailers (e.g., Office Depot), government (e.g., National Institute of Standards and Technology), purchasers (e.g., The National Association of State Procurement Officers), nonprofit organizations (e.g., Green Electronics Council), and environmental advocates (e.g., World Wildlife Fund). The Green Products Roundtable is building the case for an independent respected body to “help guide market actors in determining the legitimacy of a broad range of environmental marketing declarations, including relevant standards, eco-labels, and claims regarding a product’s environmental performance.” In an open and transparent forum, such an independent respected body would provide businesses, government, and eventually consumers with information and guidance on how to choose green products. As another means of staying abreast of cutting edge green business practices and issues, some companies are participating in and subscribing to GreenBiz. This media organization is dedicated to business-to-business communication and presents its audience with websites, newsletters, and conferences aimed at informing and impacting the state of green business. GreenBiz promotes the integration of environmental responsibility into small, medium, and large company operations while maintaining profitable results.

The Sustainability Consortium, the Green Products Roundtable, and GreenBiz represent but a sampling of partnerships attempting to bring clarity to the green products market. Rainforest Alliance and Responsible Purchasing Network, along with many other NGOs, also contribute to the green products network. A number of NGOs have significant interest and relevancy in this marketplace. Greenpeace has a website devoted to debunking what it identifies as corporate greenwashing. The National Resources Defense Council hosts a label look-up website tool and iPhone app for consumers wanting to know more about the green claims for products they consider buying. The World Resource Institute offers a forestry toolbox to help clarify “green” for wood and paper-based products. The collective interest and influence of the aforementioned (as well as many not identified) corporate, academic, and non-profit stakeholder organizations is extensive, if not conceivably duplicative or redundant.

An even larger and potentially more influential market player than the commercial giants is the U.S. government. It is estimated that annual federal spending alone is more than $200 billion; adding local and state governments to the mix brings the sum to more than $1 trillion per year. That total represents about 20 percent of the gross national product and an incredible leveraging opportunity for influencing the green marketplace. In a 2009 Executive Order, President Obama mandated that federal agencies improve energy efficiency and environmental performance within their ranks by, among other things, meeting a 95 percent green products purchasing goal and incorporating sustainable design into building construction, operation, and maintenance. Exec. Order No. 13,514, 74 Fed. Reg. 52,117 (Oct. 8, 2009). Although the Executive Order applies only to internal government operations, the U.S. agencies’ collective purchasing power and the resulting impacts on suppliers (manufacturers and retailers) will likely resonate far beyond the confines of the federal bureaucracy.

Thus, the combination of growing consumer expectations and institutional demand (by multiple commercial and government procurement organizations) has created a competitive climate among companies vying to supply green products. As companies compete for consumer demand for greener products and services, greenwashing (the practice of making unsubstantiated or exaggerated claims of sustainability or eco-friendliness in an attempt to gain a competitive market edge) is rampant. Who polices the veracity of green claims in the United States? The American National Standards Institute (ANSI), a private non-profit, is the sole accreditor overseeing the development of voluntary consensus standards for products and services. “The open and fair ANS process ensures that all interested and affected parties have an opportunity to participate in a standard’s development. It also serves and protects the public interest because standards developers accredited by ANSI must meet the Institute’s requirements for openness, balance, consensus, and other due process safeguards.” There also exist non-profit and for-profit institutions that offer certification programs for verifying the veracity of green claims (e.g., GreenSeal,  MDBC Cradle to Cradle program).

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a critical stake in protecting consumers by monitoring and enforcing against deceptive, misleading, and fraudulent practices by companies. The FTC Green Guides (Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims) outline several general principles that apply to all environmental marketing claims and provide guidance on specific environmental claims (such as environmentally friendly, degradable, and compostable claims; recyclable and recycled content claims; etc.). Nonetheless, the FTC enforcement scope and reach is somewhat limited. For instance, the FTC guides do not address the use of the terms “sustainable,” “natural,” or “organic.” Another federal agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, separately regulates organic claims made for textiles and other products derived from agricultural products. Revisions are currently proposed for the FTC Green Guides that are intended to rein in deceptive and false advertising even further. Despite good intentions, a proliferation of greenwashing and confusion continues to dominate the U.S. green marketplace.

At the core of this dissonance lie the green labels (or standards) themselves. Some labels focus on a single attribute concern (e.g., energy efficiency in Energy Star). Some programs look at a product category across a multi-attribute spectrum (e.g., rating electronics under EPEAT); certifying responsible forest management under the Forest Stewardship Council. In North America alone there exist more than 200 labels, worldwide that number climbs to more than 400. To add to the noise, presently there are overlapping or complimentary labels or standards as well (e.g., Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative are both involved in forest management and associated products but have different rating systems). Adding the global component (which is not a focus in this summary article) to today’s buying power exponentially widens the complexity and challenges of buying “green.”

Fortunately, the clamor for market clarity is growing louder in the United States—stakeholders interested in green products, including consumers, corporations, non-profits, and government entities are determined to develop and provide a suite of tools addressing the ever-growing concerns. At some point this veritable toolbox may overflow, at which point, concerted action may be required to organize the fray describing green purchasing at a national level. Until then, the purchaser and producer must rely on available resources from reputable entities to educate, assist, and assess green product choices.

Lisa Comer

Lisa Comer is a senior attorney in the Office of Policy at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and has been employed by the EPA for over twenty years in various capacities including environmental policy and enforcement counsel. The findings and conclusions expressed in this article represent the author’s personal opinion and do not necessarily reflect past, current, or anticipated EPA or federal policy. This article intends to offer a rather simplified picture of a very complicated green products marketplace.