Feature Article

Behind the Logos: Understanding Green Product Certifications

The number of environmental product standards and certifications is growing rapidly, putting numerous different "green" logos on products. But which ones can you trust?

The pyramid skylight in an Elkhart, Indiana, elementary school uses Kalwall composite glazing with insulating Nanogel silica aerogel. Nanogel has been certified for low manufacturing impacts in Cradle to Cradle and evaluated for its performance through the GreenSpec Directory.

Photo: Bill Lempke

The more self-evident a product’s attributes are, the less they need to be verified with certification. Lumber doesn’t need certification of its wood content, for example, but certification is helpful for distinguishing forest products that were sustainably harvested in responsibly managed forests, since their origin isn’t immediately evident. Similarly, a manufacturer of furniture that doesn’t emit formaldehyde benefits when an accredited third party verifies its product’s performance and gives it a seal of approval. When green products are visually indistinguishable from their conventional cousins, “the only way you’re going to peel away the onion is by certification,” says Brandon Tinianov, Ph.D., P.E., of View, Inc., a manufacturer of dynamic glazing products.

The “UL” symbol of safety from Underwriters Laboratories and the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval have influenced purchasing decisions for decades. But more recently, the environmental movement has created a new market for certifications. The success of major certification programs like Energy Star or the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which are responsible for some of the best-known green building product certifications today, has required growing public awareness of ecological problems, interest from buyers in purchasing environmentally friendly products, and the willingness of manufacturers to comply with a standard, among other things.

This article starts with a bird’s-eye view of the certification world and then provides overviews of many green product certification programs, beginning with single-attribute certifications, those developed to address specific environmental claims such as sustainable forestry and indoor air quality. Later, the article looks at multiple-attribute programs that consider broader factors and at programs that provide even more comprehensive information.

Originally published January 2, 2008 Updated September 1, 2014