sustainability | Jun 21, 2023 |
What to know about green product certifications

Ingredient labels are commonplace today—on cleaning supplies, beauty products and the packaged foods we buy. Finding out what your furniture is made of, on the other hand, can be a herculean task. A brand might be able to tell you where an item was manufactured, but tracking down the provenance of individual elements—from the foam filling to the coils to the upholstery—is another story. Each of those components are procured from an array of factories and suppliers, each with a supplier list of their own.

Amid so much uncertainty, third-party certifications cropped up to shed light on a product’s makeup. Depending on the organization, certifications like Greenguard, the Global Organic Textile Standard and Forest Stewardship Council either review specific product elements (FSC tracks the ethical standards of wood harvesting, for example, while GOTS assesses textile origins and production processes) or the finished product (Greenguard measures the emissions or off-gassing of volatile organic compounds).

What consumers won’t find is one universal standard for every facet of toxicity or sustainability. You might have a sofa with GOTS-certified upholstery that doesn’t have FSC-certified legs, for example. That may be because companies have to apply for individual certifications on each product, a process that can be both lengthy and costly. In some cases, smaller companies might not have the budget for certification despite having a healthy product. In other cases, brands may have prioritized one avenue to sustainability over another, leaving shoppers to discern which industry rating they care about more.

Part of the problem is that going “green” is, for now, an entirely subjective notion. One company’s practices might pertain more to big-picture sustainability goals, like planting a tree for every purchase or striving for zero-waste manufacturing, while another company might prioritize the nitty-gritty of eco-friendly product manufacturing, focusing on materials that are nontoxic and ethically sourced. It’s such a broad concept that most companies have to pick and choose where to invest their efforts.

For consumers and designers looking to source safer products, third-party certifications can seem like an easy solution. If a less toxic product is your goal, simply seeing a certification emblem like that of Greenguard or Made Safe can take tons of the guesswork out of the process. But the standards aren’t perfect. The Environmental Protection Agency has more than 83,000 chemicals in the Toxic Substances Control Act, but an organization like Made Safe only screens for 6,500 chemicals.

That dichotomy put the latter organization in the hot seat recently, with consumers bringing a class-action lawsuit against the Made Safe–certified Avocado mattress brand. Filed by California residents Akeem Pina and Richard Roberts, the federal lawsuit accuses the mattress company of fraud, negligent misrepresentation, unfair and unlawful trade practices, and false advertising, among other claims. At the root of the lawsuit is an unsettling accusation: Pina and Roberts say they sent a sample of the mattress to a University of Wisconsin–Madison rubber-formulation expert, and allege that an accredited lab testing revealed the presence of chemicals like Wingstay L—which may cause birth defects and reproductive harm—along with other substances associated with eye, skin and respiratory irritation.

The suit calls into question specific claims that Avocado has used in its marketing, like that their products are “naturally non-toxic” and made with “100 percent healthy ingredients.” The crux of the case will come down to whether the company knowingly misled customers. For its part, Avocado plans to contest the suit, standing by their product and their Made Safe label.

For brands, the suit, which is the first notable example of legal action against alleged greenwashing in the home sector, presents an interesting dilemma: Is it worth the extra effort to pursue third-party vetting, or does doing so invite more scrutiny from industrious consumers?

David Levine, the co-founder and president of the American Sustainable Business Network (of which Avocado is a member), thinks the benefits of certifications absolutely outweigh perceived cons. He notes that a company that’s truly prioritizing sustainability will face consumer concerns head-on. “Sustainability is a goal, it’s a pathway—and no one is doing it at 100 percent,” says Levine. “When an issue comes up, the question becomes what we choose to do with the knowledge. A good company will see it as an opportunity for innovation. That, to me, is what distinguishes a responsible, well-meaning company from those that are greenwashing.”

In the wake of the Avocado suit, it’s easy to see how discerning consumers and designers alike might begin to question the validity of third-party certifications, but experts maintain that these designations are still trustworthy. “Reputable third-party standards are still a consumer’s best line of defense,” says Jennifer Easton, the founder of Sway, a marketplace that curates vetted green home products. “That said, even with the most reputable ones, there are going to be weaknesses that are surfaced, often by consumer advocates who are actively looking for them. There’s this delicate dance where a lot of these standards are really well-intentioned, but they are likely not going to be perfect. Consumers calling out those flaws can push these standards to go even further.”

For now, a piece that lacks certifications shouldn’t be a deal-breaker—but it’s not a bad idea to ask about specific aspects of the product that could be important to you or your client. “You can ask your sales rep, ‘What’s in this cushion?’ If they don’t know and they’re unable to get those answers from the manufacturer, that might be a red flag,” says Alison Mears, the co-founder and director of the Healthy Materials Lab at Parsons School of Design. In general, if a product seems too good to be true, there’s a good chance it is. “An all-natural mattress is really a very difficult thing to achieve,” she says, referencing Avocado’s claims. “There’s a level of skepticism that we should have as consumers that we typically don’t. We assume there’s a reasonable level of safety that’s not actually always there.”

Homepage image: ©Kiattisak/Adobe Stock

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