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Sustainable Marketplace: Greener Products and Services

Introduction to Ecolabels and Standards for Greener Products

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What is an ecolabel?

Ecolabels are marks placed on product packaging or in e-catalogs that can help consumers and institutional purchasers quickly and easily identify those products that meet specific environmental performance criteria and are therefore deemed “environmentally preferable”. Ecolabels can be owned or managed by government agencies, nonprofit environmental advocacy organizations, or private sector entities.

Ecolabels can be single-attribute, meaning they focus on a single lifecycle stage (i.e. the use phase) of a product/service or a single environmental issue (i.e. VOC emissions). They can also be multi-attribute, meaning they focus on the entire lifecycle (manufacture, use, maintenance, disposal) of a product/service and address many different environmental issues (i.e. energy use, chemical use, recycling, and more).

What is an Environmental Performance Standard?

These are standards, often established by multi-stakeholder groups, that set specified levels of performance in order to claim that a product or service is “environmentally preferable”.

What is a Voluntary Consensus Standard?

OMB Circular A-119 defines voluntary consensus standards (VCS) as technical documents (e.g., test methods, specifications, and terminology) that are developed or adopted by VCS bodies using procedures that have safeguards to ensure that the standards development process is open to all interested parties, and that the input and viewpoints of a broad range of interested parties are taken into account and treated fairly.

EPA's work to develop standards and ecolabels

As part of its mission, EPA works with a variety of private sector standards developers to create voluntary consensus standards for environmentally preferable goods and services. The National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act (NTTAA) and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Circular A-119 direct the federal government to participate in the development and use of private sector standards, where those standards meet government needs.

EPA also develops standards, criteria documents and ecolabeling programs for products as part of its mission to protect human health and the environment. Examples of EPA ecolabeling programs include ENERGY STAR™WaterSense® and Safer Choice. They are noteworthy examples of Federal leadership in advancing energy efficiency, water efficiency and green chemistry, respectively, and reflect EPA's commitment to objective, fact-based decision-making, grounded in scientific reasoning and principles, and using the best available data.

FTC's Green Guides support better environmental marketing claims

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 building materials (such as furniture, carpet and paint). More are likely to arise as retailers, governments and other buyers seek to expand their green purchasing.

However, along with this changing marketplace has come increasing concern regarding "greenwashing" and uncertainty about which environmental claims related to standards and labels can be trusted. 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. However, these guides largely address when and how very specific and narrow environmental attributes can be claimed, not how to construct a broad-based environmental standard or ecolabeling program.

Read the FTC Green Guides.

EPA's Guidelines for Environmental Performance Standards and Ecolabels for Use in Federal Procurement

The Guidelines, developed through a stakeholder consensus process, provide a transparent, fair, and consistent approach to assessing private sector standards and ecolabels for recommendations to federal purchasers. The Guidelines encourage continuous improvement of both standards and ecolabels and the products and services that those standards and ecolabels address, while providing flexibility to accommodate the variety of approaches to and types of standards and ecolabels that exist in the marketplace today.

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