What Green and Green Certification Really Mean was written several years ago for client GreenSeal.
Park and recreation managers unsure what “green” and green certification are should not be embarrassed. A study by the Shelton Group found that there is still a lot of confusion among both consumers and businesses as to what being green means.
The study sought to better understand what “mainstream” consumers, as they were referred to, know and care about green products, along with clarifying what the green claims suggest. The good news is that approximately 60 percent of the population, according to the study, has a broad desire for greener products.
However, as to understanding why a product is green, why another one isn’t, or what makes something green, “the average consumer knows only about enough to get through a cocktail party conversation,” says Susanne Shelton, president of the research group. “They can nod their heads and say a few things [using the words] green and sustainable…but really do not know very much.”
The study also found that almost half of those questioned were unable to name a green feature in their own homes. The researchers thought this finding was surprising, since many people now use, know, or ask for products such as low-wattage lighting, paint and flooring products that are more environmentally friendly (or, taking that a step further, green certified), even solar panels.
Further, the study revealed there were still widespread misperceptions about specific product claims such as the terms “natural” and “organic.” Consumers do not appear to really know the difference between the two terms, and large numbers of lower-middle-class income earners indicated that the term “organic” is nothing more than a fancy marketing term…one that allows companies to charge more for their products.
Gaining Some Green Perspective
According to Linda Chipperfield, vice president of marketing and communications for Green Seal™, a nonprofit organization that is one of the first and best-known green certification organizations in the U.S., the whole concept of healthier foods and environmentally safer products emerged with the modern environmental movement in the 1970s and 1980s.
“However, the movement ebbed and flowed over the years,” says Chipperfield. In fact, even by the 1980s there was a limited number of products in the United States marketed as organic or “environmentally friendly,” one of the buzz words of the era.
Conversely, by the early 1990s things changed. The notion of manufacturing and marketing products as green became trendier, with more consumers, both home and business, indicating they would prefer a product that was more earth friendly. “The start of the 21st century is when green started going mainstream and began to take off,” says Chipperfield. “This is when global warming, climate change, natural resource depletion, and the serious impact some conventional products have on health and the environment were on everyone’s mind.”
About the same time, researchers began focusing more attention on building-related illnesses. They found that when steps are taken to use products that have less impact on the environment, it often results in improved indoor air and environmental quality, which can have significant health and productivity benefits for building users.
Soon more manufacturers in all kinds of industries, from cleaning and building materials to carpets, fabrics, and upholstery, began manufacturing healthier, green products. More third-party product certification programs appeared, largely in response to concerns about potential product toxicity and to help consumers identify genuinely greener products.
The Certification Connection
Chipperfield says helping consumers identify which products are green based on widely accepted scientific standards has become crucial to the entire green movement. Many manufacturers ‘self-certify’ their products, calling them green. In some cases, these green claims are accurate, at least according to the best information and laboratory data of the time; in other cases the claims are based on faulty data; and in still other cases, the term is simply used as a marketing tool with little or no evidence to back it up. The result was considerable confusion and consumer mistrust, which could have significantly slowed the entire green movement.”
So what does green certification really mean?
As defined by Green Seal and by government and international standards organizations, certification means the following:
- That a product or a service has been evaluated using science-based environmental leadership standards
- That it performs as well as or better than other products in its class based on accepted standards
- That it has been independently certified without bias or conflict of interest
Chipperfield adds that while all three criteria are necessary in determining green certification, the last one, “independently certified,” is crucial. This protects consumers against self-certification and ensures impartiality. Taking this a step further, it ensures that the certifying organization does not have any affiliation or material connection with the manufacturer or company seeking the certification.
“The green certification process helps both the manufacturer and the consumer. Once a product has been certified, [the manufacturer] is allowed to use the eco-label of the certification organization on its products and marketing materials. This gives manufacturers evidence to prove that their products are in fact green, and [it] lets consumers and purchasers know that these green-certified products are safer for human health and the environment.”
Further clarifying green certification and putting it into very practical terms for park and recreation managers, the National Institute of Building Sciences Whole Building Design Guide say a green-certified product should have, among others, the following attributes:
- Promote enhanced indoor air and environmental quality, typically achieved through the reduction or elimination of volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions**
- Incorporate recycled content (post-consumer/post-industrial)
- Be manufactured using renewable, sustainable resources
- Not contain chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) or other ozone-depleting substances
- For certain products, such as wood or bio-based products, employ what is termed “sustainable harvesting” (where new trees, for instance, are planted to replace trees cut down or forested)
- Be recyclable
- Be biodegradable
The Future of Green Certification
Just as green has evolved over the decades, green certification is evolving as well. More and more products and services are seeking certification, and in some cases, purchasers will require this before making a buying decision. This is already happening in many industries and businesses as well as by some government entities.
Because of this, Green Seal, as one of the pioneers in the green certification movement, as well as some other certification bodies has broadened its focus in recent years, according to Chipperfield. Today, the organization works to promote not only a greener but also a more sustainable economy in which all forms of life and natural resources are protected and social needs and values are honored. “Sustainability has many forms and aspects,” says Chipperfield. “But along with protecting health and the environment, green certification now means that a product is manufactured using fewer natural resources and that the use of these resources does not deprive future generations from using them. This is what the 21st century is going to be all about.”
Robert Kravitz is a frequent writer on building, cleaning and environmental issues.