Certified Confusion

Warning: This “green” label may cause the customer anxiety, blurred vision, severe headaches or dizziness, an exaggerated sense of well-being, yawning, irritability, and/or a decreased desire to save the Earth.

Certified Confusion

According to Ecolabelling.org, there are nearly 90 different eco-labels in North America alone. They cover dozens of product categories and take wildly varying approaches to determining whether a product is environmentally worthy.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Denise Culver stood motionless, hands on her hips, surveying the towering array of choices in the cleaning products aisle at her local Wal-Mart Supercenter in Broomfield, Colo.

A working mom with three boys, Culver wants to buy “earth-friendly” products, as she puts it. Instead, she often goes home with the “old stuff that’s probably bad for you.” Like millions of other consumers, Culver isn’t sure if the products tagged as green really are.

And who could blame her?

On one end of the aisle, a Green Works dishwashing liquid sports both an EPA Design for the Environment seal and a Sierra Club logo. A few steps away, the Nature’s Source toilet bowl cleaner assures customers it’s adhering to the “Greenlist” process. And Palmolive’s Eco-plus dishwasher detergent claims it’s “better for lakes and streams.”

“I’ve tried this before,” says Culver, motioning toward the Scott Naturals toilet paper (“green done right”) on the other side of the aisle. “But it’s only 40 percent recycled, so I’m not sure if that’s good.”

Recycled. Organic. Natural. Biodegradable. Non-toxic… Welcome to the murky and largely unregulated world of green marketing, in which manufacturers tag their products with a hodgepodge of highly-regarded terms.

According to Ecolabelling.org, there are nearly 90 different eco-labels in North America alone. They cover dozens of product categories and take wildly varying approaches to determining whether a product is environmentally worthy.

Standard-setting programs such as the Forest Stewardship Council, National Organic and Energy Star isolate a single component of a product’s environment impact. Others take a more ambitious, life-cycle approach, seeking to measure everything from the raw materials that go into a product and the energy used to ship it to the item’s eventual disposal.

While some labeling systems have rigorous, science-based standards that were developed in collaboration with reputable outside experts, others are not so picky.

“With some labels, they’re just saying, ‘Send me $100 and I’ll give you a sticker,’” says Scot Case, executive director of EcoLogo, a third-party certification system for sustainable products run by consulting firm TerraChoice. In 2008 and 2009, TerraChoice researchers surveyed more than 2,200 products in the United States and Canada and found that more than 98 percent were guilty of “greenwashing”—in the form of everything from vagueness and irrelevance to downright fabrication.

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