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Jeffrey Hollender Headshot

The Green Standard

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Testimony has been taken , and Washington is talking of creating a green product certifying agency that would review any product claiming environmental benefits and place an official seal on those that actually had some. The new program would presumably cut through all the clutter in the green product marketplace and guide consumers away from the snake oil and toward legitimate solutions.

Having spent more than two decades pushing back against the sometimes appreciable damage that "greenwashed" products wreak on consumer opinion and the sales figures of products with genuine benefits, I think this is an idea with a lot of merit. We just have to be very careful about choosing who is going to mind the store.

Having a single green standard would be a welcome change because right now there are no real standards at all. Pretty much any company can claim environmental benefit for any product regardless of whether an advantage really exists. Terms like "natural" and "non-toxic" lack legal definitions and can have whatever meaning a manufacturer chooses. It's like the wild west out there, and dozens of organizations are competing to be sheriff. According to some counts, there are more than 200 different green product certifying programs in the U.S. It's a real mess, and it's leaving many shoppers confused and cynical about green products.

A single certifying seal that consumers could depend on would bring much-needed clarity to the marketplace. It would cut the charlatans off at the pass and give those companies providing authentically green solutions the boost they need to start making a serious difference.

I'm all for it. But I'm lukewarm at best about having the government take charge of the process. A federal initiative would put too many cooks in the kitchen and too many lobbyists at the table trying to spin things their clients' way. The result has the potential to be the ultimate greenwash, a lowest common denominator standard that would simply put an environmental veneer on business as usual and do little more than codify the current emptiness of the term "green."

I'm also concerned about what specific attributes regulators will choose to base a new standard upon. Will they employ a simplistic set of narrowly defined environmental safety or resource conservation litmus tests? Or will they dig deep and get meaningful by considering a full range of impacts and benefits that address critical issues like the climate crisis and endocrine-disrupting chemicals? And what about social concerns like human rights and labor practices, which are crucial to any claim of true sustainability. Will they be ignored or embraced?

It's hard to say when contemplating a federal solution, and the slow erosion of Washington's current climate and health care proposals doesn't offer much in the way of encouragement. Rather than turn yet another vital initiative over to a fairly spineless Congress for neutering, a much better strategy would be for the green business community to unite around an existing independent rating system and work together to give it legitimacy in the marketplace.

The GoodGuide is one such effective system that's already at work helping consumers sort things out. It rates products for their negative impacts on or positive contributions to over 600 different environmental, social, and human health issues. Products are given a final color-coded 1-10 score that lets consumers instantly assess each one's value relative to other offerings. Placing this score on the products themselves would put the information it represents into consumers' hands as they making their purchasing decisions.

The GoodGuide goes beyond basic thumbs-up standards that merely accept or reject a product based on its ability to meet a minimum set of requirements. It's a comprehensive, deep-dive screening system whose Web-based tools provide the multiple levels of information needed to create genuinely effective environmental consumers. In effect, the data provided by GoodGuide ratings allow shoppers to do the green certifying themselves using their own prioritized concerns as a compass.

The GoodGuide offer the best of all worlds. It renders each consumer's own opinion paramount, and it allows those opinions to be based on high-standards and an appropriately broad set of metrics that avoid the myopic perspective that waters down most labeling schemes. At the same time, as an independent program with plenty of checks and balances, it's free of the inescapable political chicanery that arises whenever governments decide to regulate. It's far more fair, honest, versatile, and useful than I believe any government effort would be in the end.

Of course, there's a strong sense of been-here-done-that hanging over the idea of a single private certification program. As just one example, millions of dollars were spent to position GreenSeal as the nation's preeminent environmental product rating organization, but the market failed to muster any serious cohesive support and the program never gained traction.

That doesn't change the fact that a single set of trustworthy green product standards is desperately needed and long overdue. It merely points out that if we're ever going to get one, the green business community is going to have to come together and cooperate in ways that might mean making some small sacrifices for the greater long-term common good.

For my money, the best place to begin would be with something that's already working. That makes the GoodGuide an excellent option. We just have to adopt it as our own before Washington starts adopting anything less effective.

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