The Wild Wild West of Sustainability Certifications
The high noon sun beats down as you wipe sweat from your brow. A breeze blows a tumbleweed across the barren landscape. It's hot. It's dry. It's a lawless land where danger looms at every corner, and you live by the one rule – it's every person for themselves. As you stand in the middle of the dusty road, your hand on your holster, your horse hitched nearby, another cowboy rides up the street. It's ISO 14001 and they’re looking for a fight. You had to deal with Net Zero yesterday, and FSC the day before. You’re tired. You’re war worn. You thought you’d put the dueling to rest with GreenGuard. You were wrong. There is no rest here in the Wild West.
But you’re not John Wayne and this isn’t a western movie. You’re a CPG brand trying to navigate sustainability certifications. And while the picture we’re painting of today’s landscape may seem dramatic, understanding sustainability certifications can sometimes feel just like that - lonely, fraught, and unregulated. There is no singular certifying body that can provide a guideline to ensure that brands are doing right by the environment, and no certification to prove it. There isn't even a certification that could cover the entire spectrum of sustainability. As a brand in the CPG space looking to better inform customers of your sustainability efforts, understanding the various certifications can seem daunting.
Without specific certifications on packaging, vague language like “eco friendly” and “sustainably sourced” is not specific enough to ensure that a company isn’t greenwashing with its messaging. There are no current regulations that prevent a company from advertising themselves as sustainable based on their own subjective standards. Wild, right? The lack of oversight in the space does not negate the importance of doing the due diligence to ensure that claims are accurate, factual, and certifiable.
Through certifications, you are removing the guesswork for both your business, and your customers, and you can narrow in on the specific areas in which you prioritize sustainability within your products. In addition to increased consumer loyalty, sustainability certifications can help to get your product onto shelves in stores that prioritize them, like Whole Foods and Erewhon. The steep cost to be certified can oftentimes be justifiable.
Sustainability certification involves a third party reviewer who evaluates your product to confirm it meets the standards of the certification being pursued. There are generally two types of assessments, one for the raw materials or the natural resource (like the forest/trees used for paperboard) and one for the company that is using that natural resource (the manufacturer or producer of the paperboard). Getting certified can be a costly process. This is one of the downsides to sustainable certification. But don’t let the cost be the reason you ride off into the sunset.
Consumers are increasingly looking to brands, as well as governmental bodies and society as a whole, to make it easier for them to make more sustainable purchases. Certifications can help differentiate your brand from others and quell any concerns of greenwashing in your increasingly savvy consumers. If the cost is not attainable, brands can work to ensure that all of their claims are factual and they can be transparent and open about their supply chain and manufacturing processes. Analyzing the true end of life of their packaging and catering on pack messaging to accurately reflect it is a step in the right direction. Brands that can not afford the high cost of sustainability certifications can look into their own sustainability shortcomings and talk about how they’re tackling them and working on improvements.
Making sustainability claims for your brand or product can feel like operating in the wild, wild, west, and a sure fire way to help reign that in is through certifications. While the current landscape has few regulations outside of ESG investing, it will not be this way forever. Getting ahead of the rising tide of regulations and minimizing the PR nightmare that can come from being accused of greenwashing build a solid business case for sustainability certification. Let’s get along little doggies and corral some of the most common sustainability certifications that are available to brands today. Giddy up!
A non-exhaustive list of sustainability certifications and what they certify:
B Corp certifies that a business has scored a “B” or higher on the B Impact Assessment which measures the company’s impact on the environment, workers, community, and customers. The process can be rigorous and requires participation by multiple teams and departments across a company. The non-profit B-Lab does the certification.
Founded by famed outdoorsman Yvon Chouinard (of Patagonia fame) and Craig Mathews of Blue Ribbon Flies, 1% for the planet facilitates the connection between businesses that want to donate 1% of their gross sales and environmental charities that receive those donations.
Fair Trade Certified certifies clothing, food, and beverage brands and means that the businesses are held to standards that meet and ensure rigorous social, environmental and economic standards. These include safe working conditions, environmental protection, sustainable livelihoods, and community development funds.
This label rigorously verifies that all ingredients are GMO free in a product. This can be certified products in food, beverages, and personal care products. The Non-GMO Project is the only organization that has such a thorough and well-developed vetting process to determine this information.
The USDA manages the USDA organic certification. Requirements for certifications include pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers that are allowed to be used on crops that can be labeled USDA Organic. The certification does not allow genetic modification, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge. Unfamiliar with sewage sludge? Sewage sludge is the thick slurry left behind in a sewage treatment plant after the human and industrial chemical waste have been treated and discharged. Sewage sludge is commonly used by non-organic farmers as fertilizer.
GreenGuard certifies building materials, furniture, electronics, cleaning products, and some medical devices to ensure that they are not emitting high levels of VOCs (volatile Organic Compounds). Lower VOCs = better indoor air quality (and less ozone depletion).
Leaping Bunny Certified cosmetics and household products ensure that the final product was not tested on animals and that no ingredient, formulation or product from third-party suppliers are used either. This certification requires that companies have a supplier monitoring system and they must re-commit annually.
The Forest Stewardship Council certifications ensure forest management practices and labeling to indicate that some or all of a product's ingredients are from such forests. The standards include preserving biological diversity and economically benefiting people who are local to the forests. Certified material is tracked from the forest to the consumer throughout processing, manufacturing, and distribution. There are three FSC labels: 100% Productions contain material only from FSC certified forests, Mix Products contain material from FSC certified forests AND recycled material, and Recycled Products contain post-consumer material and pre-consumer content.
The Rainforest Alliance can certify food, beverage, personal care, forestry products and even tourism businesses. The certification indicates that the product (or ingredient) was made in a way tat supports social, economic, and environmental sustainability. This is all verified by independent, third-party auditors, who evaluate producers in those areas. For forestry products, the FSC standard is used (Rainforest Alliance is a founding member of FSC).
Palm Oil is notoriously bad for the environment with implications in rapid deforestation. Palm oil plantations were created on land that was formerly the forest home to endangered animals. The RSPO certification works to prove that palm oil is produced sustainably. All parts of the supply chain from plantation to collection, refinery, and manufacturers are audited. This certification is not without its controversy though. It has been accused of being too lenient with palm oil plantations that have been more recently converted from forested land. Studies have found that some RSPO plantations were forested land that was home to elephants, orangutans, and other animals as recently as 30 years ago. Razing a forest for palm oil plantations and certifying it as sustainable is pointless.
ISO-International Organization for Standardization has developed over 18,500 International Standards on a variety of subjects. ISO 14001 maps out a framework that a company or organization can follow to set up an effective environmental management system. The certification is well respected and understood in the industry, but is a major undertaking. The budget, time and resources required are significant. ISO certifications are typically only taken on by large, mature, well-funded organizations.
A carbon neutral certification by The Carbon Trust demonstrates an organization’s commitment to decarbonization, and the neutralization of remixing impact through the support of environmental projects. A carbon neutral footprint is one where the sum of greenhouse gas emissions (CO2e) produced is offset by natural carbon sinks and/or carbon credits.
Net Zero International certifies a company’s carbon footprint data, along with a UN approved independent third party and confirms its authenticity, and provides a certificate. To reach net zero, a company must actively be removing carbon from the atmosphere, and not just offsetting it. The company must also be reducing its emissions on a 1.5 degree trajectory (the trajectory determined to be necessary to slow global warming).
The Plastic Collective provides plastic neutral certifications for both individuals and businesses. The program for businesses calculates the businesses plastic footprint. It will focus on the volume of plastics used in products, primary packaging and secondary packaging. The certification can not only account for the plastic footprint of the products, but can also take into account the plastic footprint for the entire company. This would include everything used in the products as well as any plastic used throughout offices and throughout the supply chain. This is considered the most comprehensive and credible certification for a business.