Guidelines for What Constitutes a Clean Product / Comparing Product Choices
Every product and/or service is going to have ecological and social impacts — the goal is to help create a marketplace that constantly pushes manufacturers to pursue and invest in innovative solutions that make products greener and cleaner over time.
Once a consumer or major purchaser commits to environmentally preferable products, they are faced with the challenge of comparing the environmental and social attributes of many different product models. Information about the product lifecycle may be hard to come by, and even if supplied by the producer the information needs to be independently checked. To address these problems, many European countries have aggressively pursued ecolabeling programs that establish standards on information disclosure and provide third-party certification. Unfortunately with the exception of programs like Green Seal, ecolabeling is not widely used in North America, particularly in the U.S.
Consumers and major purchasers need to establish guidelines that hold manufacturers accountable to full disclosure. These guidelines need to look at the entire life cycle of the product. This information will help consumers compare product choices.
General Procurement Guidelines
Examining single attributes such as recycled content and energy efficiency is highly valuable, but it does not provide a complete picture of environmental impacts. Some energy-efficient lighting, for example, contains more mercury than others. Because mercury can accumulate in the environment and harm human health, it is more desirable from an environmental perspective to buy low-mercury, energy efficient light bulbs — an important consideration that could be overlooked if purchasers only compare energy efficiency
Unfortunately many of the guidelines used for purchasing focus on one environmental attribute, i.e., energy usage. Although this is an important step forward, it does not address the full environmental and social impact of the product. Below is the start of a checklist of environmental attributes that should be taken into account when comparing product choices:
Promote the Use of Clean Materials
- Avoid products containing:
- Carcinogenic (cancer-causing)
- Mutagenic (causes mutations in cells)
- Reproductive toxin (linked to birth defects)
- Persistent (not easily excreted from the body)
- Bioaccumulative (magnifies up the food chain)
- Teratogenic (linked to birth defects)
- Endocrine disruptor (disrupts the hormonal system)
- Provide preference to products containing high percentages of renewable materials that have been grown organically (i.e., no pesticides and genetically modified feedstocks).
- Avoid products containing chlorinated and brominated materials.
- Evaluate environmental practices during the manufacturing process (does the company have zero emissions/zero waste committments or targets).
- Evaluate worker health and safety standards.
- Request life cycle information, i.e., what toxic materials are released or used through out the products life cycle.
- Determine biodegradability.
Promote Resource Efficiency
- Request minimum use packaging (avoid packaging that contains chlorinated plastics, i.e., PVC).
- Check to see if the supplier will take back the packaging for
- reuse or recycling.
- Look for design features that support upgrade, repair, and remanufacture.
- Check for durability.
- Check for postconsumer recyclability.
- Evaluate use of recycled materials.
- Evaluate waste prevention approaches.
- Check greenhouse gas emissions.
- Lease equipment or include take-back clauses to eliminate the need for future surplus management.
- Determine what type of infrastructure is established for end of life management of the product (Is the product exported to developing countries with weak environmental and worker health laws? Does the company use prison labor to recycle the products?).
Promote Clean Energy and Energy Efficiency
- At a minimum, purchase Energy Star® compliant products
- Evaluate use of renewable energy sources for manufacturing processes.
- For other criteria, please see the Ecolabeling and Life Cycle Thinking sections of our website.
- Asking a manufacturer to provide information on the above attributes will build awareness within companies that in addition to function and price, consumers want to see environmental improvements and success with the product throughout its life cycle. This means a constant investment in clean product innovation to remain competitive