You care about health, safety and the planet. You want to buy ‘green’. So, you look for products that bear Ecologo™ or Green Seal™ certifications so you can be assured you have made the ‘greenest’ buying decisions. Eco-labelling makes it easy to identify ‘green’ products, right?

Not really.

Let’s go back to the beginning. Obviously, 3rd party certifiers sounded like a good idea in the 90’s. But the programs were rather top-heavy with industry influence, and there was even an oil company executive as Canada’s Environmental Choice (Ecologo™) Board Chair. That is akin to placing firebugs in charge of arson laws or alcoholics writing drunk driving legislation. So, it shouldn’t be so surprising that this industry ‘consultation’ has resulted in shamefully low program standards. Industry was happy: more of their products would qualify for certification. The programs were happy: there would be more products eligible to apply, and therefor increase program revenues. The guidelines were clearly developed initially to include as many products as possible, instead of ‘raising the bar’ environmentally.

As a result, we now have lots of ‘certified’ products, but they are mostly the exact same ones as before, with no new environmental or health benefit. And, since there are no scoring grades attached to the certifications, it is impossible to differentiate between eco-labelled products using only the certification as a guide; the sole assurance is that they have met a (low) minimum standard.

How wonderful it would have been if eco-certification actually encouraged the development and/or use of greener products. In fact, the opposite has happened:

– There are so many existing products that qualify for the standard, the incentive for green innovation by the larger corporations has been lost. They no longer ‘lead’. It is ‘status-quo’, albeit with new eco-labels on their packages.

-The standards are too low; an eco-label can be on a lot of dangerous products. The eco-labels do not identify superior environmental products, and they don’t flag the worst ones either. A very high percentage of ‘3rd party certified’ products contain ingredients that cause health risks. Some Green Seal™ products have hazard ratings as high as 3 (4 being the worst rating on a scale from 0 to 4). Outrageous! The Green Seal™ GS-37 standard has poorly addressed chronic health effects to internal organs, endocrine system, or blood. It has been lax regarding mutagenicity, bioaccumulation, dermal toxicity, respiratory sensitization, or toxicity to aquatic life. It never ceases to amaze how so many Green Seal™ or Ecologo™ certified products list a veritable cocktail of toxic ingredients on their safety data sheets.

-The cost associated with certification is prohibitive to the inclusion of all green innovations. User groups have referred to the certifiers as “Green Steal”. Remember, these programs operate privately and answer to their Board of Directors. Their main concern is to approve as many products as possible and collect their fees. The cost per product can be as high as $6,000.00 initially, plus as much as $4000.00/yr. after that. The industry ‘big boys’ that influenced the low standards in the first place, and can afford to “pay to play”, are greatly helped by this very effective barrier to the smaller, greener innovative companies.

-Some organizations, such as school boards and the City of Richmond, BC for example, have mandated that all cleaning products they purchase must bear 3rd party certification. This is carte blanche for ‘brown’ products that have simply paid the price to be certified, and it’s the kiss of death for many far superior products. Such purchasing restrictions serve only to interfere with an informed selection process, at the peril of workers, visitors, students, etc.

 

Since there is no clear connection between 3rd party certification and the extent of a product’s environmental or health benefit, how should we choose the ‘greenest’ products? Three ways:

  • Check the material safety data sheets.
  • Understand the material safety data sheets.
  • Compare the material safety data sheets.

Undue reliance on 3rd party standards has shown the potential to cause more harm than good.  With the greatest respect for those products that are truly environmentally superior, it’s time we stopped rewarding the ‘not-so-green’ eco-labelled products with our dollars.

Third-party certification is not the final word. The consumer has the final say.