Simplify your shopping with our guide to green product certifications and environmental product declarations.
The influx of green products on the market has created a whole industry of green product certifications. Hundreds of certifications have sprouted up and branched into a number of categories: single attribute vs. multi-attribute; first , second, and third party; and levels I, II, and III. This growing field of certifications can easily confuse and overwhelm consumers. Further, not all certifications are created equal, so it’s important to know what these certifications all mean before buying a product just because it has a certification mark of some sort.
A certification acts as a stamp of approval and indicates that a product has met certain environmental standards for attributes like water consumption or recycled content. The term "certification" is often used interchangeably with rating systems (the U.S. Green Building Council via LEED recommends Green Seal, GREENGUARD, and Scientific Certification Systems) or labeling programs (like EcoLogo). Certifications are used to define standards for a variety of different product categories, from forestry products (the Forest Stewardship Council) to energy consumption (ENERGY STAR) to green building (Green Globes).
Single attribute vs. multi-attribute
Certifications fall into two general camps: single-attribute and multi-attribute. Single-attribute certifications assess one item in particular – the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awards products a WaterSense label, for example, which marks water efficiency for toilets and other fixtures. Multi-attribute certifications like GREENGUARD assess multiple factors, such as indoor air quality, product chemical content, and product recycled content. Programs like GREENGUARD also certify products based on their suitability for a particular environment or demographic, such as schools or children.
First, second, or third party
In general, the more independently a certification program operates from the companies manufacturing the products it certifies, the more legitimate the certification. It's easy to see why. If a manufacturer certifies its own product, that first-party certification wouldn't hold a lot of weight, whereas a third party, independent of the manufacturer, that tests and certifies a product hasn't the same vested interest in seeing that product achieve certification. This is not to say that third-party certification guarantees that a product precisely meets the claims on the label – "greenwashing" can infiltrate the certification process at any stage. However, third-party certification makes greenwashing less likely. Second-party certification is generally conducted by a trade association or other group that may be connected to the manufacturer.
Type I, II, and III
The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has categorized green products according to its own classification system and assigned ISO numbers to help clarify matters. The “type” and ISO numbers are used interchangeably.
Type I (ISO 14024). The ISO has defined this label as a stamp of approval for multi-attribute certification programs but different from Type III, which is also multi-attribute.
Type II (ISO 14021). This single-attribute label defines one environmental claim in particular and can be a claim made by a first-party (by the manufacturer).
Type III (ISO 14025). A step above ISO 14024, this label requires extensive documentation to provide consumers with detailed information, such as Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs).
Environmental product declarations (EPDs)
EPDs are Type III reports that offer detailed knowledge of a product's entire life cycle according to a structured guideline. “When a manufacturer reports life cycle assessment information following the EPD and Product Category Rules, then the environmental impacts of two different products can actually be compared because they are following the same rules,” says Melissa Vernon, director of sustainable strategy for Interface, a manufacturer of carpet tiles. Vernon cites an example of how the EPD process has helped clarify a common misconception: Transportation is generally considered to have a large environmental impact, but the life cycle data that Interface gained from performing the EPD analysis found that transportation accounts for less than 5% of Interface's overall environmental impact. These valuable data were gleaned from the life cycle assessment (LCA), which is part of the EPD process, and provides useful information for the consumer wanting to know all the details of a product’s environmental impact. Read Environmental Product Declarations for more on this topic.
Green product tools
Considering all the products touted as green alternatives, making the right purchasing decision can prove a challenge. Luckily, tools exist to ease the search. GreenSpec and Pharos are two powerful tools that help cut through the greenwashing by helping users find the products that line up best with their values. GreenSpec saves buyers a lot of time by filtering through the many products and materials out there to list only the greenest ones, while also mentioning the top green attributes for each product category whereas Pharos offers a wide range of data on products, not just the greenest ones, with plenty of information related to toxicity and health hazards. Both products offer 15-day free trials.
It seems everyone wants to be green, but not everyone is – far from it, in fact. Certification programs help consumers make informed decisions and simplify the purchasing process. It’s not a good idea to rely just on a certification mark to evaluate a product, which is why there’s a growing trend towards providing life cycle data through a life cycle assessment (LCA) and environmental product declarations (EPDs).
It is important to learn about the certification programs that are labeling the products you are buying. An important first step when researching these programs is to determine whether they certify through a first, second or third party. Programs that are third-party certified are generally more likely to advertise that fact than one that is first- or second-party certified. Get to know what company or organization conducts the testing. In general, do the same kind of research on a certification program that you would any product. You can use tools like Pharos and GreenSpec to get a second opinion on the products you are researching. If the product holds up through your research, it is likely that that product’s certification has merit, and vice versa. All this research might sound like a lot of work, but once you have figured out which certification programs stand up to your requirements, shopping for green products in the future then becomes that much easier.