Green Certification and the Democratization of Sustainable Lifestyles

I Pity The Fool Who Doesn't Recycle

Environmental Ethics asks questions about how one ought to act, from which we derive social mores. Based on these, we develop rules, regulations, the social contracts that govern society. Moving to a green economy and a green society is essentially a project in the movement of societal values. There are a handful of tools that are typically used to move social values, some more effective than others. Mass coercion is generally frowned upon, and proven to ultimately be ineffective. So, we are left to the hearts and minds campaign. Meanwhile, we work to improve some of the legal, regulatory and business frameworks in ways that minimally impact people’s general happiness. The tools most often employed by NGO’s, grassroots groups for hearts and minds are typically some combination of education and/or incentives and good ol’ shame (which is just a negative incentive). We educate on the problem, offer a solution, incentivize the transition and shame those who don’t comply. (If you don’t recycle, you obviously hate nature!)

While the education and incentive approach does work, it’s a steep slope to climb. It took 50 years for this approach to halve smoking rates in Canada, and 30 years for impaired driving rates to drop by 65%. Issues without a clearly visible moral imperative like deaths from impaired driving face an even steeper slope. Despite Canada, the birthplace of the Blue Box, enjoying a 99% recycling program coverage rate, Canada still only achieves about a 27% diversion rate. While that’s rather underwhelming, it’s actually amongst the highest in the world. While changing social norms had a significant role to play in smoking and impaired driving trends, these behaviors also had very clear, quantifiable social costs. Consequentially, significant regulatory and legislative power was applied to incentivize behavior. The social costs have often not been convincingly communicated for environmental degradation until recently. Moreover, the ecological costs like wetland and biodiversity loss are not readily apparent to the individual. While education and incentive are ultimately the most effective because the behavior becomes part of our social moral fabric, social mores change on a scale of decades. Many of the ecological challenges we face simply cannot wait.

The other set of tools most often used are market tools. Environmental taxes or subsidies, pollution trading schemes like carbon or renewable energy credits, or green consumption through ecolabeling schemes work on the economic base, the structure upon which society subsists. Governments, NGO’s and other supranational organizations have realized that given how difficult shifting public opinion is, and how pressing many environmental stresses have become, that market instruments represent the best chance to move the needle quickly towards a sustainable society. However, most of these tools are out of the hands of the individual consumer and leave many disenfranchised in the transition to a greener economy. The way many large-scale schemes roll out like renewables or carbon taxes may leave the most marginalized communities out. Green products that are organic, efficient, ecologically superior and healthier, in general, are more expensive and harder to find and create an environmental social classism.

The largest intersection of market instruments and consumer power other than taxation and representation is green purchasing. Environmentally conscious purchasing, while growing, remains a niche area, with most consumers feeling sustainability is important, yet only 22% actually willing to pay more for a sustainable product.  Of those that do, 81% are influenced by an environmental certification mark or claim. However, despite typically being more efficient and providing other benefits in the long run, certified green products typically cost more. Moreover, with the ever-increasing plethora of marks, there is significant confusion leading to skepticism in the consumer space. Consequentially, there is comparatively little focus on green consumer products compared to what is happening in the commercial, institutional and industrial space.

Too Many EcoLabels

Today there are over 400 ecolabeling programs and tens of thousands of green marks. Many are completely meaningless, some are too vague. A small number adhere to verifiable standards, the strongest of which are rigorous international ISO 14000 standards. These programs, such as UL ECOLOGO, Green Seal and the EPA’s Designed For Environment mark are independently audited and verified against standards scientifically developed in consensus with industry, NGO’s, researchers and regulators. What these programs have in common is that a very small percentage of their work is in fact in the consumer space. This is a matter of scale – it is much easier to change the habits of a few large institutions like hospitals, universities, manufacturers and government purchasers than it is millions of individual consumers.

Stakeholders lobby large purchasers of materials to build into their purchasing specifications environmental performance criteria, arguing for the better health, environmental, efficiency and performance that make these products pay off in the long-run. An example is the Healthy Schools Campaign, an NGO that advocates for green cleaning in schools to reduce environmental impact and cut childhood asthma rates. The upshot of standards-based green procurement policies is that they trickle down to the consumer space. When a large purchaser like the State of New York requires certifications for vendors to sell to them, it pushes the industry to innovate. There have been incredible strides in the environmental performance of consumer products due to demand for environmental certifications that go entirely unnoticed by consumers. These include reductions in the effluent from pulp and paper manufacturing, diminished toxins in consumer cleaning and personal care products and reduced VOC’s in home building products.

The role of environmental certification in driving innovation is largely unrecognized outside of the industry, and while there may be valid criticisms, shortfalls are not unexpected in a quasi-regulatory industry in its infancy. Green Certifications remain a highly valuable tool in the effort to make society more sustainable, one that could be strengthened by broader public participation and better enforcement of already existing regulations. Green innovation leads to efficiency and lower prices in the long run, just as seen in the solar market, and these innovations will mean democratized, affordable products that have significantly lower ecological impacts for everyone.