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Is Eco-certification a Carrot – or Killer – for Innovation?

Eco-certifications and eco-logos are among the hottest – and most hotly disputed – subjects in corporate innovation. In a world where new thinking is in demand, do rigorous certification programs help or hinder the innovation process?

Google eco-certification.
I dare you.

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Yes, there are
over 1,050,000 entries. If that makes your eyes glaze over, you’re not alone.

Eco-certification
and eco-labelling are hot – and hotly disputed – topics in business today.

On the one hand,
they can provide benchmark criteria to guide effective greening. As Trevor
Bowden of Ecolabelling.org confirms,
“good, independent eco-certifications enable companies to create meaningful
sustainability initiatives without starting from zero.”

They can also
provide a framework for innovation by providing a filter through which every
innovative idea or program must pass before being implemented.

But the
overabundance of third party certification programs have sown confusion among
companies and consumers alike. There are literally thousands of certifications
to choose from. Adding to the confusion, seemingly similar certifications like
the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI)
are at odds with one another. In this atmosphere of confusion, finding a
certification to build product innovation on would seem daunting at best.

 

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Guidance, or mis-guidance?

Despite this,
consumers continue to look to eco-labels to provide guidance. Truth is, most
consumers recognize only a few labels (quick, name three – Energy Star, USDA
Organic and…?). Even so, the mere presence of a certification logo provides
comfort, and can steer purchase.

This eco-label
allure, combined with the internecine confusion of the authentic certification
programs, has created a dangerous new trend…self-certification. From Procter’s
‘Future Friendly’ to Subaru’s PZEV, these certifications share two attributes:
1) they’re slickly marketed, and 2) they have no credibility. As Environmental
Leader
writes, “Green labels mean nothing if they are not independently
monitored with third party evaluation, Standing up and saying ‘I’m green because I say so’ doesn’t cut
it anymore.”

 

Obvious but absent?

Wood Turner of Climate Counts provides two areas ripe
for exploration – educating consumers, and providing them with certifications
they can derive personal benefit from.

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“The first
problem with eco-certification is that the certified brands treat the
certification logos as nothing more than little graphics on their packaging”
says Turner. “You see gluten free on bread. Why can’t the bread brand explain
to me what all the wonderful benefits of gluten free are?” In Turner’s view,
educating consumers on eco-labels would build trust, and differentiate the
brand.

To Turner’s
second point, eco-certification programs need to update their own image – a
process that brands can help with. “Consumers need to get a halo from an
eco-label and feel the emotional connection – they have earned it with their purchase.”  Ecolabelling.org’s Bowden confirms that
certifiers are now having to develop or import expertise in new areas like
marketing and communications. Some, like the Marine Stewardship Council, are
even getting facelifts
from ad agencies to help enhance their messaging and impact. 

 

The accredited advantage…

So where is the
opportunity for green innovation through eco-certification?

Savvy brands
take the opportunity to work more closely with good certification programs –
first reaping the maximum benefit from third party certification, then helping
the certifier create a label program that attracts more consumers.

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Look at
companies that work innovatively with eco-certifiers, like Seventh Generation,
Stonyfield Farms and Patagonia, and you see companies with a new perspective on
conscious capitalism.

These are
companies that are applying the green innovation lens to their entire business,
not just bolting it on. As Jeffrey Hollender, co-founder of Seventh Generation,
writes in his new
book
, “It’s about re-imagining companies from within: innovating new ways
of working, instilling a new logic of competing, identifying new possibilities
for leading, and redefining the very purpose of business.”

Perhaps it’s
time more corporations looked past the little logo on the package, and started
treating certification as a keystone to successful green innovation.

 

Marc Stoiber is VP Green Innovation at Maddock Douglas, a leading innovation
agency based in Chicago. Stoiber and his green innovation team work out of
Vancouver.

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About the author

Marc Stoiber is a creative director, entrepreneur, green brand specialist and writer. He works with clients to build resilient, futureproof brands. Marc's leadership positions have included VP of Green Innovation at Maddock Douglas, President and Founder of Change Advertising, National Creative Director of Grey Canada and Creative Director of DDB Toronto

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