By Arthur B. Weissman, Ph.D., President and CEO, Green Seal, Inc.
Almost like the Arctic ice breaking up, the public’s awareness of global warming and its responsibility for causing it has broken through dramatically in the past year. Soon people may realize that the products and services they purchase can affect the climate, their health, or the rest of the living world. At that point, the continuing effort to promote green products and services may indeed succeed in making the world more sustainable.
For several decades, a small group of quasi-governmental or private national organizations around the world has been quietly promoting a green economy by identifying green products and services. The tools they have employed typically include developing environmental leadership standards, certifying products and services that meet the standards, licensing use of a seal or logo to certified products and services, and working with institutional purchasers to green their procurement and operations. In the United States, Green Seal, Inc., has been active since 1989 as the national program (although it is a non-profit organization). There are now around three dozen such programs around the world, organized through the Global Ecolabeling Network.
Recent Developments and Directions
In the past few years there has been a veritable explosion of interest in certain institutional and industrial sectors in green products, services, and operations. Environmental standards that received little attention for years suddenly became adopted as the de facto product standards by government agencies and other large purchasers, causing industry to scramble to meet the standards. For example, Green Seal’s standard for institutional cleaning chemical products was adopted by Massachusetts for cleaning its facilities, then by other States and even US EPA, and last year New York State required all its elementary and secondary schools to be cleaned by products meeting the Green Seal standard or its Canadian equivalent.
Concomitantly, these large public and private institutions are increasingly looking at their entire operations, including their purchasing and facilities management, from an environmental and energy perspective. In these assessments, the institutions seek available environmental standards to ensure that the products and services they buy and their operational practices are environmentally responsible. We have had direct experience in evaluating purchasing and facilities management at the World Bank, University of Miami, and other institutions. They can collectively exert a significant pull on the market in a more sustainable direction.
Lately, this kind of greening of institutions and the supply chain through adoption of environmental standards and criteria has extended to large retailers. Initially certain retailers like Home Depot and Lowe’s adopted environmental standards and certification for particular commodities like wood, primarily under pressure from advocacy groups. Now, however, they are increasingly embracing green standards across a range of different categories. The world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, has committed to greening its product line by using environmental criteria or metrics assembled in a scorecard to evaluate each product along with traditional measures of price, performance, and availability.
The big question is whether the use of environmental standards and certification will successfully transition to the consumer world. Programs like Green Seal were originally intended for consumers, but it was too difficult in the 1990s to break into the consumer market. Nor is it clear even now whether consumers will truly pay attention to environmental and social considerations in their purchasing on a regular basis. If they did, consumers could collectively cause an enormous pull toward sustainability. Consider it like an anti-SUV movement – something like the current fad for hybrid cars magnified many times.
In the meantime, we continue to work primarily in the institutional realm to make products and services more healthful and environmentally responsible. The health angle on everyday products and services is extremely powerful, and could potentially reach to the consumer level. In the janitorial industry, for example, there is growing awareness of the effect of building materials and chemicals on human health, particularly with respect to respiratory systems. Cleaning chemicals themselves are now implicated in the asthma epidemic in schools nationwide, as some products still contain powerful respiratory irritants and asthmagens.
In fact, New York State is sponsoring an update and revision of Green Seal’s environmental standard for cleaning chemicals to ensure that it protects sensitive and vulnerable populations such as children. We will be working at the frontier of science and its applications to the marketplace in this revision project, because the science behind asthmagenicity and related effects is still uncertain. We are including nationally-recognized pediatric health experts and experts from such agencies as the Center for Disease Control. At the end, it is hoped that the revised standard will identify the current environmental leadership products in the market and also those that are specially formulated to protect the most sensitive and vulnerable populations.
Another highly significant area to which these tools could be applied is energy and climate change. The Federal government’s Energy Star program may be able to guide the consumer market for goods and appliances, and a likely cap-and-trade policy may take care of industrial output. In between, institutional buyers and facilities will need guidance on reducing their energy and carbon impact. For example, a current evaluation Green Seal is conducting for The Pentagon includes finding efficiencies in its lighting systems and heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems. Just this one enormous building can yield tremendous savings, but consider the result multiplied thousands of times. Directing institutions to energy-efficient, low-carbon-impact products, services, and systems could be the next frontier for our programs.
Green Seal and its sister programs have faced enormous hurdles over the years, especially from U.S.-based multinational companies that saw us as a threat to their marketing hegemony. While some countercurrents remain in industry, their blatant opposition from the 1990s is largely past, thanks to the greening movement in Europe and other forces. Still, promoting green products and services in the U.S. economy and getting environmental standards and certification incorporated on a larger scale are a challenge.
As much as industry, corporate America, and governments at all levels are beginning to embrace green practices – from green building construction and maintenance to green operations and green procurement – on the whole they continue not to consider the environmental effects of their actions. This is largely due to cultural norms and traditional practice, rather than conscious opposition. After all, we are all engaged in a kind of cultural revolution in trying to consider and incorporate the environmental aspects of our economic activities, after centuries of paying scant attention to them (externalities largely unchecked). Institutions tend to take time to change course and incorporate new paradigms, and that is what is happening now. For some of us the progress is excruciatingly slow, especially given the magnitude and severity of the world’s environmental problems, including loss of species and biodiversity, deforestation and other habitat loss, climate change, and pervasive toxic pollution.
The wild card may be the consumer market. It is a market where tens of millions of dollars are required to establish brand recognition; where sellers continue to emphasize appearance, price, and superficial performance above all other characteristics; where consumers say one thing and buy another (many more profess to buying green than actually do so); where service providers like hoteliers fear to do anything to compromise what they call guest satisfaction. Yet, if everything aligns correctly, the consumer market can much more quickly make changes for the better. In fact, let us declare for once and all that no green product should perform less well than comparable leading brands if the green products movement is to take hold. The reason the hybrid car is selling is not just that it is environmentally preferable but also that it saves on fuel and drives well. Nor can we expect consumers to pay more for green products out of altruism or abstract concerns. That might be the exciting result of large retailers promoting green products: they can control costs in the supply chain by creating the needed economies of scale.
If industry makes green products that perform as well and are price-competitive, is the battle won? Perhaps – if we know for sure which products are green. And that is where we come back to environmental standards, certification, and labeling programs. Independent, credible groups like Green Seal are striving to provide the technical and evaluative framework for the greening of the economy. The time is growing more ripe – and more urgent – for both consumers and institutions to embrace this framework.
Arthur B. Weissman, Ph.D. is President and CEO of Green Seal, Inc.