Understanding Eco-logos: Certifications vs. Self-Declarations
Consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about the environmental attributes of products and packaging. If you are in business today, whether selling a product or a service, it is possible to create an advantage in the marketplace by touting environmental credentials. As such, eco-labels and claims abound on products from cleaning supplies that we use at home to the clothes we wear and the cars we drive. Environmental labels are also applied to packaging of products ranging from toys to tater tots and everything else we buy. With so many environmental attributes to consider (toxicity, energy, water, waste) it can be difficult to decipher whether one product is truly better than another.
To help protect consumers from false or misleading claims, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has established a set of general principles that apply to all environmental claims. The International Standards Organization (ISO) has also developed some very helpful resources.
Welcome to the world of environmental marketing and claims.
If you are in marketing, it is critical to get your claims right or risk jeopardizing the integrity of your brand. For someone new to the space, the options and the responsibility can seem overwhelming. But at the end of the day it boils down to three basic tenets.
- Claims must be accurate (don’t stretch the truth)
- You must be able to substantiate your claim (provide proof if challenged)
- Consumers should be able to understand your claim at the product level (when in doubt provide a URL and more information on line)
Legitimate claims can made through self-declarations but unfortunately many consumers don’t trust business and seek additional assurances. Labels developed by credible third party certification programs offer assurance and transparency for marketers that choose to use them.
In the realm of responsible sourcing I might simply tell a customer: “100% of our wood fiber is legally sourced from well managed forests.” This self-declaration is legitimate and we can substantiate it with purchase records and the ability to track all of the fiber we use back to its origin. But for many paper users this simple claim is not enough. Some of our customers want additional assurances. To that end, our wood and fiber procurement processes are audited by independent third parties in accordance with forest management standards. Specifically, we are certified by third party auditors to show that our sourcing meets the chain of custody standards of the FSC, SFI and PEFC programs. Because we meet the standards, our products can be labeled in accordance with those standards.
Another example of a self-declaration would be if we simply report: “We use efficient logistics providers to ship our products, thereby reducing emissions associated with transportation.” If challenged, we can provide records of shipping routes and even the fuel efficiency of the fleets that are used. Or we can offer additional assurance by pointing our customers to the fact that we are a certified SmartWay Transport Partner.
Certification programs add costs. There are resources required to meet standards and manage the programs and there are often fees associated with logo usage and third party audits. Sustainable businesses do not take on environmental programs without consideration of cost and the value delivered by participation. With a plethora of programs to choose from and more popping up each day, businesses should evaluate each one closely and limit their participation to those that they believe provide legitimate assurances to their customers.
If you are responsible for creating marketing claims, be sure to get a copy of the FTC Green Guides as well as ISO 14020, Environmental Labels and Declarations: General Principals.
I also recommend the Canadian Standards Association’s “PLUS 14021 Environmental Claims: A Guide for Industry and Advertisers”
Laura M. Thompson, Phd, is director of sustainable development and technical marketing at Sappi Fine Paper North America. She has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of New Hampshire and an M.S. and PhD in Paper Science from the Institute of Paper Science and Technology. Since 1995, she has held a variety of positions within the paper industry including R&D, mill environmental, product development for specialties and coated fine paper, and, most recently, sustainability. Since joining Sappi in 2006, Laura has quickly emerged as an industry leader in the field of sustainable development.
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