How do I know a fabric is “green”?

13 07 2011

copyright Scott Adams, Inc. / Dist. by USF, Inc.

It’s been almost two years since we talked about certifications (click here to read our earlier post), so I think it’s time for a refresher, because, as one pundit said, “our product is green” is joining “the check’s in the mail”  as one of the most frequent fibs in our modern times.  According to TerraChoice, there were 73% more  “green” products on the market in 2010 than in 2009 – and over 95% of those claims are false or misleading.[1]  Greenwashing – the deceptive use of green PR or green marketing in order to promote a misleading perception that a company’s policies or products (such as goods or services) are environmentally friendly – is the order of the day.  One corporation after another has jumped on the “green-your-corporation-for-a-better-public-image” bandwagon,  doing things such as starting partnerships with legitimate green groups, which is good, while continuing business as usual, which is bad.   Manipulating public perception is the name of the game.   This is so ubiquitous that Steven Colbert, for one, can’t resist:  he says that they now have a “Green Colbert Report”  –  they’re reducing their emissions by jumping on the bandwagon.

So why is this necessarily a bad thing?  Doesn’t really hurt anybody does it?

Actually, it does hurt us all.  As advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather puts it in a new report, greenwash is actually “an extremely serious matter…it is insidious, eroding consumer trust, contaminating the credibility of all sustainability-related marketing and hence inhibiting progress toward a sustainable economy.” In other words, it’s very hard for customers to know what choices make a difference when some marketers are muddying the waters for all. When buyers throw up their hands in confusion, we all lose.[2]  And it results in consumer and regulator complacency – if one corporation in a particular industry gets away with greenwashing, then other corporations will follow suit, leading to an industry-wide illusion of sustainability, rather than sustainability itself.

This year, Cone Inc.’s Trend Tracker found that nearly three-quarters of consumers (71%) will stop buying a product if they feel misled by environmental claims – and more than a third will go so far as to boycott a company’s products.[3]

With textiles specifically, we see environmental claims that are just as outrageous as the new “Natural Energy Snack on the Go” from Del Monte – individually wrapped bananas. [4]

Packaged bananas from Del Monte

The problem is that the issues involved in evaluating a claim are often complex, and they vary greatly by product.   In addition, there is a raging debate about what constitutes green practices – for example, recycled polyester is considered a “green” choice in textiles,  yet what yardstick is being used to make that claim?  We have done numerous blog posts on why any kind of synthetic has a much greater environmental impact  than any naturally raised fiber (click here to read the first of these posts).  If we compare synthetics to organically raised fibers, do we also include the benefits of supporting organic agriculture, or is that a benefit that gets lost in the equation?

Even though the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has established guidelines for environmental claims, these guidelines are not law, and are only enforceable if a complaint is lodged to the FTC and there is enough evidence to get a court order forcing the company to remove the claim.  But what if people simply don’t have enough knowledge to lodge a complaint?

I’ve spent years reading about the issues involved in textile production (one of the most complex supply systems in all manufacturing) but don’t feel capable of evaluating other products.   That’s where transparency on the part of manufacturers comes in:  Consumers have to understand that there are no green products – every product uses resources and creates waste.  And there are tradeoffs.  But beyond that understanding, third party certifications give us all certain measurable standards by which we can compare products, and are a useful tool.

But even certifications need some kind of knowledge base on the part of the consumer in order to be valuable.  (What’s being measured?  Who’s doing the measuring? Which environmental claims are relevant, and what are subterfuge?)

Certifications  (not to be confused with labels and standards) fall into three categories:  first, second and third party certifications:

  1. In first party certifications, a person or an organization says it meets certain claims; there is not usually an independent test to verify those claims.  These are usually a fairly simple claim, such as that the product will last for at least a year.  An example of this type of certification is that of  Kravet’s “Kravet Green” collection,  because Kravet itself is telling us that their fabrics are green.   There is no mention of any other certification bodies corroborating their statements.
  2.  In second party certification, an association or group provides the assurance that a product meets certain criteria.  This type of certification offers little assurance against conflicts of interest.   Under new FTC guidelines, companies that are members of the trade organization or group that certifies their product must disclose that relationship to the consumer.  An example of second party certification can be considered that of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute’s Encouraging Environmental Excellence (E3) program, which has developed a set of standards and which awards use of their logo if companies comply with these standards.
  3. Third party certifications are issued by independent testing companies based on impartial evaluation of a claim by expert unbiased sources with reference to a publicly available set of standards.  Third party certification is considered the highest level of assurance you can achieve.  A third party certification is represented by the Global Organic Textile Standard,  which has a public set of standards and which is administered by independent testing labs around the world.  In other words, you can’t pay these labs to misrepresent their findings, since their business is testing and certification only (such as Peterson Control Union or Oeko Tex).

Like green claims, there is also an abundance of seals and labels that assure environmental worthiness, experts say.

“About once a week, I have a client that will bring up a new certification I’ve never even heard of and I’m in this industry,” said Kevin Wilhelm, chief executive officer of Sustainable Business Consulting, a Washington-based company that helps businesses plan green marketing strategies. “It’s kind of a Wild West, anybody can claim themselves to be green.”

Mr. Wilhelm said the plethora of labels made it difficult for businesses and consumers to know which labels they should pay attention to. “There’s no way for the average consumer or even for a C.E.O. to know which ones to go for or what they should get,” he said. [5]

Okay, which certifications apply to textiles and what do they tell us?  Tune in next week.


[1] “The Sins of Greenwashing”, Terra Choice, October 26, 2010, http://blog.terrachoice.com/2010/11/08/the-2010-sins-of-greenwashing-study-is-here/

[2] Winston, Andrew, “Avoiding Greenwash and Its Dangers”, Harvard Business Review, April 15, 2010. http://blogs.hbr.org/winston/2010/04/avoiding-greenwash-and-its-dan.html

[4] According to James Harvey, Del Monte’s UK managing director, “Del Monte’s new CRT packaging is designed to provide significant carbon footprint savings by reducing the frequency of deliveries and the amount of waste going to landfill. The packaging is also recyclable.”

[5] Vega, Tanzina, “Agency Seeks to Tighten Rules for ‘Green’ Labeling”, New York Times, October 6, 2010.


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13 07 2011
eremophila

Just recently I noticed a new brand of herbal tea on the supermarket shelf. On the front label it stated it to be “organic” but when I carefully read all the fine print on the entire package, I found it saying it ‘ endeavours to avoid the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers’ . Now in my mind, that is not good enough! It either is organic or it isn’t!
Yes, I’m a cynical shopper.
Re the point on synthetic textiles, I get angry when I see reports of ‘green’ architecture, which in fact, uses a plethora of synthetically derived products which would render the building quite toxic. Just because they are recycled they think they deserve the title ‘green’ Not in my book!
Great article – thanks!

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