Ecolabels tick success and expose the dirt on greenwashing

Australian Financial Review GREEN BUILDINGS − SPECIAL REPORT

GECA’s certification program recognises truly green good guys, says Miriam Hechtman.

Finding a truly green building product is a tough task as “green washing” can occur. That is, buyers can bemisled into thinking a product is green when it isn’t. But now there are independent services that will examinethose products and, if they measure up, award them a tick of approval, similar to the tick given to foods by the Heart Foundation.

“Manufacturers often don’t know the environmental credentials of their products and when they do have thatinformation, they’re unclear about how to present it to the market,” says Good Environmental ChoiceAustralia (GECA) chairman, Petar Johnson. GECA is an independent, not−for−profit public company thatmanages the national environmental certification program, Good Environmental Choice. The program evaluates consumer and building products according to international standard ISO 14024. “Theprinciple aims are to find greener products, make sure that they are environmentally preferable and then getthose products recognised, promoted and used by the market in preference to products that have a biggerenvironmental impact,” says Johnson. In a market determined to be seen as green, combating “green washing” is a chief concern of the company.

“The Australian market is often misled by manufacturers that are interested in presenting the environmentalcredentials of their products because there is a strong demand for that, yet doing it in a misleading way, or avery single issue way without giving the market transparency about the real environmental lows of theproduct,” says Johnson. GECA has developed 38 standards that are product specific.

Says Johnson: “We promote those standards asthe basis of green procurement by government or green specifications by architects and interior designers orthe consumption choices of everyday Australians. 

Similar to the Heart Foundation tick, the GECA ecolabel is an environmental tick of approval to be placed onproducts. Obtaining the eco−label requires a rigorous auditing and assessment process to establish whether aproduct meets those standards. It requires detailed analysis of the entire life cycle of a product, including afitness for purpose examination and a review of what happens during manufacturing.

For example, with paints, GECA will inspect the formulation of the paint and go into the chemical toxicity of each of the ingredients. “It’s not about us as experts going and ticking boxes, it is very much about getting thequantifiable data,” says Johnson. He says this is one way of ensuring that products don’t mislead the marketunder the Trade Practices Act. Once past assessment, the eco−label is displayed on the product and the company receives a summary reportcalled an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD), which allows them to present their credentials in detailto the market.

“We then are quite active in promoting green purchasing in the Australian market and[companies] pay a licence fee for us to achieve that. “The cost for assessment is typically under $10,000, dependent on the complexity of the product and howmuch information the company has already acquired.

Textile company Sustainable Living Fabrics, has achieved GECA certification on all of its products. “We looked for a standard that was internationally accepted and represented the highest standard availableagainst which we could have our product assessed, so that we had a transparent standard to offer to ourclients,” says marketing manager Kay Jones. “It was challenging − we were looking at a wide range ofproducts covering a complicated supply chain and we wanted to get them all certified. “Though having the eco−label has been very beneficial to the company, initially there was backlash fromcompetitors in the industry. “The people who can’t achieve it are denigrating it. [It’s] just a tall poppy syndrome,” says Jones.

For Forbo Flooring, having 40 per cent of their products’ environmental credentials accredited with GECAhas been very positive. “It’s been a huge factor in reducing green washing within the building and interiorsindustry which is particularly where we sit,” says marketing manager Edie Nyers. She says the process wascomprehensive and expensive, but worth the investment. “There is a financial cost to it but it’s not huge and I think the benefits far outweigh the financial investmentthat we’ve made,”she says. 

“As a company you have to be prepared to say the environment comes first and itwill involve an expense and I will not immediately recoup that expense. “We were pioneering and now we can say it was an excellent investment for us,”she says, adding that “theprofessional procurers have actually bitten the bullet and they’re doing quite well. “The architects and interior designers and the work by the Green Building Council have created a very cleardemand for greener buildings and greener building products to enter those buildings.”

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