By Rachel Adams
It has been more than 30 years since the first eco-certification program was launched, and the programs have come a long way during that time.
“Green” no longer means “costs twice as much and works half as well,” as was the joke.
Today, eco-certifications provide real value to cleaning and restoration professionals. Most importantly, by purchasing eco-certified cleaners and disinfectants, contractors can be assured the products:
- Perform as well as the traditional industry-leading products,
- Are among the safest products available to protect the health of workers and jobsite occupants,
- Have minimal or zero negative impact on the environment,
- Can differentiate their business and get more jobs.
These modern-day eco-certifications challenge the restorer to rethink the use of traditional, synthetic, or hazardous cleaning and disinfecting products and consider other options that do not have the same potential negative consequences on customers, the environment, and the workers who apply them.
However, with 464 eco-labels in 199 countries, covering 25 industry sectors, according to the Ecolabel Index, it is difficult to make an educated decision regarding eco-certifications. What does the different labeling criteria mean? What are the standards they uphold, and who keeps them all accountable? Through some education, the focus can be narrowed quickly on the important facts for the cleaning and restoration professional.
What is ecolabelling?
Ecolabelling is a voluntary procedure of environmental performance and labelling certification that is used all over the world. An ecolabel identifies products or services that are overall preferable for use because they minimize negative impact on the environment and are considered safer for the end user.
The most credible labels are provided by impartial, third-party organizations for products or services that have been independently tested to ensure they meet transparent environmental data based on life-cycle criteria, according to the Global Ecolabelling Network.
History of eco-certification, green, and ecolabelling
Eco-product labelling on consumer goods have been evolving since the 1970s, with the main drivers being energy and fuel consumption. The first was Germany’s Blue Angel program, which addresses the concerns of both environmental and consumer protection. It is awarded to products and services that are particularly beneficial to the environment and those that fulfill high standards of occupational health and safety.
After the introduction of the Blue Angel program, several countries followed suit in developing similar programs to identify products that were better for the consumer and the environment. These labels first started appearing on major appliances after government agencies in the United States and Canada legislated their requirement. In 1992, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency introduced Energy Star as a voluntary labeling program designed to identify and promote energy-efficient products to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Although its initial focus was on computers and monitors, by the mid-1990s, it was applied to major appliances and heating and ventilation equipment. Eventually it was applied to other consumer goods as well.
The purpose of eco-labelling was to support the marketplace with independently validated information to make informed, sustainable product choices. It took product awareness one-step higher than current marketplace controls (or lack thereof) and addressed issues like the lack of scrutiny.
The foundation of eco-labelling is primarily due to the growing global concern for environmental protection by governments, businesses, and the public. As businesses realized environmental concerns could be used as a market-share advantage for products and services, various terms on labels, even some eco-certified labels, have emerged such as “natural,” “recyclable,” “eco-friendly,” “low energy,” and “recycled content.” These labels have attracted consumers looking to reduce environmental impact through their purchasing choices, but they also have led to confusion and mistrust.
These unproven or irrelevant claims have been branded “greenwashing.” It has become important to factually counteract the negative image that greenwashing has caused (vague claims with little or no proof), which has occurred as manufacturers tried to maintain market share and capture sales in the growing green segment.
In the early years of eco-labelling, the word “green” began to take on different meanings, depending on what a marketing department had to sell. “Green” might mean biodegradable, safe, less toxic, natural, naturally based, nature-identical, botanical, botanically derived, bio-based, renewable, or sustainable. Many confusing forms of greenwashing began to appear and confuse consumers by taking advantage of a lack of definitions, scrutiny, or regulation, TerreChoice Environmental Marketing found in a 2007 study. For example, a “natural” product claim might be supported solely by the addition of a single, added natural fragrance when the rest of the product was the same traditional synthetic chemistry. Other times, “green” was simply added to a product name, according the Global Ecolabelling Network, and nonsensical terms like “synthetic-botanical” were coined.
Today, “sustainable” has been identified as being the ultimate objective and means zero impact on future generations, both from an environmental and human-health perspective. It is an all-encompassing definition with no room for misinterpretation. Only botanical ingredients are readily renewable and, therefore, sustainable. In addition, only safe ingredients/products that do not impact human health are sustainable across generations of products.
ISO eco-labelling types
The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 14020 series of standards provides businesses with a globally recognized and credible set of international benchmarks against which they can prepare their environmental labelling, which is increasingly used on products and in advertising in response to consumer demand.
An ISO standard represents a global consensus on the state of the art regarding the subject of that standard. There are international standards aimed at taking the complex world of environmental science and reducing it to a simple set of rules and guidelines for how the environmental aspects of a product can legitimately be represented on a consumer label or in a declaration. When applied by manufacturers, these internationally agreed upon standards ensure that the consumer is only being given valid purchasing information without any greenwashing. This applies whether the claim is made through a seal-of-approval type of system or in a claim made by a manufacturer.
The ISO breaks down voluntary labels into three voluntary label groups and places ecolabelling in the strongest:
Type I: The Global Ecolabelling Network (GEN) says this is “a voluntary, multiple-criteria-based, third-party program that awards a license to authorize the use of environmental labels on products, which indicate overall environmental preference of a product within a particular product category.” Examples of Type I labels are Safer Choice, EcoLogo, and Green Seal.
Type II: A single criteria-based label developed by the producer of the product. Manufacturers can create their own eco-label on their products; however, they do not indicate any type of third-party testing or standardized criteria have been met.
Type III: GEN explains that Type II designation includes “voluntary programs that provide quantified environmental data of a product, under pre-set categories of parameters set by a qualified third party and based on life cycle assessment, and verified by that or another qualified third party.” It is based on life-cycle assessment of the product. Type III is not judged or certified but is merely a declaration of results from a standardized test. A good example of a Type III eco-label is the EnergyStar program. It permits the manufacture to disclose third-party testing, which allows the purchaser to make comparisons between products.
Although differing in strength and authority, the label types have been identified by the ISO as sharing a common goal, which is, “through communication of verifiable and accurate information that is not misleading on environmental aspects of products and services, to encourage the demand for and supply of those products and services that cause less stress on the environment, thereby stimulating the potential for market-driven continuous environmental improvement.”
Eco-labelling in cleaning and restoration
For the cleaning and restoration professional, three long-standing and well-recognized eco-labeling organizations are most commonly used by chemical manufacturers. These three main organizations are the Safer Choice program, the UL EcoLogo program, and Green Seal. Some products in the industry do have a manufacturer’s eco-label on the packaging; however, keep in mind, without testing or criteria, this should be assumed to just be marketing or even greenwashing.
Contractors should focus their green product selections to include one of the three main eco-labelling organizations. We will look at each of the three, how they work, what they mean, and how best to use them to differentiate your company in the next article.
Rachel Adams is founder and president of Indoor Environmental Management Inc. and a 23-year veteran of the water damage and environmental health industries. She holds an IIRC Master Restorer designation and bachelor’s degrees in environmental health sciences and medical technology. Adams has served on the IICRC Board of Directors and as a Technical Advisory Committee Chair. She currently serves on the S520 Standard and Reference Guide for Professional Mold Remediation committee, teaches multiple IICRC courses, serves on the boards for the Society of Cleaning and Restoration Professionals and the Low Moisture Carpet Cleaning Association, is an OSHA outreach trainer, and serves as an expert witness.