A Look Inside Good Housekeeping’s Green Seal

Two steps forward 2Joel Makower met with Good Housekeeping to learn more about the recently released Good  Housekeeping Green Seal.  The seal is meant to reduce confusion and establish credibility in front of consumers.  Products seem to require quite a rigorous review process before they can receive the seal.  It seems that the burden of this review will along with other factors, narrow the impact of this brand of approval for mainstream consumers.

Posted Oct. 18, 2009
By Joel Makower, Two Steps Forward

It's long stated as near fact by observers of the confusing and
confounding green marketplace that what's  needed, once and for all, is
something akin to a Good Housekeeping Seal for the environment. Good
Housekeeping, it seems, represents a pinnacle of credibility and
consumer confidence.

SoGood Housekeeping Green Seal, now that Good Housekeeping has introduced its own green seal, what should we make of it?

First, some background. The original Good Housekeeping Seal
was introduced in 1909, when there was little regulatory oversight of
consumer products. It represented an audacious marketing promise from
its namesake magazine: If a product bearing the seal proved defective
within two years, the magazine would replace it or refund the purchase
price. Over the past century, the seal has endured in a world of fickle
consumers and shifting brand alliances. And while its design has been
updated to reflect modern times, the mission and purpose of the seal
remains intact.

Last month, the Good Housekeeping Research Institute — the
product-evaluation laboratory of the magazine, which itself is part of
the media giant Hearst Communications — announced the first seven
products to receive its new Green Good Housekeeping Seal,
"developed to help consumers sift through the confusing clutter of
'green' claims on hundreds of products on store shelves today,"
according to the seal's website.
The first batch of certifications include household cleaners and beauty
products. Paints and appliances are expected to follow.

I sat down recently with a team from the Good Housekeeping Research
Institute in its New York headquarters, including its director, Miriam
Arond, to learn about the seal, what's behind it, and its promise for
helping consumers make sense of the green marketplace.

I began with asking Arond to explain the process a product goes
through to earn the seal. "In order to earn the Green Good Housekeeping
Seal," she said, "a product first has to be reviewed for an
advertisement in Good Housekeeping magazine. That means the
scientists at the Good Housekeeping Research Institute evaluate the
product to make sure it lives up to the advertising claims. Once a
product is approved for advertising, it can apply for the Good
Housekeeping Seal. We then further evaluate the product, because we
want to make sure it lives up to all the claims on the website, on its
packaging, to make sure that it actually performs as promised.

"Then, once a product earns the primary Good Housekeeping Seal, it
can apply for the Green Good Housekeeping Seal, in which case we ask
for quite a bit of data. In some cases, we are signing non-disclosure
agreements, confidentiality agreements, because companies are
disclosing to us a lot of data about how the product is manufactured
and how it is distributed. Once we have evaluated the result, as well
as verified the data, then they can earn, hopefully, the Green Good
Housekeeping Seal."

I wanted to know about the criteria being used — the standard to
which Good Housekeeping was holding companies. Arond explained that the
questionnaire contains 56 questions that cover a wide spectrum of a
product's potential environmental impacts, from upstream materials
sourcing through consumer use and disposal. (A summary of the
application process is here.)

"We got a lot of input from the environmental community," Arond told
me. "We brought together a host of environmental experts — from
academia, from industry, from trade associations, from NGOs — and we
basically picked a lot of people's brains to see what they thought was
important.

"We knew from the start we wanted to have an evaluation that was
going to be comprehensive, not look at one or two aspects of green,
because truthfully some of that already exists. We think it's a little
bit problematic to only cite one or two areas of greenness, so to
speak. We look at a very wide range, from everything involved in the
manufacturing of the product and the water usage during manufacturing
and the energy usage during manufacturing, and then, of course, during
the product usage. We look at distribution, we look at packaging, its
greenhouse gas emissions. We wanted to take as much into account as
possible. Then we ran the application by environmental experts again
and we continued to hone it, and to make sure that both small and big
companies were able to answer it."

I knew that my friend Michael Brown, co-founder of Brown & Wilmanns Environmental Consulting,
had consulted to Arond's project. Therefore, I assumed that the
criteria had something to do with life-cycle analysis — or, more
likely, a "lite" LCA, a simplified version that Brown and his partner
Eric Wilmanns had deployed for other clients, including several major
consumer brands.

Stacy Genovese, Technical & Engineering Director of the Good
Housekeeping Institute, confirmed that her team looks at a product's
full life-cycle but doesn't use a formal LCA. "We're taking certain
things that you would do for an LCA into account in our criteria. But
to do a full LCA analysis is quite costly, and we didn't want to make
that the basis of the application, because then we're excluding people
that just don't have the money to pay for a full LCA. And that wouldn't
help our readers."

Arond pointed out something I would have guessed: that the
information-gathering part of the certification process can be burdensome, even for
big companies, requiring them to pull information from a range of
different departments, suppliers, and partners. But companies need to learn how to do that, and
those that do find that the more they know, the greater the
opportunities to reduce energy, water, materials, toxics, and other
forms of waste and inefficiency.

So, will the Good Housekeeping Green Seal help make sense of the
eco-label clutter? Yes and no. On the one hand, it seems to be a
well-thought-out initiative, done with rigor, responsibility, and a
high sense of purpose. The bar seems to be set at a reasonable level:
If a product has earned a Good Housekeeping Green Seal, it means
something.

But the seal will have limited impact, if only because of its
linkage to its magazine advertiser base. (Anyone can have a product
evaluated by the Institute for $10,000, but such products aren't
allowed to carry the seal unless they first earn the "regular" Good
Housekeeping Seal, which inures only to advertisers.) That will be a
barrier to all but the largest companies. Indeed, all of the seven
products certified to date come from large companies — six from Clorox,
Johnson & Johnson, and SC Johnson (the seventh is from Physicians
Formula, a $115 million revenue, Nasdaq-traded company). The
big-company limitation will hamstring the seal's ability to gain
traction among many green-minded consumers, who may prefer products
from any of countless smaller companies.

Perhaps what's most valuable about the whole exercise is the audience for which this is being done. Good Housekeeping
magazine boasts nearly 5 million monthly subscribers, the sixth-largest
magazine by circulation last year, according to the Magazine Publishers
of America. Exposing green products to that sizable mainstream audience
makes the Good Housekeeping's Green Seal an important contribution,
even if it turns out not to be the game-changer some were waiting for.

Joel is co-founder and executive editor of Greener World Media, Inc., which produces GreenBiz.com and its sister sites, ClimateBiz.com, GreenerBuildings.com, GreenerDesign.com, and GreenerComputing.com. Joel is also the principal author of the annual State of Green Business report and the Greener by Design conference, both produced by Greener World Media.

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