Jump to main content or area navigation.

Contact Us

Greener Products

Retail Industry

What Makes a Product "Greener"?

A product may be considered "greener" if competent and reliable scientific evidence demonstrates it is less damaging to human health and the environment when compared with competing products or services that serve the same purpose. To the extent possible, all stages of the product "life cycle" should be considered in making this comparison and all types of human health and environmental impacts should be considered. For some product categories, certain impacts dominate the opportunity for environmental improvement. For these product categories, a greener product is one in which, at a minimum, those dominant impacts have been addressed.

A Life-Cycle Approach

Retailers working to provide greener products should consider the full array of human health and environmental impacts associated with their products and supply chain. Typical impacts include toxic exposures, air pollution, water pollution, climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, natural resource use (e.g., energy, water, materials), waste disposal, and ecosystem damages. These impacts can occur at any point in the life cycle of a product: from sourcing of raw materials, to manufacturing, packaging, transportation, distribution, retailing, product use, and end of life management (through reuse, repair, recycling, or safe disposal).

Different product categories have different human health or environmental "hotspots" of concern. For example, formulated products, such as those used in cleaning and personal care, have a high potential for direct human and environmental exposures; hence the toxicity of the formulated product is of paramount importance. Alternatively, water usage may be the primary concern for showerheads and toilets. In these cases, focusing on the hotspots of concern is a good starting point when developing a strategy for taking the entire life cycle into consideration.

Where possible, retailers should assess when their choices might result in burden shifting (resolving one environmental problem only to create others elsewhere). For example, selecting bio-based products reduces fossil fuel inputs, and the emission of greenhouse gases, but the growing and harvesting of biofeedstocks can pollute water sources and degrade soil quality. Applying a life-cycle approach and going beyond single issue concerns will provide insight into the upstream and downstream trade-offs associated with environmental pressures, human health and the use of resources.

Top of page

Making a Difference for Your Business, Human Health, and the Environment

Retailers can play an important role in ensuring that greener products meet their potential. By providing greener products, your business will be joining many American companies who are not only helping improve human health and the environment, but also gaining a crucial competitive edge as "greener consumption" increases worldwide. Product and packaging designers, as well as marketing and merchandizing experts can all play a role in creating a more sustainable supply chain. By optimizing product design, leveraging your buying power, and working with your supply chain, you can increase the availability of greener products in a wide range of product categories.

Benefits

Retailers that work with their product supplier partners to offer greener products experience a range of benefits:

  • New revenue opportunities by catering to new and growing consumer segments
  • Improved ability to meet environmental goals
  • Improved product safety and reliability risk
  • Cost reductions through increased energy and material efficiency
  • Improved worker safety and health
  • Increased options and sales of environmentally preferable products
  • Improved options for post-consumer recovery of product and packaging materials

Several roles within retail companies represent key opportunities to lead greener products innovation: Product and Packaging Design; Merchandising and Sourcing; and Marketing.

Top of page

Product and Packaging Design

The process of designing products and packaging provides an opportunity to make significant improvements to the human health and environmental impacts over the entire life cycle of a product. Design choices can impact raw material sourcing, manufacturing, packaging, transportation, distribution, retailing, use of the product, and available options for managing the product and packaging when they are no longer needed (reuse, repair, recycling, or safe disposal).

Product Design Considerations

Designers using a life-cycle approach to improve the environmental and human health impact of retail products may find the following considerations and resources helpful:

1) Identifying product hot spots

Designers can begin by identifying the human health or environmental "hotspots" of concern for their product category. Hotspot identification requires taking a complete look at all impacts for a product category, and determining the most significant areas of concern. Tools that evaluate all stages of a product's life and enable the estimation of the cumulative environmental impacts, such as life-cycle assessment (LCA) or input-output analysis (IO), can be used to determine a product's environmental hotspots.

In contrast, "hot button" issues are impacts that stakeholders perceive to be important issues, which may lack data to support those perceptions, or may be relatively unimportant compared to larger impact. These issues should be investigated to determine whether they are, in fact, areas of concern.

Resources: Multi-stakeholder initiatives allow companies to pool their resources to conduct pre-competitive research and prepare product (or product category) analyses. Such groups can be an excellent resource for selecting tools and identifying product hotspots.

2) Seeking out product improvement opportunities

Examine the implications of design choices to find opportunities for innovation and product differentiation, and look for ways to enhance the consumer's experience while reducing the product environmental impacts. Improving product performance (i.e. reducing impacts) in hotspot areas is just the starting point for designing greener products. While a product category may have one or two impact areas of highest concern, there are often many additional opportunities for environmental and human health improvement and cost reduction when the entire life cycle is considered.

There are numerous tools, programs and methods that specifically address sustainability in product design, ranging from product-specific design programs to commercial tools for sustainable product design that utilize life-cycle thinking approaches. Such design tools look for strategic areas throughout the life cycle of a product where design changes result in significant environmental improvements.

Resources: EPA cannot endorse specific design tools. However, many reputable product design software developers have created tools that focus on sustainability parameters such as material efficiency, energy efficiency, and alternative material and chemical selection. For example, EPA's Design for the Environment Program has worked with several industry sectors to conduct alternatives assessments for chemicals used in products.

3) Using Ecolabels and Standards as a tool for product design specifications, and marketing

In some cases, product standards or ecolabels can help a designer make informed choices for product improvement while also providing a structured way to communicate the improvements to consumers. Ecolabels are often affixed to products to indicate that the products meet certain standards. These standards can be developed by private entities, by public agencies under their authorities, or jointly by stakeholders and experts from the public and private sectors.

November 20, 2013, EPA announced it is seeking comments on its proposed Draft Guidelines for Product Environmental Performance Standards and Ecolabels for Voluntary Use in Federal Procurement to help federal purchasers select greener products and meet sustainability purchasing goals.

4) Utilizing and participating in pre-competitive multi-stakeholder initiatives

Significant product design improvements can be complex and challenging, requiring resources beyond the capacity of most individual organizations. Recognizing both the importance and the difficulty of improving product sustainability, multi-stakeholder initiatives have been established to increase the availability and quality of pre-competitive information to inform product design and production.

Top of page

Packaging Design Considerations

Although packaging often has a smaller environmental impact than the products they contain, the aggregate impact of packaging is still significant and should be addressed. Product (or packaging) manufacturers can reduce the environmental impacts of their packaging by:
  1. Evaluating the need for the package
  2. Designing a package so that a minimum amount of material fulfills the functional requirements. By reducing the quantity of raw materials used in the packaging, you can minimize its environmental and economic footprint.
  3. Increasing the recycled content of the packaging materials.
  4. Eliminating toxic constituents. Ensure that all the additives, adhesives, coatings, and inks that get added to the package are safe for human health and the environment.
  5. Using packaging materials that can be recycled or composted once they have served their original purpose. Design your package so all components can be easily taken apart and recovered.
  6. Supporting materials recovery and recycling. Educate your consumers on what they can do with your package once they no longer need it.

Resources: The Sustainable Packaging Coalition , supported by EPA, also provides information and guidance on improving the environmental impacts of packaging.

Top of page

Merchandising and Sourcing

Merchandisers play an important role in determining what products are available for American consumers. By leveraging your buying power, you will help stimulate market demand for greener products and services. In many cases, large volume purchases can bring down the cost of purchasing greener products. Product attribute considerations, ecolabel and environmental standard selection, price parity, and marketing can all be leveraged to increase the availability and quality of greener products on your shelves, as well as the sales volume of greener products.

1) Product Attribute Considerations

Some attributes of concern are general to all products, while others are more specific to a product category. Several multi-stakeholder initiatives have been established to improve the availability and quality of information that can be used to determine which attributes are important considerations within product categories. Use the questions below as a starting point for product specification considerations.

  1. Within the product category, what product attributes are of greatest concern?
  2. Are there credible ecolabels or standards that address those attributes of concern? (see below)
  3. Can you find products with significantly improved environmental and human health performance with regards to those attributes (without creating a negative trade-off)?
  4. Can you work with product designers to improve the product further?

2) Selecting Product Eco Labels and Standards

Evaluating products comprehensively from a life-cycle perspective is a difficult task. Using credible ecolabels and standards can serve as a shortcut for the process of product selection, although not all ecolabels address the most important product attributes. Ecolabels are affixed to products by manufacturers to indicate to customers that the products meet certain environmental and human health standards. These standards can be developed by private entities, by public agencies under their authorities, or jointly by stakeholders and experts from the public and private sectors. See Introduction to Ecolabels and Standards for a description of the standard development process.

The number of standards for green products has increased in recent years due to growth in market demand for "green" products. Recent examples include standards for electronics and products used in buildings (such as furniture, carpet, and flooring). See Related Links for examples of federal and non-federal ecolabeling programs. More standards are likely to arise as retailers, governments, and other buyers seek to expand their green purchasing.

November 20, 2013, EPA announced it is seeking comments on its proposed Draft Guidelines for Product Environmental Performance Standards and Ecolabels for Voluntary Use in Federal Procurement to help federal purchasers select greener products and meet sustainability purchasing goals.

Additionally, EPA has created a set of standards and labels to identify products that comply with environmental performance criteria. Scroll through the icons below to link to specific EPA programs and labels.

Eco-Labels and Standards

Introduction to Eco-Labels and Standards

  • Energy Star EPEAT
  • U.S. EPA Design for the Environment WaterSense
  • SmartWay Environmentally Preferable Purchasing
  • Green Power Partnership Comprehensive Procurement Guideline
  • Federal Electronics Challenge Responsible Appliance Disposal Program
  • Pesticide Environmental Stewardship Program Pesticides Storage and Disposal
  • Pesticides Product Labels GreenScapes
  • Green Chill Automobile and Product Stewardship

Scroll through these EPA programs and several standards that EPA helped develop and manage. Click on the logos for more information, and links to greener products and product comparisons.

Resources: In addition to federal efforts to provide procurement guidance for selecting ecolabels and standards, there are several multi-stakeholder initiatives working to help businesses and consumers identify credibly greener products. In addition, more and more local, state, and federal government agencies as well as universities and businesses are establishing policies and purchasing practices for greener products. A variety of links to greener purchasing resources are available in the Related Links and Institutional Purchaser's pages of this website.

Top of page

Marketing

Marketers play an important role in helping consumers identify products that meet their expectations for high quality and improved environmental and human health performance. Their insights into consumer behavior and decision making mean that they can tailor product placement and messaging so that customers are aware of greener products and the value they offer. Price parity can also increase the sales of greener products. Several studies have shown that a significant majority of consumers will buy greener products if they demonstrate both price and performance parity with conventional products.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has created its Green Guides to help ensure that marketing claims regarding the environmental attributes of products are truthful and substantiated. The Green Guides apply to all forms of product and service marketing to the public, including advertisements, labels, package inserts, promotional materials, and electronic media. These guides largely address when and how very specific and narrow environmental attributes can be claimed. Note that the "Green Guides" are in the process of being revised and updated.

Compliance

Greener products provide an opportunity for retailers to reduce environmental and human health impacts. As retailers focus their attention on designing, sourcing, and marketing greener products, it is important that they continue to meet environmental compliance requirements. See the EPA Retail Industry Portal for compliance information related to products and retailer activities.

Other EPA Resources for Retailers

In addition to stocking your shelves with greener products (the focus of this page), there are numerous other ways for retailers to green their operations. EPA's Retail Industry Portal provides access to the many programs and resources available to help prevent and resolve environmental issues at retail establishments. The Retail Industry Portal provides information to help you meet your regulatory obligations and to voluntarily go beyond regulatory obligations. The site covers topics relevant to Merchandising: Products/Packaging, New Buildings and Infrastructure, Facilities Management, Transportation Logistics/Supply Chain and Customer Programs/Services.

Meeting Government Procurement Requirements

Vendors wanting to sell to local and federal governments can find additional product compliance-related information at EPA's Environmentally Preferable Purchasing (EPP) Program, Federal Energy Management Program, Sustainable Acquisition Tool, the Green Products Compilation tool, and California's VOC laws for consumer products. A good resource to start with is Selling Environmental Products to the Federal Government. Although originally targeted at small businesses, much of the information in the brochure is broadly applicable to anyone who wants to do business with the Federal government. For government purchasers, vendors are a key source of information on products and services. You can encourage government agencies to find environmentally preferable products by referencing Executive Order 13514 (PDF)(15 pp, 88K) and the Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Final Guidance. In addition, you can provide them with information about the environmental aspects of your product or service.

Resources: The Related Links section of this website includes a wide range of other greener product resources, including many not developed by EPA.

Top of page

Jump to main content.