CEO Corner

Anecdotes: The Battle Over Third-Party Seals

By Arthur Weissman, Ph.D, Green Seal President/CEO

Arthur-ColorNo one today would question the legitimacy of credible third-party environmental certification programs. This was not always the case, not so long ago.

When Green Seal and several European ecolabels were starting up two decades and more ago, some large U.S. consumer product companies became alarmed. They protested in many forums and used many arguments to discredit our programs. They said that setting national environmental standards for products was impossible and unscientific because environmental impacts of manufacturing and use vary geographically and are subjective to the purchaser.

They said that ecolabeling programs in developed countries put developing country producers at a disadvantage and constitute a barrier to trade. Overall, they deemed ecolabeling programs to be “fundamentally flawed.” These arguments were made in the World Trade Organization (WTO) with respect to trade, in the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in its development of standards for environmental labeling (ISO 14020 series), and in the Federal government with respect to green purchasing.

The companies organized about a dozen industry trade associations into a coalition to fight third-party ecolabeling, euphemistically named the Coalition for Truth in Environmental Marketing Information (CTEMI). Faced with this real threat, Green Seal, along with several NGOs that included the Sierra Club and National Wildlife Federation, formed the Consumers’ Choice Council (CCC) to counteract CTEMI and argue for the credibility of third-party certification programs, including sector-specific ones like the Forest Stewardship Council.

Over the next several years, a battle royal played out between CTEMI and CCC to more-or-less of a draw. The WTO investigated ecolabeling programs and in their reports made some cautionary statements about the potential for barriers to trade. In ISO, CCC and the Global Ecolabelling Network succeeded in pushing back the worst proposals by CTEMI for requirements in ISO 14020 and 14024, the general principles of environmental labeling and principles and procedures for Type I (ecolabeling) programs.

In the Federal government, however, CTEMI did some damage to the credibility of third-party ecolabeling. It lobbied mid-level Federal procurement and policy officials heavily, arguing that procurement is an “inherent government function” that cannot be delegated to a third party such as a certifier. (Never mind that the government delegates management of nuclear facilities to contractors.) Essentially, it scared the government officials from using seals or certifications, even threatening to sue them if they did. It took years for this intimidation to evaporate.

Of course, the real reason for big industry’s opposition to third-party ecolabeling had little to do with science or developing countries. Instead, it was about control of the market and the consumer. Big consumer product companies did not like a third party, particularly with environmental roots, getting between them and the consumer, potentially affecting their own credibility.

In ensuing years, third-party programs have established their legitimate role in the marketplace to provide objective and credible information about the environmental performance of products and services. Moreover, the recently revised Green Guides of the Federal Trade Commission make clear the government’s official view that third parties potentially have the most credibility with regard to environmental marketing claims. While companies and industry associations employing their own seals have to disclose the “material connection” behind them (that is, that they have a financial interest in the product, which could affect the credibility of their seals), third-party seals are not considered to be so compromised.
Indeed, third-party ecolabeling programs are here to stay, as smart companies know and use to best advantage today.