The Label Game

Bill Walsh | June 29, 2006 | Policies

It's not just the timber industry pressuring the US Green Building Council (USGBC) to award a new LEED credit for its greenwash self-certification scheme, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) label. Manufacturers of resilient flooring are seeking LEED recognition for their trade association's new certification system, FloorScore. [1]

Welcome to the label game.

For manufacturers the object of the game is the marketing edge conferred by a label "certifying" that products meet a selective industry standard of sustainability. For consumers the challenge is sorting the green from the greenwash among the bewildering array of eco-labels.

The first thing you need to know to play the label game is that not all labels are alike.

Consensus Based Eco-Labeling ProgramsConsensus Based Eco-Labeling Programs

The most reliable eco-labels for green building products are those that are developed through a consensus negotiation process: LEED for buildings; [2] Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) [3] for wood products; and, EneryStar® [4] for energy efficiency. These programs offer a seat at the table for all stakeholders. The time consuming consensus process may lag behind the leading edge of technology, and some of the least cooperative industrial players often dominate the process in terms of financial and human resources. But, the results represent progress.

Trade Association Greenwash LabelsTrade Association Greenwash Labels

The worst of the self-styled eco-labels and certifications are those promulgated by industry trade associations, such as the timber industry's SFI, the Carpet and Rug Institute's Green Label and Green Label Plus, [5] and the Resilient Flooring Council's FloorScore. The selective "standards" represented by these labels are not negotiated in the public interest with legitimate stakeholders. They are one dimensional or least- common-denominator standards at best, and in some cases they undermine superior consensus standards.

Take the SFI label for wood. On the one hand the timber industry negotiates compromise standards with environmentalists during the FSC consensus process. But it also promotes a competing certification, SFI, which rewards some of the very practices not accepted by the FSC.

The industry sponsored labels are primarily marketing tools, heavily promoted and financed by marketing budgets of both trade associations and product manufacturers. These labels confuse consumers. In the label game, this is called a greenwash maneuver.

Independent Certification Labels"Independent" Certification Labels

Adding to the confusion are the so-called independent certification organizations. To the pioneers in the certification industry, the green building movement owes a debt of gratitude for providing reliable information about products where none previously existed.

But times are changing. In a time of proliferating eco-labels, independent certifications such as GreenSeal, [6] GreenGuard, [7] and the Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) [8] are adding to market confusion by competing with each other in some areas, such as indoor air quality, while ignoring important concerns that industry resists. Many people assume that the "independents" establish high standards independently, triggering a race to the top for manufacturers. Wrong. Manufacturers play a critical role in establishing the standards used by these "independents," who are often financially dependent upon manufacturer revenues from product testing. Some manufacturers even have suggested that independent standards can be skewed to favor larger or long established clients.

Who will win the label game?

If current trends hold, consumers can expect to be confused by a bewildering array of industry sponsored eco-labels and certifications. This will stifle innovation and inhibit market transformation. If organizations like the USGBC hold the line and restrict LEED credits to truly independent standards or highly credible consensus-based certification standards, such as the FSC, the market will receive clear signals about future trends in green building and industry leaders will be rewarded. Then, we will all come out winners.


[1] "The FloorScore program, developed by the Resilient Floor Covering Institute (RFCI) in conjunction with Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), tests and certifies flooring products for compliance with indoor air quality emission requirements adopted in California."

[2] "The LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System® is a voluntary, consensus-based national standard for developing high-performance, sustainable buildings."

[3] "FSC is an international not-for-profit membership-based organization that brings people together to find solutions to the problems created by bad forestry practices and to reward good forest management."

[4] "ENERGY STAR is a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy helping us all save money and protect the environment through energy efficient products and practices."

[5] "The CRI Indoor Air Quality Carpet Testing Program green and white logo displayed on carpet samples in showrooms informs the consumer that the product type has been tested by an independent laboratory and has met the criteria for very low emissions." [link no longer available]

[6] "Green Seal is an independent non-profit organization dedicated to safeguarding the environment and transforming the marketplace by promoting the manufacture, purchase, ad use of environmentally responsible products and services."

[7] "GEI [Greenguard Environmental Institute] is an industry independent, non-profit organization with mission to improve public health and the quality of life through programs that improve indoor air."

[8] "SCS is an internationally recognized independent certifier of environmental and food safety claims. Over two decades, SCS has developed standards and offered certification programs spanning a wide cross-section of the economy including agricultural production, forestry, fisheries, energy, consumer products, manufacturing and retailing, and the home improvement and construction sectors."