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Eco-Friendly Product Certification:  It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it

by Meghan


I’m one of those people who desperately wanders up and down the supermarket in search of products marked with green certification stickers. You know, the ones that ensure you're not contributing to the ozone’s depletion while cleaning your windows or deodorizing your carpets. These stickers originate from the many non-profit organizations that promote environmentally friendly products and services and, in turn, help eco-minded shoppers like myself buy merchandise that reflect their ideals.

Green Seal is one of these non-profits. Its founder, Denis Hayes, has strived to preserve Mother Nature for most of his life. He coordinated the first Earth Day in 1970 when he was just 25 years old, and he worked as the director of the Solar Energy Research Institute from 1979 to 1981. Now he collaborates with Green Seal to reward products that minimize pollution, waste, and ozone depletion by stamping them with the Green Seal of Approval, a little blue circle with a green check mark through it. From coated printing paper to re-refined engine oil, the seal is linked to various goods, cleaning services, and even lodging properties in numerous states throughout the U.S.

But it’s not easy for a product to obtain the precious sticker. It’s awarded upon passing a three-month inspection, beginning when Green Seal receives a company’s application for endorsement. Since Hayes founded Green Seal in 1989, its team has developed standards for more than forty product categories, including windows and doors, food-service packaging, and hand cleaners, among many others.

After the application process is complete, Green Seal compares the submitted products against the standards in their categories. Paper used for printing and writing, for example, is scored based on: whether it’s composed of a high percentage of post-consumer material and tree-free content; whether it is Totally Chlorine-Free (TCF); and whether the weight of toxins in its packaging exceeds 100 parts per million. (This is just the tip of the iceberg, minus the technicalities. Download the complete list of guidelines for printing and writing paper here.

If Green Seal receives an application for a product or category it has never reviewed, it creates a fresh list of standards and sends it to manufacturers, environmental groups, universities, and other stakeholders in the general public for consideration. If anyone has a problem, the standards are open to formal appeal. After three months, if the product is certified, it is awarded the Green Seal of Approval and the company must agree to annual reviews to ensure continued compliance with Green Seal’s standards.

Kudos to Office Depot and Miller Paint Co., whose paper and acrylic paint uphold the environmental guidelines in their categories; for paint, these include abrasion resistance, opacity, stain removal, and chemical component limitations, among others.

But while Green Seal has proven these individual products are safe for our planet to digest, what’s to say about the companies in general? In some cases, not much. For example, Office Depot operates in 43 countries worldwide and has 1,200 superstores scattered throughout North America, covering thousands of acres of land where trees would normally live. And because of its constant advertisements and promotions, people commute by car to its branches when they might otherwise walk down the street to local suppliers. So does its eco-friendly paper offset its footprint? If buying a certified product means driving an extra half hour to the store, is it worth the toll? What about supporting a different megastore with high-energy emissions, just to take home a couple rolls of seventh-generation toilet paper? Mull over that while laying awake tonight.

Green Seal and other non-profits such as Greenguard Environmental Institute, along with government-backed agencies such as Energy Star, will keep working to salvage our fragile planet (or at least slow its complete deterioration) by certifying green products, whether or not they belong to superstores or local Mom-and-Pop’s’. They’re doing the hard part. Now consumers must decide how they want to help. There’s a lot to consider.

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