Dear Dot: What do all those sustainability certifications mean?

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Dear Dot, 

I never know what to think about the sustainability certification labels on various products. Are they reliable? 

–Michael

Dear Dot,

I recently bought a piece of FSC-certified furniture from Pottery Barn. That’s a win, yes?

–Victoria

Dear Michael and Victoria,

A tin container that belonged to my grandfather and now sits on my bookshelf has a label on it boasting that the once-held lozenges not only soothed throats but cured gout, rheumatism, constipation, and baldness. 

Somewhere between then and now, on a path that wound through cancer wards and courtrooms deciding class-action lawsuits, we discovered that there is a vast murky area between advertising truth and falsehood. It’s a murky area that, in the world of eco-claims, has brought about the term “greenwashing”, which applies to products that advertise environmental bona fides that don’t hold up under scrutiny. Indeed ClimateBert, an AI tool that measured 800 companies’ eco claims, revealed that greenwashing was rampant. Enter eco logos, which ostensibly do the homework for us, slap a label on something, and assure us that our money is well spent.

But is it?

Eco labels lend products a certain credibility and run the gamut from third-party verified and trustworthy to industry-verified and less so to almost meaningless. 

For instance, Victoria, you mention that you bought a piece of furniture made from FSC-certified wood. The FSC, or Forest Stewardship Council, certification was created following the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro by environmental activists while another widely-seen wood certification, Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), was created by timber industry professionals in 1994 in response to FSC, which they viewed as a threat to industry. On their surface, both certifications look legit. But while FSC relies on a third-party verification system (this means that qualified outsiders are the ones determining whether requirements are met), SFI allows companies to self-assess. SFI is like relying on your teenager to tell you whether they completed their homework whereas FSC would call the teacher.

There are myriad other labels, from Certified Organic, to EcoCert, to Leaping Bunny. Even though certain products may, in fact, qualify for certification, it’s important to understand what, exactly, is being certified. Put another way, don’t assume that any certification is a blazing symbol equivalent to “good for you and the planet.”

Unfortunately, given how many certifications are out there, you will have to do your homework. But I will give you a head start by listing a few of the most common, legitimate, and trust-worthy certifications:

USDA Organic for food;

LEED-Certified for building; and

Energy Star for appliances.

Also good, though somewhat less common: Cradle to Cradle, Fair Trade Certified, 1% for the Planet, EWG (Environmental Working Group) Verified.

We like to think that the days of claims like those on my grandfather’s tin of lozenges are long gone but we need look no further than charlatans on YouTube or Facebook (or, until recently, the White House lectern) for a new era of outlandish health claims. Though, now that I think of it, my grandfather presumably took those lozenges and, until his death at the age of 90, had a full head of hair. Huh.

Certifiably,

Dot

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