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Eco-Certification: A Foundation for Effective Green Marketing August 1, 2006

Posted by Michael Hoexter in Green Marketing, Sustainable Thinking.
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Eco-CertificationEco-certification is a growing phenomenon and with good reason. Concerned consumers and investors have come to expect reassurances that greener products and services are in fact greener than competing offerings, especially when a price premium is involved. Eco-certification is one of the key supports for principled green markets along with greener public policy and reliable public information systems that inform about basic issues related to sustainability.

What is Eco-Certification, you may ask? Eco-certification is where an independent agency, meaning a governmental, an non-governmental organization (NGO) or an industry consortium tests or verifies that a certain more sustainable practice has been followed in the production of a given good or service. The best known eco-certification in the US is the organic agriculture standard that is administered by the USDA and run by a series of state-level certifying organizations. There is an EU administered organic standard in Europe, sometimes called “biological” agriculture.

A government can impose boundary conditions for environmental standards for, for instance, tailpipe emissions, but the imposed environmental standard does not really function as a certification unless the vehicle is sold in a third country with more relaxed standards. An eco-certification is usually a higher standard than legally allowed, reassuring customers that they are getting something better than what is legally allowable.

Why is eco-certification a foundation for Green Marketing? Without eco-certifications, green marketing claims might need to be supported by a longer process for potential buyers or patrons. Buyers might need to refer to third party opinions and research that do not have a standard format and require longer deliberation by the buyer. As a green process benefits not only the seller and the buyer but the public at large, an eco-certification is additionally a sign of the investment of authorized third parties in encouraging greener transactions. Eco-certifications also provide a summary of product information by the use of a simple seal or label, which saves additional time and effort.

Eco-certifications are usually applied to products (like timber or fish) but they also can be applied to an entire process. One of the more demanding eco-certification standards has been developed by the architect William McDonough and the chemist Michael Braungart that they call Cradle to Cradle or C2C. In C2C, a product is designed to be entirely reused and to be produced by an entirely non-toxic production process. Steelcase has designed the Think chair which has received C2C certification due to its high recycled content, easy disassembly for recycling and non-toxic material content.

Complex products with multiple parts may be best certified using a tiered certification system, where individual parts may or may not be better than industry standard environmental practice. The accumulation of certification points by combining “greener” components in, for instance, a building qualify the building for a higher certification level. The highly successful LEED standard in the construction industry is an example of a tiered certification system in which notably few buildings achieve the top Platinum standard while a good number of high performance green buildings have reached the lowest level called “Certified”. In LEED there are 4 certification levels. The EPEAT standard for desktop and notebook computers assigns 3 certification levels.
If successful, an eco-certification system will grow the market for certified goods, particularly where a price premium for certified goods is not too great. More rigorous standards may be added if a given lower standard becomes too easy to achieve…with the wide acceptance of organic agriculture, there are now artesanal producers who want to raise the bar to differentiate small producers from the now large industrial organic farms that have come to dominate many sectors of the organic food market.

Should you start an eco-certification program in your market sector?

It depends in part on the level of public awareness in your sector about appreciable differences in goods produced by sustainable vs. conventional industrial practices. If no public information is available about greener practices in your industry, an eco-certification may at first not mean as much to the public as when some public awareness has already grown. Also important is a growing consensus within the industry and/or within regulatory bodies in favor of higher ecological standards so that the added expense of a certification program can be shared among producers, consumers and government agencies. Whatever the external factors, a commitment to and passion for sustainability by individuals within the industry is always a valuable starting place to create a step-wise movement towards sustainable practices.

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Comments»

1. Keith R - September 19, 2006

A very interesting article — I’m glad I stumpled upon your blog, and plan to check back in. If you get a chance, I would like to hear your thoughts about eco-certification in the tourism sector. I just completed a series on Green Globe in my blog, and have more on Blue Flag, Eco-tel, STEP and several national schemes in Latin America and the Caribbean. One issue is coming up time & again: how best to market certification once awarded to actually get the intended paying customers (in this case, tourists). Input welcome!
Best Regards, Keith R

2. terraverde - September 24, 2006

Keith,
Thank you for your posting. I do not know the tourism eco-certification industry well but one problem I see is the dispersion of attention to different eco-labels. The diversity of eco-standards means that consumers need to do more research to understand what the labels mean.

But given that there are diverse standards, which is understandable given the diversity of destinations and tour types, eco-standards need to rely on marketing initiatives that market the standard itself or press coverage of the standard and some certified examples of that standard. So the standardizing organization needs to take out targeted advertising to raise the profile of its standard and/or interest travel journalists in writing about the standard and one or more of the certified destinations. Certification is most effectively communicated as a public service and in general terms before specific resorts or hotels advertise themselves as being certified. If there have already been journalistic write-ups, these should be used on websites to explain and validate the standard.

Just a few thoughts.

Michael

3. ioman01 - October 31, 2006

Thanks for the thoughts — I like the way you put it. Mind if I quote you in the piece I’m writing on actually getting tourism eco-certification to attract clients? I’m a bit behind on finishing it (have had many other things in the queue push it aside, including a piece on Blue Flag in Latin America and the Caribbean), but I’m ready now to go back, finish it and publish it to the blog.
Regards,
Keith

4. The Death of Hydrogen? Fuel Cells, Marketing and the Future. « Green Thoughts - December 1, 2007

[…] its effects are well-understood. I advocate that green product manufacturers and marketers develop eco-certifications for prototypes and a system of handicapping technologies that minimizes the number of unpleasant […]


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