Why to Think Twice About Green Labels

Getting your business or product “green certified” may seem like a smart way to show your customers and prospective customers that you adhere to environmentally friendly practices. But be careful. You could end up spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a green label that’s worthless or, worse, hurts your reputation.

More organizations and consulting firms are introducing green labels and certification programs. The idea is to make it easy for consumers to see which businesses follow eco-friendly practices or meet a rigorous set of sustainability standards. Such programs often appeal to small businesses that need help navigating the evolving world of sustainability and perhaps believe a label adds some credibility to their efforts.

Yet, some certification programs aren’t as valuable as others, nor as reputable. (Read about a green certification scam recently penalized by the Federal Trade Commission.) Some, such as  Green Seal, may require intense assessment of a business’s practices before providing certification. Others may require little or no assessment at all. They’re just a marketing gimmick: Fork over $200 in order to get a window cling or a website listing signifying you’re a green business. (I know a couple of websites, for instance, that ask businesses to fill out a short online questionnaire to self-certify themselves as green. The businesses then pay fees to get listed on the site, even though nobody actually verifies that the business does what it says.)

Think Twice About Green Labels

You want to make sure you’re dealing with a reputable certification program that will ultimately add value to your business, and not suggest you’re simply greenwashing your image. So what to do? Here are some tips when it comes to deciding whether a green certification program is right for you:

1.  Read up. Several online resources can help vet green certification programs or at least direct you to reputable ones.  Consumer Reports offers a helpful Eco-labels center where people can look up and read about environmental labeling programs.The U.S. Small Business Administration  also has a list of green labeling programs. Before signing up with any particular program, make sure to thoroughly research it online, such as checking with the Better Business Bureau.

2. Assess the program. Determine what kind of information and guidance you will get for going through the certification process. Are the steps ultra-simple, so you’re basically just paying for the recognition? Or does it require a set of environmentally meaningful standards that are verified by the certifier? Also determine whether it’s a valuable recognition to have: Will your customers and prospective customers actually know and care about the green label?

3. Weigh the alternatives. Plenty of businesses effectively market their greenness without ever getting a label from a third-party organization. They do so by creating a dialogue with their customers. They use social media and creative marketing to tell consumers about why their products or practices are environmentally sound. They write and follow sustainability plans and post them on their websites. It’s more authentic and more likely to pay off in the end.


Kelly Spors Kelly Spors is a former small-business and entrepreneurship reporter and blogger for The Wall Street Journal who has also written for Yahoo!, Entrepreneur, NFIB's MyBusiness magazine and The New York Times. Kelly is now a freelance editor and writer based in Minneapolis and has previously managed communications for an environmental non-profit that helps businesses find ways to be greener.

4 Reactions
  1. This is really solid advice. Rushing to acquire third-party certification seems unnecessary for most firms. I hadn’t thought about the scams out there – that is an excellent point. I also agree that the best course of action might be for a company to write out a statement about their green philosophy, incorporate that into their culture and communicate it directly to their customers, rather than to seek validation from a questionable source they’re unfamiliar with.

  2. This is excellent advice. There are many programs out there that are “cash-grabs” that may put your business at risk of being seen as “green-washing”. That said, tooting your own “green horn” can also put you at risk for green washing if not done appropriately.

    A credible and valid certification program can bring tremendous value. Organizations that have trained, professional auditors can provide solid advice to save businesses thousands of dollars in operating costs. True, you can do some of the marketing yourself, but for areas such as energy and water conservation, you may need a trained professional who can provide specific recommendations.

    An independent, credible third party certification can add value to your business and consumers do look for evidence that your business is truly green. In fact 79% of consumers are more likely to dine at a certified Green Restaurant than non. (http://nysra.org/displaycommon.cfm?an=1&subarticlenbr=249)

    Here’s more info on what to look for in an eco-certification: http://www.restaurantcentral.ca/Whattolookforinanecocertification.aspx

  3. Hi Kelly,it was definitely a good advice.I am a student of business course and it really helps me a lot.