Green Seal of Approval

How do you know which products are environmentally sound? New labels on consumer goods may help you take the guesswork out of shopping

  • Michael Lipske
  • Jun 01, 1994
Most Manufactures do almost anything to sell a product. Consider the proliferation of enviro-messages on product packaging - - that has followed a growing consumer interest in environmental issues. Between 1989 and 1991, the number of products claiming to be enviro-friendly nearly tripled from 4.5 percent of all products to 12.6 percent, according to Marketing Intelligence Service, a firm that tracks new products.

Recent surveys show that shoppers pay attention to these claims. A 1992 poll showed that 22 percent of U.S. consumers thought manufacturers' environmental claims "very often" influenced purchasing decisions; 51 percent said green claims "sometimes" did.

Although good green products are out there-from paper towels to paint-so are plenty of eco-pretenders with meaningless claims. For the average person, identifying credible claims is daunting. Now, two new organizations-Green Seal and Scientific Certification Systems-have stepped in to help consumers sort out the real from the false.

Recently, Norman Dean, president of Green Seal, left his office in downtown Washington, D.C., and visited a nearby supermarket to demonstrate the difficulties of buying green. In the paper-products section, he examined a roll of towels which the manufacturer's label claimed were made from 100-percent recycled fiber. "You can't tell from this label how much of this paper really comes from paper that someone has actually used and returned," he said. Chances are that the recycled paper in the towels was industrial scrap already slated for recycling.

At the detergent aisle, Dean squinted at a soap-box label that said the product's cleaning agents are biodegradable. However, Dean explained, most laundry soap includes chemicals other than cleaning agents, such as optical brighteners, that usually are not biodegradable. "You have to be careful of these claims," Dean said-which is where Green Seal and Scientific Certification Systems come in.

Green Seal, a nonprofit organization based in the nation's capital, helps shoppers single out honest environmental claims. The organization develops stringent environmental standards for products ranging from toilet tissue to re-refined motor oil, and then invites companies to let Green Seal test their products. Goods that equal or exceed the standards can print Green Seal's logo-a blue globe overlaid with a green checkmark-on product packaging. Dean says green labeling rewards companies that make environmentally sound products by giving them a presumed competitive edge and encourages more companies to jump on the green wagon.

Launched in 1990, Green Seal is modeled after eco-labeling programs in Germany, Canada, Japan and nearly 15 other nations. However, most of these programs are government run, whilemoney from foundations and individual donors bankrolls Green Seal. Dean, formerly director of the National Wildlife Federation's Environmental Quality Division, says that private financing frees Green Seal from the political problems that would arise with federal funding: "The 80 percent of the companies that aren't getting certified would be placing pressure on their members of Congress to squeeze the organization to become more lenient."

Green Seal's staff of 13 attorneys, scientists and engineers, operating under a $1.4 million annual budget, develops technical standards for various categories of products. The staff considers how raw materials used to manufacture a product are obtained and monitors the product's role in the environment throughout its use and disposal. "We ask, where are the key impacts, and what can be done in these areas to make the product less damaging?" explains Dean.

For products such as bathroom and facial tissue, impacts include logging to get the wood used in paper pulp, discharge of chlorine and other toxic chemicals from paper mills into rivers, dumping of waste paper in landfills and air pollution from paper incineration.

Green Seal has set standards for roughly 40 categories of consumer products and has put its label on 23 products from eight companies. Green Seals appear on the Cato Oil and Grease Company's re-refined lubricants; on compact fluorescent lamps from Lights of America; and on a home-composting toilet from Clivus Multrum that, by using no water, far surpasses even Green Seal's requirement that toilets use no more than 1.6 gallons of water per flush.

Companies pay Green Seal a testing fee that averages $3,000 per product. Underwriters Laboratories, Inc., does most of the testing and receives the bulk of the fees. Green Seal also offers advice on production improvement to any company whose product fails to meet Green Seal standards. Even after a company wins the Green Seal label, it is not off the hook. To ensure that standards are maintained, Green Seal tests product samples regularly and conducts quarterly or biannual factory inspections.

Green Seal shares the labeling arena with a rival, Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), a for-profit company headquartered in Oakland, California. Founded in 1984 to certify pesticide levels in produce, the company turned to other products and claims. SCS specializes in certifying single attributes, such as the accuracy of a company's claim that its paper bags are 100 percent recycled or that its detergent is biodegradable. Fees for the work are in the range of a few thousand dollars. SCS, with a staff of 20and an annual budget of about $4 million, has certified claims for more than 130 companies on some 1,100 products.

Last August, SCS unveiled something new-a report card that quantifies a product's environmental burdens and reports them in a chart on the SCS label. According to SCS, the chart is the environmental equivalent of nutrition labels printed on food packages and allows consumers to compare products making similar green claims. Report cards have turned up on everything from handbags to spray paint. To chemist and SCS founder Stanley Rhodes, the report cards show that "no matter how green a product supposedly is, it still causes environmental burdens."

Joel Makower, author of the book The Green Consumer, believes each label has its virtues. "I think the Green Seal is more valuable to the average consumer, and the SCS environmental report card is valuable to people who really want to know the details," he says. "They're both trying to capture the hearts and green minds of American consumers."

In his quest for hearts and minds, Dean envisions a future in which trips to the supermarket will turn up far fewer flaky eco-claims, and shoppers will have an easy time finding products bearing his blue globe and green checkmark. He says that in that happy era consumers who do not see a Green Seal on the label will ask, "What's wrong with this product?" And each and every one of us will be shopping greenly ever after.

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