Green and profitable: The certification conundrum



Everyone knows that third-party endorsement is a powerful credibility builder. This is especially true in the green movement, where so much of the marketing process is based on making a strong case that you have other values besides financial gain.

Certification is one way to gain that credibility. When an independent agency verifies that you are doing what you say you\’re doing, customer trust of you and your products go way up.

But certification raises a number of other issues:

What does the claim actually mean?

In the green marketplace, numerous products make all sorts of claims. The purchaser has to sort out what\’s really going on, and which claims are meaningful. Smart shoppers understand, for instance, that when a package says, \”made with organic ingredients,\” that means as much as 30 percent of the product could be non organic. They don\’t yet have enough information to make an educated choice. What percentage of the ingredients are organic? Which ingredients were grown that way? The pesticide content of a nonfood product like non organic cotton will likely be much higher than the pesticide content of a fruit with edible skin, such as apples; all of this has to be factored into the buying decision. So this particular group will turn over the box and look at the ingredients list and look at which ingredients are really organic, and in what order the organic and non organic ingredients appear (thus, their relative predominance).

Self-labeling versus true certification

Many labels claim a product is \”natural\” or \”fairly traded\”—but no standards exist for what is natural or fairly traded, and no certifying body regulates the claims. Consumers are at the mercy of the manufacturer and have to hope for honesty. By contrast, the word \”organic\” has a legal definition, and a neutral-party certification such as USDA Organic in the United States or Ecocert for European cosmetics gives it teeth. And various agencies such as the 26 members around the world of FairTrade International  (from Australia to the US) certify compliance with fair trade provisions: If you see those types of certifications, you know the claim was independently verified.

Retailers are also stepping into the breach. Whole Foods, for instance, now requires certification for any product claiming to be organic.

Of course in today\’s wired world, shoppers themselves can play a role in verifying claims. Social media allows anyone to accuse a company of making false claims, and to attract a wide audience; this is one of many reasons to be scrupulously honest in all your claims.

Space on the label

Understanding the value of these certifications, some companies have paid for multiple certifications covering different aspects. For instance, I\’m looking at a 3-ounce (66-gram) bar of Theo 91%-cocoa chocolate that bears the following certifications and claims:

  • USDA Organic, certified by Washington State Department of Agriculture
  • Fair For Life social and fairtrade certified by IMO
  • Charity partner (Audubon, benefiting Costa Rican cacao farmers and bird habitat)
  • Kosher
  • 50% recycled packaging
  • Vegan

Of the four ingredients, all four are noted as organic, and all but vanilla are also marked fair trade.

That\’s a lot of information, not even counting a big panel of text about the charity project. Imagine trying to fit all that on a 1-ounce (22-grm) package label.

On one hand, you want to take full advantage of all the work you\’ve done to get those multiple certifications you painstakingly earned—and on the other hand, you still want to create an attractive package with adequate white space and a great design, not cluttered up with a bunch of certification logos.

If that were my challenge, I might put text like this on the wrapper:

\”Certified organic, fair trade, kosher and vegan. Benefits Audubon\’s forest, farm, and bird preservation efforts in Costa Rica. For more details, please scan this QR code into your smartphone, or visit www._________.\”

That way, you get all the good stuff out front, provide two ways for people who want all the details to get them—including the instant gratification made possible by the QR code—and still keep plenty of room on the label.

Shel Horowitz, shel at, shows you how to “reach green, socially conscious consumers with marketing that has THEM calling YOU.” He writes the Green And Profitable column and is the primary author of Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green (John Wiley & Sons, 2010).

Sources: (up to 30% nonorganic in \”made with\”, Whole Foods requiring certification) (definition of organic, US) (standards for Ecocert) (Fairtrade International partners)