2. Consider the source.
When you see an eco-label, ask who created it. Did the company pay for it to be on their product? Did the certifier have something to gain? Here’s an easy way to remember first-, second- and third-party certification:
First Party: Versteel makes a task chair, and says that it is sustainable based on its own research and knowledge.
Second Party: Versteel is a BIFMA member. BIFMA says Versteel’s task chair is sustainable as measured by the ANSI/BIFMA e3 Furniture Sustainability Standard (e3).
Third Party: Third-party certifier SCS Global Services licenses certification marks to products meeting certain standards. SCS Global tests and confirms Versteel’s chair complies with the e3 standard, and licenses the level mark to Versteel.
Third-party certifications will always be the most rigorously tested and verifiable, but ultimately it’s up to you to decide which marks are most important—oftentimes, that comes down to what standards they reflect.
3. Know your ANSI standards (and others).
A certification mark is only as good as the product standards it is based on, so understanding the evolution of product standards is critical to understanding the meaning of sustainability claims.
“As we look ahead, the aim will be to do independent evaluations
to refine certification standards over time and pin down which
aspects are going be the most important for companies to pay
attention to,” says Linda Brown, senior vice president and co-founder of SCS Global Services. “We need to see whether those products that
met the highest tiers of their standards represented true environmental benefits and by what scale. Which portion of those metrics made the most difference?”
Additionally, a manufacturer may have products that meet certain standards, but opt not to get them certified. By following the underlying thinking behind the certifications, you can make sustainable choices without feeling beholden to packaging and labeling. Which leads to
our fourth point:
4. Remember that standards do not equal certifications.
A major factor driving the proliferation of eco-labels is that multiple certification bodies license out marks based on the same standards.
“We saw that with GREENGUARD, SCS Indoor Advantage, MAS Certified Green and all these other indoor air quality programs,” says Reardon. “They’re all certifying product to the same criteria and the same test methods, but they’re spending money promoting their own brand against the others. The customers were confused.”
Now all products meeting BIFMA’s e3 standard will receive the same level mark, regardless of which certification body a manufacturer chooses to work with. It is a solution that appears in other industries as well, such as the Association of Contract Textiles’ (ACT) NSF 336 sustainability standard, and the Tile Council of North America’s (TCNA) Green Squared® program.
Look for more unified labeling to emerge as time goes on, but don’t expect to find one that can span across product categories. For now, the standards are simply too disparate, and groups like BIFMA, ACT and TCNA have found it impossible to unify under a single mark.