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Sustainability School

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Park and recreation managers who are unsure what “green” and “green certification” really mean should not be embarrassed. There appears to be much confusion among both consumers and businesses as to what the terms mean. These are the findings of a study conducted a couple of years back by the Shelton Group, specializing in researching environmental issues.*

The study sought to better understand what “mainstream” consumers, as they were referred to, know and care about green products, along with clarifying what the green claims suggest. The good news is that approximately 60 percent of the population, according to the study, has a broad desire for greener products.

However, as to understanding why a product is green, why another one isn’t, or what makes something green, “the average consumer knows only about enough to get through a cocktail-party conversation,” says Susanne Shelton, president of the research group. “They can nod their heads and say a few things [using the words] green and sustainable … but really do not know very much.”

The study also found that almost half of those questioned were unable to name a green feature in their own homes. The researchers found this surprising since many people now use, know of, or ask for products such as low-wattage lighting, paint and flooring products that are more environmentally friendly (or, taking that a step further, green-certified), and even solar panels. Further, the study revealed there were still widespread misperceptions about specific product claims, such as the terms “natural” and “organic.” Consumers do not appear to really know the difference between the two terms, and large numbers of lower-middle-class income earners indicated the term “organic” is nothing more than a fancy marketing term … one that allows companies to charge more for their products.

Gaining Some Green Perspective

According to Mike Sawchuk, vice president and general manager of Enviro-Solutions, that manufactures green cleaning products, the concept of healthier foods and environmentally safer products evolved in the 1960s and especially in the ecology movement of the early 1970s.

“However, the movement ebbed and flowed over the years,” says Sawchuk. In fact, while the 1970s featured a strong push, by the 1980s, outside of the food industry, only a limited number of products in the United States were marketed as “environmentally friendly,” one of the buzz words of the era.

Conversely, by the early 1990s, things had changed. The notion of manufacturing and marketing products as green became trendier, with more consumers—both at home and in business—indicating they would prefer a product that was more earth-friendly.  But many observers believe green became very popular at the start of the 21st century. A large majority of people were concerned about global warming, climate change, natural-resource depletion, and the impact some conventional products may have on health and the environment.

Around the same time, researchers began focusing more attention on building-related illnesses. The researchers found that when steps are taken to use products that have less impact on the environment—for instance, green cleaning products—they often result in improved indoor-air and environmental quality, which can have significant health benefits for building users. Soon, more manufacturers in all types of industries, from cleaning and building materials to carpets, fabrics, and upholstery, began manufacturing healthier, green products, and third-party product-certification programs evolved, largely in response to concerns about potential product toxicity and helping consumers identify green products.

The Certification Connection

Stephen Ashkin, president of The Ashkin Group, a leading advocate for the use of green and sustainable cleaning tools and products, says helping consumers identify which products are and are not green, based on widely accepted scientific standards, has become crucial to the entire green movement.

“Before certification—and even today—many manufacturers ‘self-certified’ their products, calling them green,” says Ashkin.  “In some cases, these green certifications were accurate, at least according to the best information and laboratory data of the time; in other cases, the certification was based on faulty data; and in still other cases, the term was simply used as a marketing tool with little or no evidence to back it up. The result was considerable confusion and consumer mistrust, which could have significantly slowed the entire green movement.”

So what does green certification really mean?

As defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and adopted by many certification organizations, certification indicates the following:

  • That a product or service has been evaluated using science-based environmental-leadership standards

  • That it performs as well as or better than other products in its class based on industry standards

  • That it has been independently certified without bias or conflict of interest.

The green-certification process helps both the manufacturer and the consumer, both Ashkin and Sawchuk agree. Once a product has been certified, the manufacturer is allowed to use the eco-label of the certification organization on its products and marketing materials. This shows the products are in fact green, and lets consumers and purchasers know these green-certified products are safer for human health and the environment.

Further clarifying green certification and putting it into practical terms for park and recreation managers, the National Institute of Building Sciences Whole Building Design Guide notes a green-certified product should do the following:

  • Promote enhanced indoor-air and environmental quality, typically achieved through the reduction or elimination of volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions**

  • Incorporate recycled content (post-consumer/post-industrial)

  • Be manufactured using renewable, sustainable resources

  • Not contain chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) or other ozone-depleting substances

  • For certain products, such as wood or bio-based products, employ what is termed “sustainable harvesting” (where new trees, for instance, are planted to replace trees cut down or forested)

  • Be recyclable

  • Be biodegradable.

The Future Of Green Certification

Just as green has evolved over the decades, green certification is evolving as well. More products and services are seeking certification, and in some cases, purchasers will require this before buying. This is already happening in many industries and businesses as well as with some government entities.

Because of this, Green Seal, EcoLogo, as well as some other certification bodies, have broadened the focus in recent years, according to Sawchuk. Today, many of these organizations work to promote not only a greener but also a more sustainable economy in which all forms of life and natural resources are protected, and social needs and values are honored. “Sustainability has many forms and aspects,” says Sawchuk. “But along with protecting health and the environment, green certification now means that a product is manufactured using fewer, if any, natural resources, and that the use of these resources does not deprive future generations from using them. This is what the 21st century is going to be all about.”

*The study was conducted for the American Home Furnishings Alliance (AHFA) and made public the first part of 2010. The AHFA commissioned the research to measure the importance of environmental attributes in home and, more specifically, home-furnishing purchases.

** As defined by the Environmental Protection Agency, VOCs are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids from a wide variety of chemicals and products, including paints and cleaning products. VOCs of varying levels can result in both short- and long-term adverse health effects.

Robert Kravitz is a frequent writer on building, cleaning, and environmental issues.  He may be reached at rkravitz@rcn.com .

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