'Green' labels come with a shade of doubt

Times Staff Writer

Reliable household products get the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. Safe electronics earn Underwriters Laboratories' UL mark.

But consumers and investors looking for environmentally responsible products and services have to trudge through a swamp of seals, claims and certifications -- only some of which designate independent, verified environmental accomplishments.

There's "Green Seal," founded by independent nonprofit group Green Seal Inc. and "Co-op America Seal of Approval," started by not-for-profit group Co-op America, which deems products "Approved for People and Planet."

Product manufacturers and retailers further muddy the water by adding more general titles and symbols, including "Certified Green," "Green Certified," just plain "Green" -- and more "Green Business" logos than you can shake a tree at.

Wood and paper products might be marked with the Sustainable Forestry Initiative seal or the Forest Stewardship Council shield; some products sport both.

And then there are the more general claims, including "nontoxic," and "chemical free."

"I'd like to say that if there's no credibility behind it, a label won't survive, but that's not necessarily true," said Linda Chipperfield, the vice president of marketing and outreach for Green Seal Inc., one of the older and most-respected eco seals.

That leaves well-meaning Americans to wander store aisles and puzzle over various product claims the best they can.

Julie Collins, who blogs about environmentally responsible cleaning products on www.the homeknowitall.com, studies companies, labels and ingredient lists before she goes to the store.

Collins is a 24-year-old writer and editor for the company that produces the website, Lexicon Consulting Inc. The Des Moines resident says she stays away from products with only vague promises such as "natural." And, particularly with household cleaners, she tries to steer clear of anything without a precise ingredient list.

But those efforts still don't guarantee that the products she's buying are safe for the environment, Collins said. And that doesn't even take into account the thornier questions, such as product packaging, manufacturing processes and the greenhouse gases emitted to ship the product to the store, she said.

"All kinds of products are cropping up and it's hard to tell which ones are actually making solid claims and which ones are throwing 'natural' on the label or some similar term," Collins said. "The most frustrating thing is when you spend more money on something that you think is green or environmentally friendly and then when you get home you realize that it's pretty similar to all the other items. I still get duped."

Label confusion isn't restricted to products claiming to be green -- there are tussles over the precise meaning of "organic," "pesticide free" and other terms.

The eco-product world is closer to the Wild West of marketing because no federal agency offers a universal seal, leaving a wide berth for vague language.

"What is sustainable? What is considered to be green electricity?" asked Bruce Hamilton, the deputy executive director of the Sierra Club. "People are consciously trying to fuzzy the boundary lines between clarity and lack of clarity so they can sell more products. Everybody is trying to promote their products as green even though they may not be."

Even leaving aside products that make outright false claims, consumers have to weigh competing seals from rival organizations with different standards.

The Forest Stewardship Council, whose seal looks like the outline of a tree above the letters FSC, certifies wood and wood products harvested or made from forests it recognizes as sustainable and well managed.

Founded in 1993 by activist and industry groups, the council says it is "the only global forest management certification system where social, environmental and industry interests carry the same weight." Its board of directors includes the chairman of Greenpeace and the vice chairman of the National Wildlife Federation.

The Sustainable Forestry Initiative seems to offer a similar certification. Its seal is an outlined pine tree inside a leaf. The group maintains that its program "is based on the premise that responsible environmental behavior and sound business decisions can coexist."

Although the group defines itself as a fully independent organization composed of environmentalists, forestry industry officials, academics and public officials, many activists assail the group as misleading and beholden to industry -- going back to its beginnings as a project of the American Forest and Paper Assn.

Its board includes the chairman of International Paper Co. and the chairman of Plum Creek Timber Co., as well as the president of the American Bird Conservancy and the president of the Wildlife Management Institute.

The Consumers Union Guide to Environmental Labels, at www.eco-labels.org, says that neither group is free from conflict of interest. But it maintains that the Sustainable Forestry Initiative has bigger problems with inconsistent labeling, standards that weren't developed with broad public input and criteria that allow "prudent" use of chemicals and forest clear-cutting of anything less than 120 acres.

"We need to have scrutiny on these labels, but we can't lose sight of the companies that have taken this on to seek third-party certification, regardless of the standard chosen," said Kathy Abusow, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative's new president. "We really need to shift the focus to the 90% of the world's forest that are not certified."

Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, also criticizes the Forest Stewardship Council, whose seal is favored by many environmentalists, for lowering some standards for paper since the group was founded and for allowing forest clear-cutting of 200 acres or less.

That group said it disagreed that it has lowered standards and added that responsible forest management needed to include some tree cutting to safeguard the most trees and the economic livelihood of nearby inhabitants.

"I hope that people are always looking at FSC, paying attention, being critical and making sure we're doing the right thing -- I think to date we have done it," said Ned Daly, chief operating officer of the group's U.S. arm.

Daly said competition among the seals isn't necessarily bad.

"Consumers look for different things and want different attributes in their products and they should have the choice," he said.

Urvashi Rangan, the head of Consumers Union's eco-label website, said she wouldn't want to see a single unifying label or seal, because it would be too difficult for any one group to certify the environmental soundness of every product, service and business. But, she added that a good system wouldn't be as confusing as it is now.

"It's a morass out there to some degree," said Rangan, who also is a senior scientist and policy analyst for the consumer group. "I feel sorry for consumers and I guess that's why we put this thing out in the first place," she said, referring to the website.

The growth in green-labeled products mirrors the growth of green-interested consumers.

Nearly 8 out of 10 people surveyed said a company's environmental practices were important in making decisions about the products they purchased, according to the 2007 GfK Roper Green Gauge study.

Consumers also said they used a product's own information to help them determine what is green: 72% said product and package labels were major sources for environmental information, the GfK Roper study found. And about 30% of consumers said they were willing to pay more for brands that were better for the environment.

"Why do you think so many people are marketing to this niche?" asked Hamilton of the Sierra Club. "Because there are so many consumers out there who want to do the right thing."

Part of the problem, say Rangan and others, is a lack of oversight.

The Federal Trade Commission's guide for the use of environmental marketing claims says that manufacturers need to be able to substantiate claims such as "eco-safe," "nontoxic" or "environmentally preferable."

Seals aren't illegal unless they mislead consumers, although they should be qualified to explain their meaning, said James Kohm, the agency's associate director in the enforcement division.

But Kohm said that although the agency has noticed an increase in environmental claims, that alone isn't a bad thing since it reflects an area of consumer interest.

"There have not been a large number of environmental cases the past couple of years, but it is something we're looking at," Kohm said. "We always want to make sure that we remove the deceptive claims from the marketplace, but we don't want to do that by removing the good claims."




Making their marks

Some of the better-known seals indicating green products.

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design): Founded by U.S. Green Building Council; building design, construction and operation.

Green Seal: Founded by Green Seal Inc.; categories include hotels, paint and cleaners.

SFI (Sustainable Forestry Initiative): Founded by American Forest and Paper Assn.; wood and paper products.

FSC (Forest Stewardship Council): Founded by timber users, environmentalists and human rights organizations; wood and paper products.

Energy Star: Founded by the federal government; energy efficient products and practices.

Source: Times research

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World