As consumer demand for sustainable products grows, so does the need for reliable and verifiable environmental claims. We often see “green,” “eco-friendly” or “recyclable” on product labels, but what do these claims actually mean? Who decides what “green” entails and who verifies that products meet these rules?

Government, industry associations and consumer groups are holding companies to higher standards of performance on environmental claims through emerging guidelines and regulations. For example, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) states that “Green claims – including representations about energy savings – must be backed up by competent and reliable scientific evidence.”

The value of environmental claims rests on the assurance that the information provided is credible, objective and easily identifiable and understood by consumers. Substantiated claims not only help consumers make more informed purchasing decisions, but they help companies differentiate and “authenticate” their products.

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The U.S. FTC recently updated its Green Guides with more specific guidelines on environmental claims. The revised guides encourage marketers to use only qualified certifications and seals of approval that specify the basis for the certification, instead of making general environmental product claims. Specific rules apply to specific claims (such as “eco-friendly,” recyclable” and “compostable”).

In Canada, the Competition Act, Consumer Packaging and Labeling Act and Textile Labeling Act cover environmental label claims. In particular, the Competition Act prohibits false or misleading performance assertions.

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Tom Bruursema

What companies can do

Companies can prove their environmental product claims through independent, third-party testing, like the NSF Sustainability Environmental Claims Validation Program. Such validation protects a product or service against perceptions or charges of “greenwashing” and helps strengthen customer trust.

Many environmental claims can be validated, including:

  • Recycled content
  • Rapidly renewable materials
  • Locally sourced
  • Product performance
  • Eco-efficiency
  • Compostability
  • Biodegradability
  • Bio-based materials
  • Flushability
  • Energy efficiency
  • Water efficiency
  • Landfill-free
  • Green chemical ingredients
  • Organic

Claims vary widely by product and industry and custom programs can fill specific needs. For example, NSF developed test methods to verify that Proctor & Gamble’s Future Friendly products save water and energy and reduce waste. NSF verified claims such as “Tide Coldwater offers up to 80 percent energy savings for the consumer in every load.”

In addition, NSF Sustainability is a partner in the Biodegradable Products Institute’s Certified Compostable program, Carbonfund.org’s Carbonfree Product Certification and the EPA’s Design for the Environment (DfE) program.

The BPI Certified Compostable program applies science-based testing to prove a material will compost in a municipal or commercial facility, leaving no toxic or plastic residues in the soil. Examples of certified products include compostable bags, foodservice items, resins and packaging materials.

Carbonfree certification defines a product as carbon neutral by determining its carbon footprint and encouraging companies to reduce it as much as possible and offset remaining emissions through third-party validated carbon reduction projects. Carbonfree certification can build marketplace credibility and distinction for a brand wanting to tout sustainable attributes.

DFE recognition designates that each ingredient in a wide range of goods (including cleaning, personal care and fire suppression products) has been scientifically screened to use chemicals safer for human health and the environment.

For each of these programs, environmental or performance declarations are scientifically confirmed through testing, auditing or both to provide a sound basis for the product claim. Verified claims provide a marketing advantage for the company making the claim and an assurance for consumers that they can trust the claim.

About The Author

Tom Bruursema

About the Author: Tom Bruursema is a sustainability expert with more than 25 years of experience in product certification and professional accreditation in domestic and international markets. He heads NSF International’s Sustainability Program, which helps companies develop standardized, objective methods of measuring sustainability that instill marketplace confidence and promote acceptance of more sustainable products and services. These services include standards development, product assurance and certification, advisory services and quality systems management to help companies green their products, operations, systems and supply chains.