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The Five Truths of a Good Sustainability Claim

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My friend recently purchased a washing machine from a major manufacturer. Its energy efficiency was poor but the carton it was delivered in featured a large recycled packaging label. A credible sustainability claim? I would say not. Believe me, I am all for recycled packaging. But credible claims are relevant to the main sustainability attributes of a product. For a washing machine, that should be energy use. Otherwise, the claim could be misleading – think of the consumer misconstruing the recycled symbol as the mark of an overall ‘green’ washing machine.

In a related but differently managed example, standard-setter Rainforest Alliance worked with a leading smoothie company to place its certification seal on the back of the smoothie bottle instead of the front. Why would a certifier do this? Because the certification related to one ingredient only (the bananas) and the company did not want to potentially confuse consumers with a front-of-bottle seal. They also worked on specific wording to indicate exactly what the seal referred to. A credible claim? I would say yes.

More and more products on supermarket shelves bear sustainability claims, promising everything from biodegradable household cleaners to carbon-neutral sugar. But with over 400 ecolabels on the market, according to the Ecolabel Index, it can be difficult for any company to know which to trust, given the array of promises, claims and language found on products. 

In 2010, the well-known Seven Sins of Greenwashing report found that only 4.5 percent of the claims out there did not commit at least one of the seven sins. The US Federal Trade Commission conducted its own research into misleading claims a few years ago; research that led to a revision of its FTC Green Guides – a resource that help marketers avoid misleading consumers. Often companies create confusing messaging without even knowing it. An astute buyer can help by asking questions of the supplier or partner; delving into the details about what is being said so that the claim can be truthful and transparent.

Last week, ISEAL Alliance, the global association for sustainability standards and the global authority on credible practices for such standards, launched a new tool to untangle the jungle of sustainability claims. Called “Challenge the Label,” it offers a buyers’ tool with a set of questions to first understand the claim itself, followed by the “five truths” of a credible claim. Those five truths are:

  •  Is it clear? The sustainability claim should be easily understood and free from misleading details.
  •  Is it accurate? The claim must be truthful and based on substantiated evidence.
  •  Is it relevant? The claim should be about an issue that is material or significant to the product or business and not a distraction from bigger and more important issues.
  •  Is it transparent? Information about the system behind the sustainability claim must be freely available and easily accessible.
  •  Is it robust? The system behind the sustainability claim must have rigorous controls and practices.

The Challenge the Label initiative can be applied to any claim, message or label, whether B2B or B2C, that focuses on sustainability in some way. It can also provide guidance for a company in developing their own claims and labels. Buyers can use the online tool to explore the five truths and get access to additional resources.

At the Challenge the Label launch last week, T. Leo Griffin, CEO of Artisan Bistro Foods, summed up the importance of the five truths: “For us, it comes down to how to educate consumers on what matters. Many people are claiming ‘sustainable’ and there is so much complexity in this. Labels can be marketing tools but people also need to understand the mark. So there is a challenge for us to be simple for consumers, to be transparent, but also to meet robust standards.”

Visit for more information, detailed examples and resources for each of the five truths, and a two-minute video on what makes a credible sustainability message or claim.

Lara Koritzke is a frequent contributor to Sustainable Brands and an expert on sustainability standards and market-based certification. She spent 11 years with Rainforest Alliance, leading their institutional partnerships area; and six years with ISEAL, the umbrella group for… [Read more about Lara Koritzke]

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