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'Green' labels come with a shade of doubt

With no unified standard, what goes for being a nature-friendly product varies depending on the group certifying it. Buyers can be fooled.

September 05, 2007|Abigail Goldman | Times Staff Writer

Reliable household products get the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. Safe electronics earn Underwriters Laboratories' UL mark.

But consumers and investors looking for environmentally responsible products and services have to trudge through a swamp of seals, claims and certifications -- only some of which designate independent, verified environmental accomplishments.

There's "Green Seal," founded by independent nonprofit group Green Seal Inc. and "Co-op America Seal of Approval," started by not-for-profit group Co-op America, which deems products "Approved for People and Planet."

Product manufacturers and retailers further muddy the water by adding more general titles and symbols, including "Certified Green," "Green Certified," just plain "Green" -- and more "Green Business" logos than you can shake a tree at.

Wood and paper products might be marked with the Sustainable Forestry Initiative seal or the Forest Stewardship Council shield; some products sport both.

And then there are the more general claims, including "nontoxic," and "chemical free."

"I'd like to say that if there's no credibility behind it, a label won't survive, but that's not necessarily true," said Linda Chipperfield, the vice president of marketing and outreach for Green Seal Inc., one of the older and most-respected eco seals.

That leaves well-meaning Americans to wander store aisles and puzzle over various product claims the best they can.

Julie Collins, who blogs about environmentally responsible cleaning products on www.the, studies companies, labels and ingredient lists before she goes to the store.

Collins is a 24-year-old writer and editor for the company that produces the website, Lexicon Consulting Inc. The Des Moines resident says she stays away from products with only vague promises such as "natural." And, particularly with household cleaners, she tries to steer clear of anything without a precise ingredient list.

But those efforts still don't guarantee that the products she's buying are safe for the environment, Collins said. And that doesn't even take into account the thornier questions, such as product packaging, manufacturing processes and the greenhouse gases emitted to ship the product to the store, she said.

"All kinds of products are cropping up and it's hard to tell which ones are actually making solid claims and which ones are throwing 'natural' on the label or some similar term," Collins said. "The most frustrating thing is when you spend more money on something that you think is green or environmentally friendly and then when you get home you realize that it's pretty similar to all the other items. I still get duped."

Label confusion isn't restricted to products claiming to be green -- there are tussles over the precise meaning of "organic," "pesticide free" and other terms.

The eco-product world is closer to the Wild West of marketing because no federal agency offers a universal seal, leaving a wide berth for vague language.

"What is sustainable? What is considered to be green electricity?" asked Bruce Hamilton, the deputy executive director of the Sierra Club. "People are consciously trying to fuzzy the boundary lines between clarity and lack of clarity so they can sell more products. Everybody is trying to promote their products as green even though they may not be."

Even leaving aside products that make outright false claims, consumers have to weigh competing seals from rival organizations with different standards.

The Forest Stewardship Council, whose seal looks like the outline of a tree above the letters FSC, certifies wood and wood products harvested or made from forests it recognizes as sustainable and well managed.

Founded in 1993 by activist and industry groups, the council says it is "the only global forest management certification system where social, environmental and industry interests carry the same weight." Its board of directors includes the chairman of Greenpeace and the vice chairman of the National Wildlife Federation.

The Sustainable Forestry Initiative seems to offer a similar certification. Its seal is an outlined pine tree inside a leaf. The group maintains that its program "is based on the premise that responsible environmental behavior and sound business decisions can coexist."

Although the group defines itself as a fully independent organization composed of environmentalists, forestry industry officials, academics and public officials, many activists assail the group as misleading and beholden to industry -- going back to its beginnings as a project of the American Forest and Paper Assn.

Its board includes the chairman of International Paper Co. and the chairman of Plum Creek Timber Co., as well as the president of the American Bird Conservancy and the president of the Wildlife Management Institute.

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