Let’s be clear

Posted on 18 Oct 2010 by The Manufacturer

Transparency is needed. Ramon Arratia, sustainability director, EMEAI, at commercial flooring company InterfaceFLOR investigates why ‘greenwashing’ is hampering real progress with sustainability.

The rise in ‘greenwash’, the practice of making misleading or unsubstantiated claims about the environmental benefits of a product, service or company is damaging to both the environment and to industry. There are numerous organisations that are demonstrating genuine progress towards sustainability; however, according to Consumer Focus, two thirds of people are unsure about how to distinguish between true and inaccurate claims. Many people also think that companies pretend to be green as an excuse to hike up their prices. So how can manufacturers truly demonstrate that they are part of the solution to climate change, not part of the problem?

The mask of green labels

The issue of greenwash is intensified by the number of varying green labels and self-declared claims that organisations can adopt. Labels are popular with manufacturers as they are an effective and accepted way to demonstrate sustainability, while for consumers they provide quick assurance on product sustainability credentials. However, there are too many labels to choose from, and many of them focus on a single issue, such as ‘carbon’ or ‘recyclability’, rather than assessing the full sustainability of a product.

Also, the methods of obtaining these labels are often unreliable. The schemes generally aim to attract wide participation from manufacturers and therefore set a low bar for qualification. Instead of differentiating between great and average products, most labels tend to lump them together in one category: mediocre. Many labels, especially national ones, also duplicate each other, confusing customers and forcing manufacturers to certify the same product several times.

Studies suggest that most people want claims to be backed by third party endorsements from recognised organisations such as Fairtrade or by an independent study. However, several labels lack independent validation, with some manufacturers opting to administer a label themselves. Unfortunately, some of the best marketed labels are often the least robust.

When choosing which label to use for your product, it is important to understand who is behind it, how it is validated, what aspects it covers and whether it conforms to ISO 14020, the international standard for environmental labels. A third party label will add credibility to any environmental claims you make; it will also have been produced by an independent entity that is responding to a public issue and so will focus on more detailed, technical aspects of environmental impacts.

A call for product transparency

In order to make true progress towards sustainable manufacturing and wipe out greenwash, we believe that any ‘labelling’ scheme must use transparent criteria and be based on scientific facts. Indeed, this seems to be the way things are going, with some industries already disclosing the full environmental impacts of their products. For example, it is now mandatory for manufacturers in the motor industry to display grams of CO2 emissions per kilometre in car advertisements. Furthermore, a web site set up by the EU now publishes power consumption data for all electronic equipment sold in Europe.

Companies and regulators are now recognising that the biggest environmental impacts occur during the various stages of a product’s life cycle, which are outside of the manufacturer’s control. Therefore, basing a judgement solely on manufacturing impacts can be misleading. By using a life cycle assessment (LCA) you can identify all the significant environmental impacts associated with the product, including water, air and land, throughout its manufacture, use and disposal.

Conducting an LCA is a hugely valuable exercise. It can show a manufacturer exactly which areas of production need the most attention in order to reduce environmental impacts. For example, for physical products such as a carpet tile, the main impacts tend to occur in the extraction and processing of raw materials. However, for machines that consume energy such as a car or a washing machine, the major impacts usually occur when the product is in use. The best product is unlikely to be one that makes claims such as ‘100% natural’ or indeed one that is made by a company claiming to be ‘100% carbon neutral’. Instead, it is likely to be one that is carefully sourced, manufactured and shipped to minimise its environmental footprint at all stages of its life.

A recognised method that supports transparency is the Environmental Product Declaration (EPD). To achieve an EPD, manufacturers must be committed to full disclosure of what might be considered confidential information such as the product ‘ingredients’, manufacturing locations and location of the raw materials. They must also perform a comprehensive LCA.

Rather than just being a green claim or promise, an EPD requires information on products to be shared in a standardised format, comply with certain rules, certified to a public standard and validated by a credible third party. An EPD does not judge or rate products, it simply provides the information on its environmental impacts, similar to nutritional label for food.

Just the facts

It is encouraging that manufacturers are out to prove the environmental performance of their products, however there needs to be more clarity and standardisation on metrics, based on sound evidence and transparent benchmarking. Different approaches and varying methodologies for validation will only continue to hinder sustainable development and confuse purchasers. The EPD is certainly a step in the right direction and the supply chain must respond with consistent and reliable data. What is clear, however, is that manufacturers need to focus on the facts, and only the facts, to make sustainable progress.

Please note that InterfaceFLOR’s Senior VP Product and Innovation, Nigel Stansfield will be speaking at the forthcoming Manufacturer Directors’ Conference on the subject of sustainable innovation in manufacturing