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Buying Sustainable Products: Who to Believe? [2nd in a 3-part series]

In our last post, we looked at sustainable purchasing. If you purchase products for your company, you may be interested in locating and buying products that have been shown to be better for human health and the environment.  And of course, your purchasing decisions must be financially sound as well! So how do you identify and locate those products?

A glance at the marketing of products with claims to being “green” quickly shows that it can be challenging to sort out the claims. Many products make a variety of claims that sound like sustainability (usually some version of “green” or “natural”). But without more information, it’s often impossible to know whether these claims are legitimate. Some, unfortunately are not.  Is there an easy, practical way to determine which products’ sustainability claims have been independently examined and validated, and which are really just “greenwashing”?

Fortunately, several government agencies and institutions have been evaluating these claims over the past decade or so.  As a result, some of these certification and labeling programs have been around long enough to have established themselves as independent and reliable.  They can be very helpful in separating the good products from the bunk. Some of the most commonly relied-upon label programs for business products include:

EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool)

EPEAT Products: Computers, monitors, printers and associated equipment.

EPEAT certifications (gold, silver, bronze levels) indicate a product’s energy efficiency, sustainability of materials incorporated, product longevity life cycle length, and packaging considerations.

Energy Star

ENERGYSTAR Products: Most electronics.

A joint program between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy, the Energy Star logo certifies the energy efficiency of the product.

FSC (Forest Stewardship Council)

FSC Products: Office products made of wood; paper products.

An FSC label establishes that the wood-based product comes from forests managed in accordance with strict environmental and social standards.

Green Seal & UL Environment EcoLogo

Green Seal and EcoLogo Products: Cleaning Products.

Both of these programs comply with the international standard developed for cleaning products (ISO 14024), and identify cleaning and janitorial products that meet a wide variety of environmental, social and health standards.


GreenGuard Products: Flooring, paints, furniture, and cleaning products.

GreenGuard, also developed by UL Environment, certifies products with low indoor air quality impacts, particularly low VOCs.

Chlorine-Free Products Association

CFPA Products: Most paper products, including tissue paper towels and other restroom paper products.

Provides certification that is product is chlorine-free.

Green Label Plus

Green Label Plus Products: Carpets.

Developed by the Carpet and Rug Institute, with the help of the U.S. EPA. This program assesses and certifies carpets and rugs with very low chemical emissions.

New certification and labeling programs are always being developed so it’s likely that at some point you’ll be confronted with a label or a claim that you’ve never heard of.  If you haven’t heard of it, can you rely on it? Smart purchasers will check out  the “who” and the “how” before judging the reliability of any label: “who” developed the label, and “how” was the process handled? Before you rely on the label to guide your purchasing decision, make sure that it was:

  • Developed and awarded by an impartial third-party (with no particular stake in the product)
  • In a transparent process with broad stakeholder involvement;
  • Is based on a life-cycle assessment of the product, so that it includes impacts and costs associated with the product throughout its entire life cycle; and
  • Is monitored by an independent third party.

The recent proliferation of independently developed, reliable labels and certification programs has certainly made it easier to identify sustainable products.  Keeping an eye out for them when deciding on products to purchase will go a long way toward improving your company’s overall environmental footprint. But what comes next? Consider developing an overall sustainable purchasing strategy for your company, and then using a successful strategy to form the basis for a Sustainable Purchasing Policy. More about that in our next installment.

This blog also appeared on 2degreesnetwork

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