Understanding Labels & Certifications as a Conscious Consumer

As aspiring conscious consumers, the noisy marketplace can be overwhelming. Undefined terms like clean, eco-friendly, sustainable, natural, free-range of cage-free make it confusing for shoppers trying to choose ethical products. Certifications exist to aid the consumer in making these decisions. However, do we actually understand the validity and qualifications of the certifications we trust? I attempted to dig up the dirt around these labels. Keep on reading for a quick information session on the most popular eco certifications.

To be fair, I went into a deep rabbit hole while researching these certifications. There are multiple sides to every claim, and I have more questions now than when I began. The conclusions drawn here are my opinions, I would love to discuss differing views and broaden my understanding! So, drop a comment and tell me what you think.

Disclaimer: I listed examples of certified organizations below each label description. However, this is in no way meant to be a call to support these companies through purchase decisions. As always, do your own research and analyze the companies as a whole.


1% for the Planet

Initiated by the founder of Patagonia, this program does not analyze business practices, rather what they do with the profits from those practices. Members contribute 1% of their gross profits to environmental non-profits and engage in an advising partnership with counterparts in the non-profit organizations. In theory, this is a wonderful program to support change. However, the businesses themselves may continue the same harmful ecological and social practices within their own supply chain. There is no regulation on that front. Yes the donations through 1% have made an impact, but I would rather encourage organizations to remedy the root cause of the issues.

Greenwashing? Potentially.

Examples: Patagonia; King Arthur Flour; High Brew Coffee; Honest Tea


B Corp

Certified B Corporations balance profit with a greater purpose. Founded under the principle that for-profit business is necessary to aide non-profit and government organizations in the achieving inequality, poverty, climate change, etc. solutions, the B Corp label is the symbol of a “good business”. These socially-responsible businesses consider the impact of every operational decision. The acquisition of this certification is three-fold. Companies must 1) pass an assessment assuring social and environmental performance standards, 2) commit to B Lab requirements in their governing documents, and 3) pay an annual fee ranging from $50 to $50,000. All aspects of the business are analyzed – from supply chain to employee benefits. There are 2,500+ Certified B corps around the world in a myriad of industries.

Greenwash? Nope.

Examples: Alter Eco; Avocado Green Mattress; Bee’s Wrap; Bombas; Brew Dr; Dr. Brite; Dr. Bronner’s; Emmy’s Organics; Garden of Life; Hilary’s; Jeni’s Splendid; King Arthur Flour; NadaMoo; New Belgium; Numi Organic Teas; REBBL; Ripple; Sir Kensignton’s; Soapbox; The Soufull Project; Navitas; Rachio; Recycle-A-Textbook; Tom’s of Maine; Vital Farms

You can view each company’s B Impact score through the directory!


Certified Carbon-Neutral

A business has achieved carbon-neutrality when its carbon footprint has been reduced to zero through internal process efficiency and external emission reduction support. This certification outlines a protocol to aide businesses in achieving neutrality. Either entire organizations or individual projects can be certified. Third-party experts analyze emissions and develop data-collecting procedures. Supported by the National Capital Partners, this certification signifies an ongoing commitment, not necessarily the achievement of neutrality.

Greenwashing? Not really.

Examples: Microsoft; Sky


Certified Gluten Free

This label is the result of third-party verification guaranteeing quality and integrity. With serious allergies on the line, this strict certification can be trusted. However, gluten-free is not an automatic seal of “health” or “eco-friendly”. Choose gluten-free items produced by companies conscious of their impact in other areas.

Greenwashing? The label can be trusted, but alone does not guarantee a “good” product.

Examples: Nature’s Path; Primal Kitchen; Purely Elizabeth

Climate Neutral Certified

Similar to the certification above, this program measures emissions to calculate the deficit organizations need to overcome through carbon-offsetting measures. However, instead of changing internal processes, they purchase “carbon credits”. These credits apparently help accelerate the transition toward climate change solutions. The solutions that the credits support are verified by third parties. I understand this process is better than ignoring the issue all-together, but a truly green company would be actively searching for internal solutions as well. Research the company as a whole – the Climate Neutral site displays in-depth measurements of every company under their umbrella.

Greenwashing? It could be a green band-aide.

Examples: Avocado Green Mattress; Bread Alone; Twine Fair Trade

FairTrade

The FairTrade label applies to food and clothing products that are produced in line with monetary compensation regulations. Governed by Fairtrade International, Farmers must be treated ethically and paid a minimum that protects them from market price variability. Premiums are used to improve the producing communities’ through social and environmental projects. The certification process can take up to 9 months, during which the Fair Trade committee and third-party organizations analyze production methods. Audits are conducted annually to ensure the supply chain upholds the strong ethical guidelines. Critics of the label suggest there is no true way to analyze and protect working conditions – Are the funds being used as they were intended? Also, with many women around the world creating artisan products in their homes (not through an organization), it is challenging to regulate their conditions.

Greenwashing? Potentially. Do your research on the company as a whole. Better than standard for sure!

Examples: Cocokind; The Roasterie; Driscolls; Alter Eco; Lundberg Family Farms; Wholesome; Boll & Branch; Pottery Barn

Interesting Frobes article.

Forest Stewardship Council Certifications

The FSC Forest Management certifications confirm that “a specific area of forest is being managed in line with the FSC Principles and Criteria.” Forest owners or managers contract with an accredited certification community or join a Forest Management Group to begin the audit process. Every organization involved in the production, manufacturing, processing, and trading must be verified through the FSC Chain of Custody Certification. The labels have three tiers: 100%, MIX, and Recycled. Critics of the FSC claim the sustainability standards do not decelerate tropical deforestation and even greenwash illegal logging operations. As always, check the company’s other sustainability standards to verify authenticity.

Greenwashing: Potentially. Much better chance for sustainable procurement than un-controlled wood.

Search for FSC-verified materials HERE.

GBB

Rather than certifying an entire organization, The Green Business Bureau’s (GBB) receives recognition for individual activities. In addition to identifying completed sustainability efforts, the GBB helps guide future initiatives and progress. This assessment allows small businesses to truly customize sustainability measures. Cost is dependent on business size ($375 – $875).

Greenwash? No.

Global Organic Textile Standard

This certification guarantees that a product maintained an organic standard throughout production – from raw material harvest to labelling finished goods. Chemicals used must meet strict environmental and non-toxic criteria. The Global Organic Textile Standard

Examples: Avocado Green Mattress; Boll & Branch

Guaranteed Fair Trade

This certification is different from the Fair Trade label discussed above. It is governed by the World Fair Trade Organization – a democratic community of social enterprises that engage in fair trade practices in all aspects of their business, not just sourcing and production. These companies aspire to “transform local communities, pioneer upcycling, empower women, champion refugee rights and practice organic farming.” Their reach impacts over a million livelihoods (and 74% are women!).

To be included, rigorous self-assessments and audits must confirm the organization puts their people and the planet first. It could be argued the same downfalls of FairTade apply here as well. However, because the WFTO is total-enterprise-focused, this certification has a stronger foundation.

Greenwashing? Nope.

Examples: Dr. Bronner; Maggie’s Organics; Ten Thousand Villages

USA Sub-Group: Fair Trade Federation

Leaping Bunny

Awarded by Cruelty Free International, Leaping Bunny is the only internationally recognized certification organization for cruelty-free brands. As such, it is touted at the gold standard for cruelty free cosmetics, personal care, and household products. Compliant businesses have monitored supply chain systems (ingredient manufacturer -> final product) that are analyzed through ongoing independent audits. They must also adhere to a fixed cut-off date policy. Fees start at $70 and depend on size of business.

Greenwash? No.

Examples: Burt’s Bees; Dr. Bronners; Drybar; Lululemon

Interesting article about VEGAN label legitimacy and meaning.

LEED

This certification is granted through the U.S. Green Building Council. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design is an ecology-oriented certification awarded to buildings committed to environmental stewardship across several categories, like energy use and air quality. LEED buildings can earn Silver, Gold or Platinum ratings, depending on ecological impact.

Greenwash? No.

Examples: One Bryant Park (NYC); Shanghai Tower (China); Yale School Of Forestry & Environmental Studies (New Haven, CT); San Francisco International Airport Terminal 2 (San Francisco, CA)

Marine Stewardship Council Standards

A company is supported by the Marine Stewardship Council when it meets a set of standards for sustainable fishing worldwide. These standards are consistent with guidelines provided by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), ISEAL and the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative (GSSI). Reviews of practices are conducted by independent academics, fellow NGOs, governments and industry experts. The MSC was jointly founded through a project between a third party and company (WWF and Unilever). Therefore, experts claim the sway of the organization leans toward loose standards that benefit profiting corporations. Much like modern day waterways, this certification is murky. Does it hold water? It is a good place to start, but I’d suggest researching the individual company in depth to ensure sustainable practices all around.

Greenwashing? Likely. Do a deep dive yourself.

Looking for examples? Access the database here.

PETA-Approved Vegan

The process to receive this certification is not rigorous or assured by a third party. Companies simply must fill out a questionnaire to promise their products are vegan and pay an annual fee of $250. It is called their “beauty Without Bunnies” program.

Greenwash? Possibility of false documentation. So, yes.

Rainforest Alliance Certified

This certification seeks to support the environmental health of forests around the world. The seal claims a farm, forest, or tourism enterprise meets environmental, social, and economic sustainability standards. Rather than guaranteeing a minimum price (like FairTrade), the Rainforest Alliance focuses on improving farmers’ environmental management holistically through encouragement to protect biodiversity, conserve natural resources, sustainable ecosystem management, and pay workers ethical wages for improved well-being. The Rainforest Alliance was actually a founding member of the FSC and continues to work with them on their forest policies.

Greenwashing? Nope.

Examples: Yogi Tea; Evolved; Chocolove; Patagonia; Teapigs; Miss Jone’s; Newman’s Own; Follow Your Heart; Yum Butter

Find more here!

SITES

Rather than a general-sticker-of-approval certification, SITES outlines unique performance measures for each project under its umbrella. It is joint effort of the American Society of Landscape Architects, The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the United States Botanic Garden. Landscapes with this certification filter and reduce rain runoff, utilize less water overall, reduce energy consumption, and improve air quality. Registration and introductory fees range from $8,000 – $9,000.

Greenwash? No.

Examples: Dell Medical District—University of Texas at Austin; Hunts Point Landing – Bronx, NY

The Whole Grain Stamp

The Whole Grain Council oversees the qualification for stamp usage. Companies must apply, submit products for review, and pay a membership fee. The stamp could be 100%, 50%+, or Basic. These tiers signify what quantity of the product is deemed as “Whole Grain”. Basic – the lowest level – means the product is over half non-whole grain, but there are still 8g per serving. I think 100% and 50% are self-explanatory. Products could be whole grain but not have the stamp on their packaging. On the flip side, an unsubstantiated “whole grain” phrase could appear on packaging when the product has very minimal whole grain inputs.

Greenwash? Read the label. Also try to uncover if those grains are responsibly procured.

Examples: Mary’s Gone Crackers; King Arthur Flour; Canyon Bakehouse; Pamela’s Products; General Mills

TRUE Zero Waste

The Green Business Certification Inc. administers this certification to businesses and projects that are actively working toward zero waste, reducing their carbon footprint, and supporting public health. The TRUE Zero Waste Certification means the company/project has diverted 90%+ of non-hazardous materials from landfills, incineration, and the environment over the past year. The annual fee ($1,200 – $1,500) is dependent on the square footage of operations.

Greenwash? No.

USDA Certified Organic

This certification addresses soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives in food production. Certified Organic items are produced without forbidden methods (genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, sewage sludge) or prohibited substances (arsenic, potassium chloride) and are overseen by a USDA National Organic Program-authorized certifying agent. Produce is verified if no prohibited substances have been used in the soil for a minimum of three-years prior to testing. Organic meat regulations mandate natural behaviors (pasture grazing), 100% organic feed and forage, and no antibiotics or hormones. Processed food regulations guarantee no artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors. These processed organic foods can contain approved non-agricultural ingredients, like yogurt enzymes, pectin, or baking soda. An “organic” packing claim should not be trusted unless backed by a certification seal. One exception: organic farmers who sell less than $5,000 worth of product do not need to pay for certification. Critics believe that big businesses involved in organic certification are continually lowering the standards. For example, an amendment made in 2006 added a list of allowed artificial ingredients.

Greenwashing? Potentially. Look into other eco-claims to determine sustainable farming practices. Buy small and local when possible.

Examples: Allegro Coffee Company; Bob’s Red Mill; Forager

super seed breakfast cookies (v/gf)

lentil bolognese (v/gf)

SIMPLY SUSTAINABLE EBOOK – FREE

MARVELOUS MEDITERRANEAN EBOOK – FREE

harissa roasted carrots and quinoa v/gf)

grilled apricots w/ balsamic blueberries & goat cheese

sourdough sandwich bread (v)

banana chocolate pecan bars (v/gf)