Stick to the well-known eco-labels even if they aren’t always beyond reproach.
Your mama taught you well - at least the lesson about never judging a book by its cover. In a world swamped with companies trying to sneak a piece of the green pie from increasingly informed consumers, brands are scrambling to offer up fancy-looking eco seals. So which are reliable and which are a rip?
Greenwash is an ever-morphing beast, and I'll be tackling it again in the next episode of CBC's Marketplace, Friday (September 14), when we'll be smackin' down the top 10 greenwashed products in your home.
How do you avoid it? I always tell people to look for signs that a product's been certified to prove that it's not just shovelling... well, you know. But not all seals are created equal.
Here's a quick rundown of words you may see inside an official-looking circle that looks like a seal but really means nothing in particular and isn't verified, regulated or corroborated in any way: eco-safe, earth smart, green, non-polluting, recyclable (where exactly?), septic-safe (any and all cleaning products can carry this label), non-toxic (says who?), CFC-free (who isn't these days?) and super-common biodegradable (in this lifetime or the next?).
Again and again I tell people to look for third-party seals. Why third-party? Well, a lot of companies make up their own seals over iced caps in the boardroom. Most mean next to nothing.
In 2008, Procter & Gamble developed its own Future Friendly seal, which often makes much ado about not much. For instance, the company's Bounty Huge Rolls score the seal because the cardboard cores in the middle are 60 per cent smaller than before. Lovely, but the paper towels themselves must have lots of recycled content, right? Sorry. Nothin' but pure virgin tree pulp here.
P&G also slapped seals on its Tide Coldwater products. Does washing clothes in cold water instead of hot save a lot of energy? Yes. Are the chemicals in Tide Coldwater entirely biodegradable, sustainably sourced and free of petrochemicals? Don't push your luck.
But even third-party seals can be full of it. The USDA BioBased seal is supposed to encourage the use of renewable American-grown agricultural ingredients, but come on, a product only needs to be one-quarter "bio-based" to qualify, and its label doesn't have to state how many renewable ingredients it contains.
Some seals are all-out frauds. Last year the U.S. Federal Trade Commission prosecuted a company that was doling out Tested Green environmental seals like they were lollipops. For as little as $189.95 (that was their "rapid certify" fee), you too could you get your crazy uncle's so-called "green" product approved. And 129 companies did just that until they were caught cheaping out on phony eco-testing.
Safest to stick with the big, well-known seals - the tried and true. I'm talking Certified Organic, EcoLogo, Green Seal, Energy Star, FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), Fairtrade Certified. All that being said, even these aren't beyond reproach.
Energy Star was caught handing out labels way too easily, a problem the program says it's addressing with improved verification, testing and updated requirements. FSC has been slammed for being a little too loosey-goosey on monitoring and doesn't always do enough to protect old-growth forests. So you might want to stay away from even certified tropical wood, but you can't go wrong with reclaimed wood.
Nonetheless, FSC is far superior to the industry-backed SFI label (Sustainable Forestry Initiative).
At the end of the shopping day when you're at a loss to decipher which is the better choice between two products on a shelf, a third-party seal is still the best quickie indicator of sustainability you've got.
At least your Energy Star window has been independently tested to prove it meets a certain standard and can officially claim to reduce your home energy costs by 7 to 12 per cent (depending on whether you're installing it in an older or new home).
Meanwhile, five non-Energy Star window companies were smacked down by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission last year for claiming their windows reduced heating bills by an astounding 50 per cent. Yes, basically they were pulling stats out of their tushies.
Even for small purchases like cleaners, you gotta look for proof of cred. You say you're green? Show me the money! Yes, certification costs a lot (at least it should if you're not getting the $189 deal), and not every mom-and-pop can afford it. You can make exceptions because you love and believe in your local upstart indie that's super-upfront and doesn't hide its ingredients, but you're using your own discretion here.
Otherwise, if you think you've caught a company greenwashing, don't be shy - get the Competition Bureau to investigate. All it takes is six official beefs to get a product investigated, so get six friends to fill out a complaint form online.
If enough of us do it, the CB sheriffs may just come out of hiding.
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