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Sustainability Certifications to Look For

Why are sustainability certifications important?

Sustainability certifications are the best and most reliable way for us to see through greenwashing. Greenwashing often includes jargon such as ‘sustainable’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘clean’, or ‘natural,’ which can be meaningless and downright misleading. A sustainable business certification is awarded by an independent, third-party who verifies that a company lives up to specific, rigid standards regarding issues like sourcing, production, and/or labor. This system is by no means perfect, but it’s one of the best resources we as consumers have.

One of the biggest barriers to these certifications is cost. Smaller operations, such as farmers in poorer countries, may not be able to afford the eco certification process despite adhering to sustainable practices. This is why it is still important to research the companies you buy from as best as you can.

There are hundreds of ecolabels out there. The Ecolabel Index has them verified and listed all in one place. Listed below are the top sustainability certifications you will most commonly encounter.

Ethical and sustainable business practices

The following business sustainability certifications are a great all-around marker of how a business operates. They identify companies striving for sustainability across the board. They cover important issues concerning social sustainability, attesting that a company demonstrates ethical treatment, working conditions, and compensation for employees. Environmental business practices such as ethical supply chains, use of chemicals, and minimizing carbon emissons are also addressed.

Certified B Corp

This certification may be the best comprehensive business sustainability certification. It is a “designation that a business is meeting high standards of verified performance, accountability, and transparency on factors from employee benefits and charitable giving to supply chain practices and input materials.”

Fair Trade

This certification promises that a labeled item meets rigorous standards that protects both the livelihoods of those involved in its production as well as the environment.

Fair for Life

The Fair for Life certification values respect of human rights and fair working conditions; respect of the ecosystem and promotion of biodiversity, sustainable agriculture practices, and respect and betterment of local impact.

1% For the Planet

This non-profit was co-founded by the founder of Patagonia. It certifies that a company donates 1% of their profits to environmental solutions.

Climate Neutral

This non-profit measures emissions and assesses the carbon impacts of a company’s products and services. They work with the company to create and enact a plan to become carbon neutral.

Cradle to Cradle

This non-profit’s five main areas of focus include material health, product circularity, social fairness, water & soil stewardship, and clean air & climate protection. Within their certification are ascending levels–bronze, silver, gold, and platinum–indicating how well a brand performs in each of their focus categories.

Green Seal

Nonprofit that pioneered ecolabeling. Its certification symbolizes that a product meets its rigorous standards for health, sustainability and product performance.

Climate Pledge Friendly

Amazon has partnered with many of the certifications on this page, and the certified products display this badge. Amazon has search filters for these items.

UL ECOLOGO

This third-party organization certifies products have reduced environmental impact. Their standards include materials, energy, manufacturing and operations, health and environment, product performance and use, and product stewardship and innovation.

bluesign

This certification is earned when a company works with this third party organization to decrease overall water, energy, and chemical use in factories and meet their standards for pollution control; they must also eliminate hazardous chemicals and implement safety practices, protecting workers and consumers.

Social Accountability International (SAI)

SAI certification verifies a business conducts operations in a way that is fair and decent for workers and to demonstrate their adherence to the highest social standards.

Responsible sourcing & production

There are many certifications to help you identify products that were made with sustainably and ethically sourced materials. These also verify that that content is as claimed, such as organic or non-GMO.

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)

This is the most creditable independent certifier of
responsibly managed forests. Their certification ensures that products come from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social and economic benefits.
‘100%’ means the product is made from all virgin material; ‘Mix’ products are a mixture of FSC virgin fiber and recycled materials. ‘Recycled’ indicates products are made from 100% recycled fiber.

Sustainable Forestry Initiative

This is an alternative certification option to the FSC. The NRDC isn’t a fan, however, calling it “a far weaker system that misleads consumers into thinking their products are sustainably sourced.” The Sierra Club also believes the FSC certification to be superior.

Recycled Paperboard Alliance

A non-profit trade alliance that works with recycled paperboard manufacturers to analyze the benefits and promote the use of 100% recycled paperboard.

Rainforest Alliance

Non-profit whose mission is to protect the world’s tropical rainforests. Their certification means a product or ingredient was produced using methods that support the three pillars of sustainability: social, economic, and environmental.

USDA Biobased

A label that verifies the product is third-party tested and contains verified biobased content. Biobased products are derived from plants and other renewable materials. These products provide an alternative to conventional petroleum derived products.

USDA Organic

USDA Organic. Produced using agricultural production practices that foster resource cycling, promote ecological balance, maintain and improve soil and water quality, minimize the use of synthetic materials, and conserve biodiversity.

NSF

Products contain at least 70% certified-organic ingredients which are derived from a botanical source.

Non-GMO Project

Ensures products and ingredients are free from GMO engineering or contamination.

Certified Recycled Content

SCS Global’s Recycled Content Verification label verifies products are made from pre-consumer or post-consumer material diverted from the waste stream. Certification measures the percentage of recycled content.

Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS)

GOTS evaluates the processing and manufacturing of textiles on the basis of both environmental and social criteria. There are 2 GOTS label grades: ‘organic’ requiring a minimum of 95% organic fibers and ‘made with organic materials’ requiring at least 70% organic fibers.

Global Organic Latex Standard
(GOLS)

GOLS is the standard for products made out of organically grown natural rubber latex. All the raw materials in the product (other than approved additional materials/accessories) comply with the requirements on organic origin.

Better Cotton Initiative

Formed by the World Wildlife fund with the support of other organizations, this non-profit is the world’s largest organization dedicated to the sustainability of cotton. Their mission statement is “to help cotton communities survive and thrive, while protecting and restoring the environment.”

rspo logo

RSPO Certified

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a global partnership that workes with  stakeholders from across the palm oil supply chain to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil. They also focus on ending exploitation of workers.

Clean certifications

When searching for non-toxic products, clean certifications are the ones to look for. These verify that a product lacks specific chemicals harmful to both human health and the environment.

Made Safe

Products, primarily personal care and textiles, made without harmful and polluting chemicals.

Environmental Working Group

The EWG is a non-profit whose mission is “to empower you with breakthrough research to make informed choices and live a healthy life in a healthy environment.” They rate cleaning and personal care products.

UL Greenguard

This certification is an important one that verifies a product meets compliance with chemical emission standards for decrease indoor air pollution from harmful VOCs. Watch for this label on furniture, cleaning products, electronics, flooring, and other building materials.

OEKO-TEX 100

Certified products have been tested for harmful substances and deemed harmless for human health. The OEKO-TEX Made In Green certification goes beyond the standard; these products have been manufactured in environmentally friendly facilities under safe and socially responsible working conditions.

CertiPUR-US

A non-profit organization that certifies foam in bedding or upholstered furniture that meets its standards for emissions, content, performance, and durability.

EPA Safer Choice

This program “helps consumers, businesses, and purchasers find products that perform and contain ingredients that are safer for human health and the environment” and “includes practices that reduce, eliminate, or prevent pollution at its source, such as using safer ingredients in products.” Primarily found on cleaning products.

Animal welfare certifications

Cruelty-free certifications are earned by a company adhering to animal welfare standards. They address issues such as suitable living conditions, ethical treatment, exclusion of cruel practices such as mulesing, lack of animal testing, and in the case of Certified Vegan, that no animal byproducts are included among a product’s ingredients.

Responsible Down Standard

The RDS certifies that feathers and down come from geese and ducks that are raised on certified farms in compliance with the principles and criteria of animal welfare.

Responsible Wool Standard

RWS farmers and ranchers must meet animal welfare, land management, and social requirements.

Leather Working Group

LWG is a non-profit organization that drives best practices and positive social and environmental change for responsible leather production.

Leaping Bunny

Standardizes cruelty-free claims. Companies do not conduct animal testing or use/purchase ingredients from companies that do.

Certified Vegan

Products do not contain animal products or byproducts, and have not been tested on animals.

PETA approved logo

PETA Cruelty-Free

Company is cruelty-free and does not test on animals. Database available that lists all companies with this approval.

Energy-efficient electronics & appliance certifications

Conserving of energy and water are the focuses of electronic and applicance certifications.

EPEAT

EPEAT was formed by a grant from the EPA and is managed by the Global Electronics Council. Registered products must meet environmental performance criteria that address: materials selection, greenhouse gas emissions reduction, design for circularity and product longevity, energy conservation, end-of-life management and corporate performance.

Energy Star

In 2020, the use of Energy Star appliances saved 520 billion kilowatt-hours, $42 billion in energy costs, and reduced emissions by 400 million metric tons. Energy efficient appliance use can save a household around $450 in energy costs per year.

WaterSense

WaterSense is a program created by the EPA to certify water-efficient plumbing devices like faucets, showerheads and sprinklers. These products can save hundreds of gallons of water each year.

Product end of life certifications

These certifications verify that products are indeed compostable or recyclable according to company claims.

BPI Compostable

Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) certification verifies that a product meets the rigorous compostability standards set by the ASTM. Note this nearly always is meant for commercial composting and only residential if specifically noted.

TUV Austria

The OK Compost Home certification guarantees complete biodegradability in home compost piles.

Corrugated Recycles

The Corrugated Recycles label denotes that a package can and should be recycled. Materials that have been coated or otherwise treated with substances (like wax) are not recyclable.

Final thoughts on sustainability certifications

As previously stated, there are hundreds of eco-certifications, but these are the ones I come across most frequently and that I feel are among the most reputable. These third-party systems aren’t perfect, but I feel that the presence of these sustainability certifications is one of the best tools we have to justify company claims and see through greenwashing.

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