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Fast Chat: Green Seal's Arthur Weissman

Why the FTC's new green guides could lead marketers to seek out certifications

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Most consumers are familiar with Energy Star, a government program that certifies that homes or products like a refrigerator or an air conditioner have met strict energy efficiency guidelines. But when it comes to everyday, consumable products like laundry detergent or cosmetics, consumers are on their own in interpreting the green claims made by the manufacturer. That may be about to change. In an interview with Adweek, Dr. Arthur Weissman, president and CEO of Green Seal, a non-profit environmental certification organization, explains how the Federal Trade Commission's new green guides could lead more companies to seek out third-party certification to bolster environmental marketing claims.

Adweek: Why hasn't a consumer seal for environmental sustainability caught on?
Our original intent was to be a credible voice for the consumer. Our logo was designed to be recognizable by the consumer. But there was opposition by the industry from companies like Procter & Gamble that didn't want a third party deciding about their products. So we shifted to the institutional market.

Why do you think more consumer companies will now seek out third-party certification?
If you look at the FTC's new green guides, they are promoting credible third-party certification. The agency is clearly coming out in favor of third-party certification programs and making that the norm. Now when companies make a claim, they have to make sure it's explained. They can't make a blanket claim and they really can't certify themselves. That will level the field a lot because it's been dominated by big companies that can tout their companies any way they want.

There has been a proliferation of certifications in the last decade, both third party and second party. Some are more credible than others. Second-party certifications from trade associations aren't as credible. Many sprung up in the last 10 years. We find those most troublesome. The FTC is saying those relationships have to be disclosed. That will be a significant difference in the marketplace going forward.

What kind of interest for green certification have you seen from consumer products companies?
We're starting to see renewed interest. The economy has been a factor. Everything changed in early 2000. Maybe it was the Al Gore movie or Katrina. Environmental sustainability became required in many sectors. Big companies, like Whole Foods and Wal-Mart, required their vendors to meet standards, so it has become more ingrained in the economy. Institutional businesses are starting to roll out consumer products, so there will be a spillover. In April, we certified our first personal care product, L’Oreal’s Pureology Precious Oil, a hair oil. So we're starting go back to the consumer market, our original target.

What is the advantage of a third-party green certificate?
Having a credible third party certification is the best way for advertisers who want to advertise environmental benefits in an appropriate and legitimate way. It will give businesses and marketers and the consumers that use their products, considerable assurance, if not safe harbor, that what they are doing for the environment is legitimate and follows the guidelines of the FTC. We've been very compliant with the FTC guidelines from the beginning. We helped them with their panels and provided expert testimony. We'll take the new revisions and make sure we comply.