I don’t normally buy organic foods because it is more expensive, but a recent experience made me think; What does it mean when a product is “certified”? Is it really better?
The other day I went to a store where the footprint is small, choices are limited and prices are CHEAP! I go there when I’m in a hurry, don’t want to make a lot of choices and need a few basic things. Apple cider vinegar and honey were on the list. They had one brand of each. The honey was what I expected–cheap and not local. Surprisingly the vinegar was USDA Certified Organic. Sure it was more expensive, but I didn’t want to shop around for vinegar. At home I found that it was better than the cheaper vinegar I had been buying. I would have never bought Certified Organic vinegar (it’s just vinegar, after all), but when it was the only choice, I found it was worth the few extra dollars. And according to the USDA, I could “be assured that USDA organic products are verified organic at all steps between the farm and the store.” This assurance will be strengthened in 2024 with a requirement that more businesses in the supply chain have organic certification.
What Does It Mean When a Product is “Certified”?
I talked to Dr. James Hagan, PhD and PE at the University of Pennsylvania to get the rundown on certifications. Certifications are voluntary guidelines that are used by producers, manufacturers, traders, retailers, and service providers to demonstrate their commitment to good environmental, social, ethical, and food safety practices. There are over 400 such standards across the world. You can usually find a certification’s symbol on the label.
We see product information on labels all the time: ingredients and nutritional information on food, and cleaning instructions on clothes. Unfortunately labels also carry a lot of marketing gimmicks. Those gimmicks can lead to greenwashing; presenting an environmentally responsible public image with no backup on claims. This is when third party certifications are useful. Third party certifications show the product is meeting verifiable standards set by an independent organization. A certification symbol on a label can identify a product as sustainable without making consumers feel overloaded with information which can deter them from buying the product.
“ The idea [of certifications] is to give [consumers] some guidance that allows them to make informed decisions.” Dr. James Hagan, The University of Pennsylvania
The Energy Star certification on appliances may be one of the most familiar. The EPA sets the levels of energy efficiency that products must have to earn the Energy Star label. Consumers can then compare products according to energy usage, helping them save money in energy costs and reduce their energy use. According to Hagan, Energy Star has become so widespread it has become almost a requirement for electronics and appliances.
“..It [Energy Star] becomes almost a threshold to entry into the marketplace…it essentially allows consumers to make an evaluation based on the energy requirements for a particular unit so they can compare apples to apples [for] electronics or refrigerators or stoves.” Dr. James Hagan, The University of Pennsylvania
Why Should Companies Certify Their Products?
People are looking for environmentally friendly products and are willing to pay for them. MindsetEco led us to a study from Greenprint that found
“nearly two-thirds (64%) of Americans are willing to pay more for sustainable products but most (74%) don’t know how to identify them. According to the findings, 78% of people are more likely to purchase a product that is clearly labeled as environmentally friendly.”
Certifications can help companies show the environmental merits of their products and help consumers identify them without coming off as greenwashing.
Softly is presenting a webinar series to help small businesses find the best certification for their brand. In the series CEO Mollie Hughes talks to representatives from certification organizations about their certification standards and, more importantly, the process and cost of getting certified.
“It’s third party verifications that are most trusted by consumers and they guide our purchasing decisions.” Mollie Hughes, CEO, Softly
Are Certified Products Better?
A better question might be: What’s important to you? If organic ingredients and fair labor practices are important to you, then certifications can help you connect with products that have those attributes. When companies follow third party guidelines and make their products and processes more transparent, it has to be a good thing.
There is a perception that a product cannot have sustainability and luxury without being costly. Products with sustainability certifications are often sometimes more expensive, but there are products that are affordable while still following guidelines for good environmental, social and ethical practices.
How to Find Products with Certifications
You can find certifications on product labels, but if you’re shopping online they might not be as apparent. Amazon created its “Climate Pledge Friendly,” campaign in 2020, tagging products that have at least one of over 20 out of the 400 certifications out there. A search on Amazon, however, does not necessarily get you to these products. You need a robust search engine like Softly. With the Softly browser plugin you can easily find products that have third party certifications. It is free and will work in the background, searching for alternatives with certifications for the products you choose. You can set Softly to look for particular types of sustainability categories or keep it open to all. You can find the following certified products using the Softly plugin. Some of the products may surprise you!
For a more comprehensive list of certifications and their features download this guide to sustainability certifications.
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These certifications include those that have guidelines for sustainable farming and responsible materials sourcing, verifying carbon footprint and carbon reduction.
The Forest Stewardship Council certified products support responsible forestry, helping keep forests healthy for future generations.
Try FSC Certified
Rainforest Alliance’s seal stands for more-sustainable farming methods that help improve farmer livelihoods & mitigate climate change.
Try Rainforest Certified
Cradle to Cradle Certified products are made with safer materials and responsible processes to positively impact people and our planet.
Try Cradle to Cradle Certified
Climate neutral by ClimatePartner verifies the product’s carbon footprint was calculated, is continuously reduced and remaining emissions were offset
Try Climate neutral certified
Free of Harmful Contents
These certifications identify products free from harmful ingredients and chemicals.
USDA Organic products are grown and processed according to standards addressing soil and water quality, among other factors.
Try USDA Organic
EU Organic products have zero or minimal chemical pesticides or fertilizers, support animal welfare and non-genetically modified standards.
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GOTS Global Organic Textile Standard certifies each step of the organic textile supply chain against strict ecological and social standards.
CONTAINS 95-100% ORGANIC CONTENT
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MADE IN GREEN by OEKO-TEX products are tested for harmful substances and made in safer workplaces with reduced environmental impacts.
Try Made in Green Certified
EWG Verified products are reviewed to ensure they are free from EWG’s known chemicals of concern and adhere to strict health standards.
Try EWG Verified
These certifications create guidelines for ethical standards including fair and ethical labor practices.
Fairtrade International products are produced in line with ethical and environmental standards, including supporting farmers to tackle climate change challenges.
Try Fairtrade Certified
Fair for Life certifies for fair trade and more socially and environmentally responsible supply chains.
Try Fair for Life Certified
All these certified products follow sustainability guidelines set by an independent organization. With the information about what a certification represents, consumers can find products that are aligned with their values and feel better about what they buy.
Certifications can give “…a general feeling that someone is looking into this and someone is making an effort…” Dr. James Hagan, The University of Pennsylvania