Could UL Become the De Facto Green Product Standards Organization?
Eco-minded consumers have seen a lot of greenwashing. Companies declare “green,” “low-impact” or “all-natural” products without having to show supporting evidence. Green is gold for manufacturers, and their environmental credentials may be real or imagined.
“Manufacturers are doing it because they know the public wants green and they want to sell product,” says Michael Italiano, president and CEO of Sustainable Products Corp. “It’s rampant throughout the market right now.”
While the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED standards help guide the manufacture of green building materials (though it doesn’t certify them; as LEED applies to only the performance of a finished building), the green certification landscape for the rest of the manufacturing world is murkier. This may about to change, however, as the independent, private and not-for-profit UL may be creating a green certification empire.
The Federal Trade Commission has flirted with green regulation for consumer products, publishing the Environmental Marketing Guidelines that provide manufacturers with a list of criteria to follow and generic claims to avoid. However, since they are only “guidelines,” even the federal government has had small effect on this area.
In 2009, UL launched a new unit called UL Environment with the mission
to help both manufacturers and consumers. Now, UL Environment is about to get bigger and carry even more punch, with the acquisition of GoodGuide, one of the world’s largest databases on the health, environmental and social impacts of consumer products.
GoodGuide was launched in 2008 by Dara O’Rourke, an environmental scientist, information scientist and professor at the University of California, Berkeley. GoodGuide ranks consumer products such as soap, shampoo and household cleaners on more than 140 green criteria points, determining an aggregate ranking between zero (bad) and 10 (excellent). These points include:
- The relative toxicity or non-toxicity of ingredients
- Recycled content
- Recyclability of packaging
- Whether animal testing was used in the making of the product
- Social issues regarding the company’s management.
GoodGuide offers a robust search function (consumers can customize criteria depending on what’s important to them) and a mobile app that includes a “purchase analyzer” for consumers’ use when they shop for goods. GoodGuide has data on over 175,000 products and 5,000 manufacturing companies.
Since its launch, GoodGuide has been seeking to create an authoritative clearinghouse based on hard numbers rather than opinions (like the way many crowd-sourced product-rating sites do). GoodGuide is behind some municipalities’ privately branded green rankings and ratings; in particular, it is the engine behind the city of San Francisco’s www.SFApproved.org, which lists more than 1,000 products and services that meet the city’s stringent health and environmental standards.
UL Environment says GoodGuide was a good fit for its business.
“We are committed to helping the entire product value chain make healthy and green purchasing decisions,” says Sara Greenstein, president of UL Environment. “GoodGuide strengthens our ability to deliver on that commitment.”
The acquisition follows UL Environment’s May launch of a free, web-based tool designed to help manufacturers determine whether they meet prerequisite and core indicators within the UL 880 standard’s five assessment areas: governance, environment, customers and supply chain, workforce and community engagement and human rights. UL says the tool is another element of its Sustainability Quotient Program, a system of auditable standards created last year, to assess, rate and certify sustainability at the enterprise level.
In addition, UL Environment recently launched a “zero waste” manufacturing rating for companies that manage to divert most or all of their manufacturing waste away from landfills and into new life as recycled materials. The goal of the rating is to help consumers verify the increasingly popular claim made by manufacturers that they are “zero waste to landfill” companies.
All of these green establishments are helping UL become the “green sheriff in town,” as noted sustainability journalist Marc Gunther put it. The UL’s set of standards makes it the first and only organization that takes a wide snapshot of a company’s products and services as well as its manufacturing and management operations.
Not everyone likes having a new sheriff, however. Some companies object to the costs of UL certification. These costs vary depending on the product type and scope of the certification and evaluation but can tally up to thousands of dollars.
Smaller innovators complain that it is difficult for them to compete with larger, more established companies that can afford environmental certifications such as those offered by UL Environment. Other manufacturers complain that it is counterintuitive to pay for certification for a new product before it has had a chance to make money and offset the costs of certification. Yet it is a catch-22: Without the certification, a new product may not generate as-strong sales.
A quick read around the web reveals some sour grapes among innovators. Online comments have ranged from “Did you know that UL is a private business that has had the fortune to be made a U.S. standard? Good business if you can get it…” to “such certifications are so prohibitively expensive as to make anything but volume manufacturing totally cost-prohibitive.”
Other critics say the lines between the private UL and the government have blurred, with UL taking on tasks traditionally left to government agencies, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Further, companies say they now have to pursue certifications from UL Environment on top of other ones, such as the International Organization for Standardization’s ISO 14001, which establishes criteria for setting up an environmental management system for manufacturing but does not state requirements for environmental performance. What is needed, say some UL critics, is a new green certification process that is more cost effective and supports innovation. But is this possible given the type of testing that products must undergo before receiving certification?
The cost of UL Environment certification varies depending on the product type and scope of the evaluation. Once UL reviews a product’s information to determine the full scope of the investigation, it works with the manufacturer to determine the time frame for testing and certification. Costs are influenced by how quickly a company needs certification, the availability of product samples and the requisite manufacturing information, the amount of testing that needs to be done and the scheduling of visits by UL Environment personnel to a certification-seeker’s manufacturing facility.
As Gunther put it in his blog, devising standards and getting them recognized is a long and complex process that requires value judgments. Even if a company is UL certified, it must continue to manufacture to the standards to hold onto its certification and undergo periodic but mandatory factory spot checks. Depending on the product or service, UL may actually develop new standards and testing procedures — hardly an inexpensive process.
It is possible that, for many critics of green certification, the desire for a “lower-cost” certification process means a less-robust certification process that can be more easily greenwashed. For others, it may be simply financial limitations, especially for start-up manufacturers.
But if consumers have any hope of verifying and making sense of the plethora of green statements made by manufacturers, a unified certification system is vital.