Buying Smart when Going Green - How can you be sure an environmental product is all it claims to be?
For consumers attempting to make the switch to environmentally friendly products, the alternatives can be confusing and daunting. Many products claim to be organic, hypoallergenic, or natural – but what exactly do these terms mean? More and more dry cleaners claim to be “organic” and almost every business claims to be going green: for instance, Walmart was recently named Canada’s largest purchaser of green power. While there are many fantastic environmental alternatives on the market, others seem to be using environmental marketing to capitalize on their success. How can a concerned consumer make the distinction between environmental friend and foe?
Our goal is to provide the consumer with some food for thought and encourage you to investigate a little deeper …
Lets start with:
The ingredients: reading the ingredients is always a tip-off as to how green a product really is.
Sometimes no ingredients are listed, as is the case for many cleaning products. You can always visit the company’s website, and many list a toll-free customer service number where you can make product inquiries.
If the ingredients are listed, be sure to examine the order in which they appear. The first ingredient has the highest concentration and the last ingredient has the lowest. Secondly, examine what types of chemicals are in the product. The Environmental Health Foundation recently put out a publication citing the top four chemical groups we should avoid:
• toxic gases (such as chlorine and ammonia),
• heavy metals (such as lead and mercury), and
• volatile organic compounds (such as formaldehyde and solvents).
According to the Canadian Cancer Society, some of these commonly occurring chemicals, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (flame retardants) and phthalates, are capable of causing birth defects, developmental retardation in children, and cancer.
The buzzwords: many products claiming to be green often label their products as ‘organic’, ‘natural’, ‘biodegradable’, or ‘non-toxic’. What do these terms mean?
It is important to know that these terms are poorly defined, unverified, and are not required to meet governmental standards.
Natural: Did you know that a product with synthetic ingredients, such as high-fructose syrup or artificial chemicals, can still be labeled as natural according to FDA guidelines? For instance, both artificial and natural flavours are made in a laboratory by using ‘natural’ or synthetic chemicals.
Organic: When used without the logo of an accredited organic certifier, the term organic does not meet rigorous standards and may be meaningless. In fact, products using the ‘organic’ label without a certification will contain 95% organic ingredients or less – meaning that at least one (or possibly only one) ingredient must be certified as organic under USDA rules.
Biodegradable: defined as “a degradation caused by biological activity, especially by enzymatic action, leading to a significant change in the chemical structure of the material”. However, this label can also be used when referring to products that take centuries to break down or those that break down into dangerous chemicals. So be mindful!
Non-Toxic: Toxicity is defined as "the inherent potential or capacity of a material to cause adverse effects in a living organism". However, no standards for toxic chemicals are used.
Unfortunately, if the product does not carry certification by an independent party, they do not carry a lot of weight.
Third-party certification is a scientific process by which a product, process or service is reviewed by a reputable and unbiased third party to verify that a set of criteria, claims or standards are being met. To make certain that third-party certification is credible, it is critical that the third-party be a recognized and reputable independent testing laboratory and not an extension or subsidiary of the company requesting the certification. Reputable third-party certifiers will have the capability, independence, and controls to conduct sound and unbiased reviews. For a full list of buzzwords debunked, check out National Geographic’s Green Guide.
What can you do? Products that are legitimately green often carry independent certifications or ‘eco-labels’. These certifiers hold the products to rigorous production standards that are closely monitored.
An ecolabel is awarded to a product that meets specified environmental performance criteria or standards, and is awarded by an independent, third-party organization. There are numerous ecolabels for almost every category of product, and they can recognize environmental excellence in the manufacturing, consumer or disposal process. Many of these ecolabels are relatively new but are quickly achieving success and recognition. Below you will find several ecolabels that you have a high chance of encountering.
Fair Trade Certified: TransFair Canada is Canada’s only independent, not for profit certification body for fair trade products sold in Canada. Created in 1997, it is building a market for fair trade products through certification and education. They aim to ensure that farmers and farm workers in developing nations receive a fair price for their product; that is, a price that has been agreed to through dialogue and participation that covers the costs of production and also enables production which is socially just and environmentally sound. TransFair receives money from grants, license fees, and contributions and membership fees. To bear the label, products must be grown by small-scale producers that are democratically organized, and products must be grown in a sustainable manner.
GOTS: The aim of Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is to define world-wide recognized requirements that ensure organic status of textiles, from harvesting of the raw materials, through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing up to labelling in order to provide a credible assurance to the end consumer". It was formed as an initiative to unify the various existing standards (Germany's IVN, UK's Soil Association, USA's OTA, Japan's JOCA). Approved certifiers include but not limited to Control Union (SKAL, KRAV), Ecocert, Soil Association. What this means for you: One label that covers the certification of production and manufacturing process.
Demeter: often given to cotton products, it indicates that they were produced without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and without animal by-products. They prohibit the use of genetic engineering.
SKAL: is an independent inspection body for organic production in the Netherlands that works in accordance with the public law, based on EU regulation. SKAL strives to ensure that organic products truly originate from an organic production process by means of inspection and certification. SKAL is the legal holder of the EKO quality symbol, which stands for organic production certified by SKAL that meets the requirements of the EU-regulation for organic production.
KRAV: a Swedish ecolabel, is authorized by the Swedish National Board of Agriculture and the Swedish National Food Administration to carry out inspection of organic production in Sweden. KRAV develops organic standards that meet International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements Basic Standards, and they inspect and certify organic farmers, food processors, trade, and consumer groups.
Oeko-Tex: The International Oeko-Tex Association comprises textile representatives from Europe and Japan that create standards and is responsible for the independent tests for harmful substances. The Oeko-Tex criteria catalogue provides a uniform, scientifically founded evaluation standard for the human ecological safety of textiles. Raw materials, intermediate and end products at all stages of processing throughout the manufacturing chain are tested and certified.
eco-INSTITUT: Founded in 1988, eco-INSTITUT has grown to become one of the prominent providers of product examinations and quality assurance. Their service helps manufacturers select their materials and optimise their products. eco-INSTITUT service provides continuous quality assurance and warrants compliance with norms and laws in Europe and worldwide. Their self-concept goes beyond the merely analytical laboratory services. They serve as independent problem solvers and advisers for their clients and help achieve better product quality and safety.
Environmental Choice (EcoLogo): products certified by this program have less of an impact on the environment because of how they are manufactured, consumed or disposed of. Certification is based strict environmental criteria that are established in consultation with industry, environmental groups, and independent experts and are based on research into the life-cycle impacts of a product or service.
Organic Exchange: is a charitable organization committed to expanding organic agriculture with a specific focus on increasing the production and use of organically grown fibres. They bring key stakeholders together to learn about the social and environmental benefits of organic farming, and they help develop new business models that support the use of organic inputs.
ECOCERT is an organic certification organization, founded in France in 1991. It is based in Europe but conducts inspections in over 80 countries, making it one of the largest organic certification organizations in the world. ECOCERT primarily certifies food and food products, but also certifies cosmetics, detergents, perfumes, and textiles.
Eco Flower: the European Union Eco Flower is a Europe-wide program that certifies products with a reduced environmental impact. In order to receive the label, a company must apply to a body that reviews all required certification and necessary documents. Each product group has specific criteria to meet. Reasons for receiving the Flower appear on the product packaging.
Nordic Swan: the official Nordic eco-label of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland. Only products that satisfy strict environmental standards are allowed to display the environmental product label. Companies applying for a license to use the Swan label must provide results from independent testing to prove that criteria are met.
For a comprehensive list of eco-labels, please visit The Global Ecolabelling Network.
Organic Lifestyle makes every effort to ensure that the products we carry are certified organic – our organic cotton is certified by certifying bodies like SKAL, KRAV or Demeter. The manufacturing process of transforming the source material into fiber is certified by ISO 14000 and 9000 as well as Oko-tek. We ensure that the dyes used are low impact / fibre reactive which have been determined to be safe for the environment. Finally, labour used to produce and manufacture the items are fair trade certified.