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Cutting Through the “Green” Gift Hype This Christmas

Consumers must wade through a sea of green promises.

Published: Friday, December 18, 2009 - 17:39

(Intertek: Houston) -- You’re shopping for a holiday gift, and you check the packaging to see if it’s eco friendly. How can you tell if the product really is green when it’s labeled “100% recycled,” “biodegradable,” or “environmentally friendly”?

The truth is, it can be hard to tell. As demand grows this season for gifts that are eco friendly, consumers are wondering if the “green” promises on packaging were written by the Grinch. Especially when it comes to toys, consumers want proof that products really are free of toxic and restricted materials and were produced in an environmentally conscious way.

In most instances, manufacturers do not intend to mislead customers about the environmental or green performance aspect of a product. A recyclability claim, for example, may be for a single attribute—such as recyclable packaging—but the product itself is not meeting recycling standards. Or the claim might simply be too vague or ambiguous. For manufacturers and retailers, the challenge is to define their green claim clearly and legitimize it with external verification. The Federal Trade Commission has published Green Guides for manufacturers to help prevent deceptive marketing.

Intertek recommends that buyers look for independently-issued certification marks or labels on a product that validate its green credentials. These marks or eco labels serve as a declaration of compliance by the manufacturer that their claim has been confirmed by third-party testing by an accredited laboratory. Buyers should also determine whether the eco label applies to the product, its packaging, or the process by which it was made.

Most Americans are familiar with labels such as ENERGY STAR and Recyclable, sponsored by federal agencies, or others like Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), sponsored by nonprofits. There also are certification marks that are industry led, or provided by accredited laboratories, such as Intertek. Trustworthy marks are those that are based on standards developed through an open, transparent process and consensus among a broad range of stakeholders. As the U.S. Consumer Union’s Consumer Reports describes it, the most reliable eco labels are based on verification by an independent organization.

The ENERGY STAR label, for example, does not imply the U.S. government has verified the manufacturer’s claims about the energy use of its products. Recently the program was criticized by the U.S. Department of Energy Inspector General for weak controls in product labeling and testing that can mislead consumers into thinking they were purchasing energy efficient appliances. Intertek is recommending ways in which third parties can contribute to strengthen the program.

Intertek also recently launched its Green Leaf Mark that will help reduce the need for multiple marks. Ruud Overbeek, head of Intertek Environmental and Health Services, explains that, “Rather than submit to multiple testing regimens and marks, Intertek can test and certify that a product conforms to multiple environmental regulations across its entire life cycle,” explains Ruud Overbeek, head of Intertek Environmental and Health Services.  

Children’s toys

For children’s toys, the goal is to verify that the product complies with restricted substance requirements defined by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). Any additional green claims made by the manufacturer that extend beyond the CPSIA restricted material requirements should also be verified. Testing should be conducted by a CPSIA accredited laboratory.

Intertek is a certification body—ANSI-accredited and Toy Industry Association-recognized—with CPSIA-accredited laboratories around the world. (For further details, see the Frequently Asked Questions of the CPSIA.)

TVs, laptops, and electronic devices

If you’re purchasing a desktop, laptop, or monitor this holiday season, you can check its environmental attributes against the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, or EPEAT, which rates its eco friendliness based on environmental performance criteria. EPEAT is an example of the consensus driven, collaborative standards setting process that has registered more than 1,000 products at Bronze, Silver, and Gold levels. View a list of participating companies. For further details, see the announcement by The Green Electronics Council.

While not available yet for TVs, retailers and manufacturers (such as Panasonic, Sony, Best Buy and Wal-Mart) are joining forces with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create a voluntary labeling system that will be modeled on EPEAT and expand beyond ENERGY STAR, which only covers energy efficiency. When implemented in 2010, this new rating system will identify how much mercury, lead and other chemicals are present.

Home appliances

If your shopping list includes a refrigerator, washing machine, or other home appliance, you can look for the ENERGY STAR label, which will tell you about its energy efficiency. In November 2009, the EPA announced new ENERGY STAR specifications for AV products such as Home-Theater-in-a-Box (HTIB), audio amplifiers, AV receivers, shelf systems, DVD players, Blu Ray players, and docking stations.


About The Author

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Intertek goes beyond testing, inspecting, and certifying products. Intertek provides a systemic approach to supporting its customers’ quality assurance efforts in each of the areas of their operations including R&D, raw materials sourcing, components suppliers, manufacturing, transportation, distribution and retail channels, and consumer management. Intetek’s network of more than 40,000 employees in 1,000 laboratories and offices in 100 countries provides quality and safety solutions to a wide range of industries.