A groundswell of public opinion and manufacturers' desire to translate it into a competitive sales advantage at the checkout counter has started a trend toward "environmental marketing."
But as the competitive advantage of "green appeal" is proved in the marketplace, some companies have been caught making unsubstantiated or misleading claims for their products. As a result two nonprofit groups, Green Seal Inc. of Washington, D.C. and Green Cross Certification Co. of Oakland, Calif., have emerged to safeguard citizens from environmental hyperbole.
Green Seal, which claims to be the first national, independent, nonprofit environmental labeling organization, was launched in June. Green Seal's analyses of products will be based on the full life cycle of each, from raw materials to manufacturing process to recycling or disposal. Impacts examined will include air and water pollution, damage to land and to human health, aesthetics, noise and production of solid waste.
Criteria will be set by the Green Seal Environmental Standards Council, a board of scientists and experts in environmental and technical fields. Green Seal is inviting manufacturer comment on its proposed criteria.
Companies whose products earn the Green Seal will be entitled to license its use for a specified period. The first Green Seal is scheduled to appear on products in early 1991.
Green Cross, a not-for-profit division of Scientific Certifications Systems Inc., says it will be "certifying" environmental claims rather than issuing seals, according to Vice President Linda Brown.
Under the program, products containing "the maximum practical, state-of-the-art level of recycled content" will be certified by Green Cross. The certification process involves on-site inspections, evaluation of records and testing by independent laboratories. Products pass if they come within 20 percent of the highest achievable level of recycled content.
Some 60 products have been certified and began appearing on supermarket shelves in August. Among those certified so far is the Clorox Co. Brown says Green Cross has fielded 300 manufacturer inquiries.
Not all large manufacturers, however, are sold on environmental labeling and fear that too many labels or seals will only confuse the consumer. "Having too many diverse groups setting environmental standards could turn consumers into 'doubting Thomases' who won't believe what they read on any package," says John M. Lowrie, a Reynolds Metals Company vice president.
He says Reynolds would support a labeling program if it were administered by the federal government. "If anything occurs in this area we need federal government standards like nutrition labeling on packaging," he says.
Lever Brothers Company agrees. According to Director of Environmental Affairs Melinda Sweet, Lever "has a very strong belief that the Federal Trade Commission is definitely a candidate for setting standards in tandem with the EPA." A widely recognized, federally based program would also preempt the need for states to set their own packaging and products standards, a trend that is making national manufacturers nervous, Sweet says.
The government is only slowly getting into the act. The Environmental Protection Agency has published federal procurement guidelines for certain materials with recycled content and says it is tracking labeling efforts getting under way in the United States. EPA is also funding a Consumer Product Comparative risk project to develop a methodology to evaluate the environmental consequences of consumer products throughout their life cycle.
Green Seal spokeswoman Melinda Schaplowsky says, however, "Private enterprise is probably better suited than government" to implement a labeling program and more likely to expedite one. She points out that, because of political concerns, it's taken the Canadian government two years to get its EcoLogo up and running.
On the other hand, Green Cross' Brown says that private and government labeling systems could run side by side without conflict. Government agencies typically set only minimum criteria for standards, Brown says. Green Cross will set "maximum standards" which would be useful to the "very concerned consumer." The Green Cross pesticide standard already uses government standards as a floor on which to base its more exacting standards.
Procter & Gamble is generally opposed to the labeling concept but "would be in favor of clear, explicit information about environmental claims rather than a seal of approval indicating good or bad," says company spokeswoman Carol Boyd. Shoppers shouldn't be led to believe they "can put a product in their shopping cart and that's enough." Procter & Gamble would not support any seal unaccompanied by extensive public education efforts regarding solid waste solutions, she adds.
The company claims it is not looking for a competitive advantage as a result of its own solid-waste education efforts
. Whether standards are set privately or by the government, HTC consumers should soon have information to make more environmentally conscious product choices. The standards debate will will help people scrutinize the issue carefully, Brown says. "It's to the advantage of industry and the consumer to have this debate happen."
Grant Ferrier is editor of the San Diego-based Environmental Business Journal.