Last week I talked about Testing Specifications vs. Brands, and before that I talked about how I thought it shouldn’t always be necessary to get third party certification of a green attribute. As I was doing some research for those various posts, I stumbled across two useful articles on understanding green logos that I thought I should share. You will find them here and here. (That first link appears to have turned into “available for registered users only since I found it, but I’ll leave it here since you may well be a subscriber or it may convert back!)

The articles discuss some differences between competing Standards, Testing Specifications (or Brands) like FSC vs. SFI or Cradle to Cradle vs. Green Seal vs. “SMaRT.” The first article points out what we’ve discussed before—there are so many logos and programs out there (both big organized programs and the small self-created stamps) that it’s nearly impossible for a professional, much less the ordinary consumer, to understand them.

I’m often frustrated by the need to prove my innocence through third-party certification.

As regular readers know, I’m often frustrated by the need to prove my innocence through third-party certification. This article makes a valid point, however, stating that: “The more self-evident a product’s attributes are, the less they need to be verified with certification. Lumber doesn’t need certification of its wood content, for example, but certification is helpful for distinguishing forest products that were sustainably harvested in responsibly managed forests, since their origin isn’t immediately evident.” The article goes on to point out that there are things we can see ourselves as consumers (like “yes, this is wood”) and then there are things we can’t always see (like the exact levels of formaldehyde emissions). Because there are bad actors or because green claims can be deliberately confusing (just really, what is E0?) or flat out wrong (there aren’t any products out there that really emit absolutely “Zero VOCs”) , it may be good to have a third party certify certain statements.

That said, how do we really understand the programs? How is a consumer to know that a stamp claiming that something is “Lacey Compliant” isn’t actually possible? There is much discussion about trying to control statements you can make on packages or bring some of these green programs under some form of control, but as long as green makes money (as a friend said, “Green generates ‘green’”), and as long as there is money in creating programs to evaluate green, we’re going to have this challenge.

From the consumers’ point of view, who certifies the certifiers? I’m not talking about the accreditation bodies that check the labs, or the ASTM or ANSI process that checks the standards—how does the regular consumer understand which green stamp on a package really has value? The ordinary consumer isn’t going to recognize 01350. It is still coming down to marketing for the majority of regular consumers (have they heard of VOC Green or FloorScore or GreenGuard Gold?), or achieving acceptance in a specific program for the professionals (FSC is still winning out over SFI in the LEED battle.) We still come down to a matter of trust that a specific claim is meaningful or appropriate.

And to that end, I think it is on us to make sure we do a lot of self-policing. We cannot sell fear simply because that’s what others are doing. We should not casually add to the logo confusion out there. We should not walk a technical line of stating something true but meaningless. We should not generalize about industry segments or products or companies. If we don’t work hard to be clear, specific and accurate about our statements, who will be?

I am looking forward to the day we have confidence that when a package proudly declares “no blueberries here!” it’s not wrapped around an apple pie.

Elizabeth Baldwin has over 20 years of international wood sourcing experience. Very widely traveled, her résumé's "Special Skills" section includes "the ability to eat anything from raw horse to deep-fried scorpion." She serves as Metropolitan Hardwood Flooring's ( ECO (Environmental Compliance Officer) and deals daily with the "green alphabet soup" of today's industry: FSC, CARB, LEED, and much more. She blogs for Hardwood Floors on all things green (and, as she says, " 'grey' and 'blue' and almost every color except 'black and white.' Nothing in this world is black and white, particularly not 'green issues.'")