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Green Certification Quick Guide, by Jordan Rubin

Over the last several years, many third-party organizations have emerged to certify various goods and services as “Green” or “Sustainable”. This rapid growth can leave one confused as to what is being certified, by whom, and how they are defining “Green” or “Sustainable”. These definitions are often subjective to the certifying organizations. Does this diminish the value of such certifications? Absolutely not! In fact, it increases the value of certifications because these organizations specialize in different markets and products. Therefore, they may have a better understanding of environmentally healthy processes relative to their markets. However, it also means that consumers must familiarize themselves with the various certifications to understand what they are purchasing or promoting in order to make intelligent decisions towards their home, community or company.

In that light, we will review some common certifications and what they mean to you, the consumer. Since there are several types of certifications – from cleaning supplies to coffee – this will be the first of an ongoing series of discussion. This segment will summarize certifications for energy efficiency, construction, and food/labor.

Energy Efficiency

Energy Star® is perhaps the best-known certification in the U.S. It is sanctioned by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for energy-efficient products including computers, refrigerators, light bulbs, and televisions. Manufacturers submit testing data to the EPA for a particular product, and there is no requirement to retest products unless a newer version is released. Certification is normally given if a product meets certain standards. The standards usually require the product to meet a certain percent more efficiency than an “ordinary” product in the same category. Energy Star is therefore a self-certifying certification, with its goal to assist consumers in finding products that are more energy efficient than standard goods. In addition, an Energy Star label for buildings exists. However, LEED™ certification has emerged as the de facto standard in construction, though LEED does reference Energy Star for buildings.

Green-e® may not have the brand recognition of Energy Star, but is a growing presence. Green-e involves a certification for supplying and using renewable energy such as solar, wind, and certain water-based power sources. Green-e is administered by the Center for Resource Solutions, and is now the leading independent certification and verification program of its kind. To be Green-e certified, a company must meet the Green-e National Standards for generating or purchasing power. The organization boasts that “Regardless of income, location, or property ownership, consumers across the U.S. can choose Green-e certified renewable energy to ”green” their home and/or business.” So, if you spot an organization sporting the Green-e seal, then you can be assured that they either provide or use renewable energy.


LEED® stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and has emerged as the de facto standard in eco-friendly construction. The US Green Building Council (USGBC) administers the certification, and builders throughout the U.S. are now proudly boasting LEED-certified buildings and building materials. The independent USGBC has over 10,000 members and 75 regional chapters promoting environmentally-friendly, profitable, and healthy places to live and work. LEED certification is based on a score card system. Projects reaching a certain level score are eligible for the certification. There are various levels, including Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum levels. The projects are scored on five key areas: Sustainable Site Development, Water Savings, Energy Efficiency, Materials Selection, and Indoor Environmental Quality.

Green Advantage® is related to LEED. While LEED focuses on the building and the materials, Green Advantage centers on the training of the contractors who construct the buildings. In fact, a project can gain LEED certification credits (on their scorecard) if over 30% of the general contractor’s personnel are Green Advantage certified. This certification requires the personnel to pass a test related to the ‘understanding of green construction’. Training is available which also allows the contractors to understand both the environmental and economic benefits of green construction.

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an international non-profit organization that has become a leader in setting the standards for responsible forest management, wood and wood derivatives. The practice of sustainable forest management ensures that the harvest of timber products maintains the forest's balance of biodiversity, productivity and ecological processes. The FSC certification also allows the consumer and/or end-user to follow the supply chain of their wood products to the very world-wide forests in which the wood was derived. There are several products that bear the FSC logo, which guarantees that the wood from a certified well-managed, sustainable forest. FSC-approved products are now available world-wide. Beyond just certifying wood used for building, flooring, and furniture, the FSC also certifies reclaimed wood and paper products. The LEED Certification program also drives the use of the FSC certification. Acknowledging that the U.S. is the largest market for paper products in the world, a company promoting their use of FSC certified paper and print materials communicates their commitment to corporate social responsibility.

Food and Labor

USDA Organic certification was created in response to the Organic Foods Production Act and the National Organic Program (NOP). The USDA Organic certification is intended to communicate to consumers that the ‘organic’ products they purchase are produced, processed, and ‘certified’ in compliance with national organic standards. The program labeling requirements apply to both raw/fresh products as well as processed foods (containing organic ingredients). All foods that are being promoted and represented, sold, or labeled as being ‘organic’ must be produced and processed in accordance with the NOP standards. Some USDA Organic labeling provisions include:

* Products must consist of at least 95% organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt)

* Food cannot be produced using excluded methods, sewage sludge, or ionizing radiation

* Products that are processed must contain at least 70% organic ingredients and can use the phrase "made with organic ingredients"

* Any product labeled as organic must identify each organically produced ingredient

It is important for consumers to note that currently there are no restrictions concerning the use of other truthful labeling claims such as "no drugs or growth hormones used," "free range," or "sustainably harvested."

Fair Trade™ Certification is the leading certification for many food items. TransFair USA is the only Fair Trade administrator in the U.S., and is a member of the international Fairtrade Labeling Organization International (FLO). Fair Trade is not to be confused with USDA Certified Organic foods, though most foods carrying the Fair Trade mark are also organic. Instead, Fair Trade certification is focused on meeting six criteria for sustainability: Fair Price (for farmers), Fair Labor Conditions, Direct Trade, Democratic & Transparent Organizations, Community Development, and Environmental Sustainability. Most Fair Trade foods are imports, and certifications are available for coffee, tea, flowers, fruit, sugar, rice, and vanilla. Additionally, some retailers who promote Fair Trade products may be eligible for Fair Trade Certification.


This segment gave a brief look at certifications for energy efficiency, construction, and food/labor. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, it does explain a few common certifications that you are likely to encounter. We will continue this series to educate consumers about the various Green and Sustainable certifications available. Our next article will focus on forestry, indoor air quality, and product life cycle. Until then, be aware of the various green certified products available to you so that you may have a better understanding of what they really mean and how they affect you, your family and the world.

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