by: Michael Hoexter
Eco-certification is a growing phenomenon and with good reason. Concerned consumers and investors have come to expect reassurances that greener products and services are in fact greener than competing offerings, especially when a price premium is involved. Eco-certification is one of the key supports for principled green markets along with greener public policy and reliable public information systems that inform about basic issues related to sustainability.
What is Eco-Certification, you may ask? Eco-certification is where an independent agency, meaning a governmental, an non-governmental organization (NGO) or an industry consortium tests or verifies that a certain more sustainable practice has been followed in the production of a given good or service. The best known eco-certification in the US is the organic agriculture standard that is administered by the USDA and run by a series of state-level certifying organizations. There is an EU administered organic standard in Europe, sometimes called “biological” agriculture.
A government can impose boundary conditions for environmental standards for, for instance, tailpipe emissions, but the imposed environmental standard does not really function as a certification unless the vehicle is sold in a third country with more relaxed standards. An eco-certification is usually a higher standard than legally allowed, reassuring customers that they are getting something better than what is legally allowable.
Why is eco-certification a foundation for Green Marketing? Without eco-certifications, green marketing claims might need to be supported by a longer process for potential buyers or patrons. Buyers might need to refer to third party opinions and research that do not have a standard format and require longer deliberation by the buyer. As a green process benefits not only the seller and the buyer but the public at large, an eco-certification is additionally a sign of the investment of authorized third parties in encouraging greener transactions. Eco-certifications also provide a summary of product information by the use of a simple seal or label, which saves additional time and effort.
Eco-certifications are usually applied to products (like timber or fish) but they also can be applied to an entire process. One of the more demanding eco-certification standards has been developed by the architect William McDonough and the chemist Michael Braungart that they call Cradle to Cradle or C2C. In C2C, a product is designed to be entirely reused and to be produced by an entirely non-toxic production process. Steelcase has designed the Think chair which has received C2C certification due to its high recycled content, easy disassembly for recycling and non-toxic material content.
Complex products with multiple parts may be best certified using a tiered certification system, where individual parts may or may not be better than industry standard environmental practice. The accumulation of certification points by combining “greener” components in, for instance, a building qualify the building for a higher certification level. The highly successful LEED standard in the construction industry is an example of a tiered certification system in which notably few buildings achieve the top Platinum standard while a good number of high performance green buildings have reached the lowest level called “Certified”. In LEED there are 4 certification levels. The EPEAT standard for desktop and notebook computers assigns 3 certification levels.
If successful, an eco-certification system will grow the market for certified goods, particularly where a price premium for certified goods is not too great. More rigorous standards may be added if a given lower standard becomes too easy to achieve…with the wide acceptance of organic agriculture, there are now artesanal producers who want to raise the bar to differentiate small producers from the now large industrial organic farms that have come to dominate many sectors of the organic food market.
Should you start an eco-certification program in your market sector?
It depends in part on the level of public awareness in your sector about appreciable differences in goods produced by sustainable vs. conventional industrial practices. If no public information is available about greener practices in your industry, an eco-certification may at first not mean as much to the public as when some public awareness has already grown. Also important is a growing consensus within the industry and/or within regulatory bodies in favor of higher ecological standards so that the added expense of a certification program can be shared among producers, consumers and government agencies. Whatever the external factors, a commitment to and passion for sustainability by individuals within the industry is always a valuable starting place to create a step-wise movement towards sustainable practices.