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How to Interpret Eco-Friendly Labels

There are three kinds of people when it comes to “eco-friendly” consumer products: the uncaring, the ambivalent and the proactive. Sure, there are subtle variations, but from a marketing standpoint there are buyers who don’t care, buyers who might care and those who actively pursue such things. And, the marketing of the matter is an important aspect of these kinds of certifications. <strong>Is it certified or is it just marketing?</strong> Some brands will say something is “eco-friendly” because it sounds good and they hope it’ll help them move more units. And, it’s usually legal. Truth in advertising is one thing, marketing is another and there’s a fat wedge of foggy gray area in between the two. Cutting through this fog is as easy as checking to see who’s doing the labeling and certifying. If the certification is bestowed upon a product or service by an unaffiliated and disinterested third party you can have more confidence that the stamp actually means something. <strong>What does ‘eco-friendly’ even mean?</strong> It doesn’t mean anything and guarantees no special environmental consideration. It is a phrase that may be used loosely to promote nearly any product, although that doesn’t always mean there is no merit to the claim. Questionable use may occur in any number of creative ways. A favorite example: bottled-water companies advertising smaller “eco-friendly” caps on their bottles that use less plastic – while totally ignoring the fact that the entire bottle is made of plastic. <strong>What is ENERGY STAR, anyway?</strong> Per <a title="ENERGY STAR" href="https://www.energystar.gov/about/" target="_blank">the official website</a>, ENERGY STAR is a program within the Environmental Protection Agency<em> – and not a certification itself</em> – that provides its endorsement to products that have been certified by other third-party organizations using EPA-recognized laboratories. The program will also takes product off the shelf and test them independently at random to confirm they are meeting the certification alleged by these third parties. So, all in all, it represents a double-blind non-partisan oversight program for environmental efficiency in consumer products <strong>So then, what is GREENGUARD?</strong> GREENGUARD is <a title="GREENGUARD Environmental Institute" href="http://www.greenguard.org/en/index.aspx" target="_blank">a certification program</a> that was acquired by UL Environment (Underwriters Laboratories) in 2011, which only serves to give it a better ratings pedigree. UL is an independent safety science company that certifies a wide range of products. You may recognize the UL symbol on many items that are “UL Listed” or “UL Certified,” which is to say they meet a certain standard for safety and performance. GREENGUARD, however, focuses on indoor product emissions that may impact air quality. It is known that some products contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and this certification guarantees their absence in the products that have earned the label. <strong>Are there any other certifications I should know?</strong> <a title="Design for the Environment" href="http://www.epa.gov/dfe/" target="_blank">Design for the Environment</a> (Dfe) and <a title="WaterSense" href="http://www.epa.gov/watersense/" target="_blank">WaterSense</a> are two more large government “ecolabeling” efforts aimed at consumer products that are ostensibly worth more than the packaging on which they are printed. You might find Dfe labels on various detergents and cleaners, while WaterSense labels pop up on efficient low-flow plumbing products like faucets and toilets. There are also many other non-governmental green product programs, but you'll always want to check the backstory before allowing yourself to be lulled by what may amount to little more than eco-friendly marketing hype.
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