What Does “Green” Even Mean? Understanding Eco-Friendly Promo Products

If you’ve gone shopping for groceries and household supplies any time in the last, oh, decade or so, you’ve probably seen a few words on the labels designed to speak to the nature-lover in all of us:

  • Eco-friendly
  • Natural
  • Organic
  • Sustainable

And if you’ve read or listened to the news at any point in the last few years, you’re probably aware of a number of cases where manufacturers used those labels on products that actually weren’t so great for the environment.

“Eco-friendly” is a description that can be applied to lots of different kinds of products – including promotional products. It’s a term that means that something is good for our natural environment. But what makes a product eco-friendly? Who regulates the use of that label? And how do you know if the promotional product that you love is 100% eco-friendly?

Read on to learn more!

What Makes an Environmentally Friendly Product?

If you search the ol’ Google for “what are eco friendly products,” you’ll get a large number of articles attempting to answer that question. The truth is that terms like eco-friendly and environmentally friendly are broad terms. Beyond saying that an item is nice for nature, they don’t have standard definitions.

But if you read those articles, you’ll notice some shared ideas. Basically, there are a few factors that manufacturers and sellers use to say a product is good for the environment:

  • Green-bottleThe materials it contains: Eco-friendly products usually contain material that’s been recycled, material that’s easily recycled, or material gathered from a natural source, like bamboo, which is easy to replace and minimally damaging to harvest. Environmentally friendly products avoid toxic chemicals known to cause harm – so that means no asbestos in your tumblers or anything like that.
  • The way it’s produced: An environmentally friendly product can be made in a facility powered by solar power, for example, or in a building designed to use the least amount of water possible.
  • The manner it’s used: Products might encourage environmentally conscious behaviors in consumers. Reusable water bottles, for example, help people avoid buying one-use plastic water bottles, which can clog landfills if not recycled.

When we talk about a promotional product that’s 100% eco-friendly, we’re most often describing it in terms of the materials it contains. Why? Because that’s the factor that’s easiest to measure. Manufacturers know if their products contain 100% post-consumer recycled material (meaning it contains stuff people actually used, as opposed to pre-consumer material from the factory floor). They have to know that. They make the darn products.

A factor like the manner a promotional product is used is far more difficult to measure. It’s impossible to guarantee that people will bring their tote bags to the grocery store 100% of the time. The best a seller or manufacturer can do is explain in its marketing materials what makes using this product eco-friendly (and do it without exaggerating!).

Essentially, a term like “green” is very grey. And that has led to some controversy.

Who Determines If a Product is Eco-Friendly?

Have you ever heard of the term greenwashing? Sad to say, it’s not a new kind of spa or salon treatment.

A piece in Forbes defined greenwashing as follows:

Greenwashing: the deceptive use of green marketing which promotes a misleading perception that a company’s policies, practices, products or services are environmentally friendly

Green-Cardboard-ThingThe green movement is big business. Even at the start of the 2010s, one expert estimated that products and services labeled as eco-friendly potentially could represent $40 billion in annual business. In 2014, the Nielsen Global Survey on Corporate Social Responsibility found that 55 percent of online consumers worldwide were willing to pay more for products that they believed were socially and environmentally responsible.

Of course companies wanted in on that kind of green. And some big names got in some big heat for greenwashing.

The good news is that regulatory agencies have stepped up (or have been established) to certify products as environmentally A-OK (my phrasing, not an agency’s). Here are a few examples of certification programs and guidelines:

  • You’d pretty much expect the Environmental Protect Agency‘s programs to be listed here. The EPA oversees a few eco-rating tools:
    • The Energy Star program for rating household fixtures that conserve energy (like windows) and products that use energy (like refrigerators and computers), as well as entire buildings – your factory can be Energy Star certified!
    • The SmartWay program for freight vehicles
    • The Safer Choice program for cleaning products
  • Good Housekeeping (yes, the magazine you see at the checkout lines) gives out a Green Good Housekeeping Seal. It even has its own lab facility, the Good Housekeeping Institute, where it tests products’ environmental claims.
  • In 2003, California passed the California Organic Products Act, which requires that cosmetic products marketed as organic must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients. How do people know if ingredients are organic? With the help of another regulatory program, the federal USDA National Organic Program.
  • And then there are the FTC’s Green Guides. These deserve a few paragraphs.

The Federal Trade Commission exists to protect consumers from fraudulent marketing. To prevent consumers from becoming victims of greenwashing, it’s published the Green Guides. The first edition of the Green Guides came out in 1990; the most recent update came out in 2012.

Although the Green Guides don’t regulate terms like “organic” or “sustainable,” they do tackle some of the other commonly used green marketing terms:

  • Degradable
  • Recyclable
  • Non-toxic
  • Eco-friendly (a term that the Green Guides actually discourage unless companies can explain specifically what makes their products good for the environment)

As a federal agency, the FTC has regulatory power. It can file claims and impose fines against companies that engage in grossly deceptive advertising. And it has used that regulatory power, which makes it increasingly important for companies to be careful about how they advertise their green products.

But what about your promotional products? Who marks your promo products as being 100% eco-friendly?

Who Oversees Green Promo Products?

Green-Pen-padpsdThe promo product industry sells a wide variety of products. However, there are resources available to help companies like QLP – as well as customers like you – make informed choices with eco-friendly products.

For promo product companies, there are trade organizations like ASI (the Advertising Speciality Institute) and PPAI (the Promotional Products Association International). These organizations offer articles and tips to help companies accurately and honestly label their green products. And both specifically refer member companies to the FTC Green Guides.

Then there’s the Quality Certification Alliance.

We’ve discussed QCA before. It’s an organization that certifies promotional product companies for meeting standards in five areas:

  • Product safety
  • Product quality
  • Supply chain security
  • Social accountability
  • Environmental stewardship

A-ha! Environmental stewardship!

To make sure that a company truly is looking out for the environment, QCA requires its accredited companies to have certain standards in place. According to a white paper made available through QCA’s site, these standards include (but are not limited to):

  • Procedures for promoting a healthy indoor environmental quality
  • A documented process for reducing the use of hazardous substances and the generation of toxic waste that includes monitoring use, storage and disposal of all restricted substances supported by a restricted substance list
  • A documented policy for conservation of energy, water and other resources

Additionally, according to Dee Fenton, QCA’s Executive Director for Compliance, “QCA Members undertook a first environmental survey this past year and are now actively monitoring air quality, water and power usage and VOC (volatile organic compound) production with an eye toward reducing their impact on the environment.”

If you’re a promo products shopper, know that the industry is working to put standards for green marketing in place. So when looking for products that are good for the environment, here’s what you’ll find on each product page to help you make your decision:

  • What percentage of recycled or renewable material the product contains
  • Whether the product is biodegradable or can be easily recycled
  • If the product is manufactured in the United States (products made in the USA use less fuel to ship if you’re stateside)
  • Whether the product meets FDA toxicity guidelines (and is Prop 65 compliant if you’re in California)
  • Whether the product is QCA approved (look for the seal of approval!)

Oh, and there’s also the QLP “Eco Friendly” flag, for products with specific details (“80% post-consumer recycled content!”) that easily can be verified.

A childhood friend once told me that it’s not easy being green. However, with a little bit of research on the part of the consumer and a lot of transparency on the part of companies, promotional products marked as eco-friendly can be good for everyone—including Mother Nature.

Do you consider yourself an environmentally conscious shopper? What do you look for when looking for eco-friendly products (and promo products)? Let us know in the comments below!

expand your brand

Sheila Johnson

Sheila Johnson is a member of the Content Team at Quality Logo Products. Prior to joining QLP, she worked freelance in a number of capacities, including writing, editing, digital art restoration, and sorting stuff in a warehouse, because money is money. She enjoys birdwatching, hiking, and reading, which doesn't make her sound old at all. Other likes: dark chocolate, comics, science, socks with bright patterns. Dislikes: how cold her toes are ALL THE TIME. You can connect with Sheila on


  1. Rondell Caraos

    GO GREEN! I mean, how many times have you heard that in the past 5 years? If you are like me… You want to help with the environment as much as you can but not think TOO much about it. Yes, I recycle empty beer bottles, plastic, and cardboard… but I don’t think of the environment every step of my day. Let’s face it, we could all be better with our planet! Everywhere you look there is Eco-Friendly this and that, it is nice to know that there are companies out there that throw it in your face all the time to remind us to “Be Better”… QLP is one of those companies! It is nice that we have options of products out there that are “Eco-Friendly” and still have a cool Promotional Product.

    Eco-friendly, Natural, Organic, Sustainable, Degradable, Recyclable, Non-toxic… it is here and it is our future! Even if most of us do not eat, breath, and live to help the environment… We could all help out here and there.

    Thank you for this Article… it helps explain some “gray” areas that I was always curious about!

  2. Chase

    Great article! I didn’t know green meant so many things. As many people (I am sure) we all think that it is just items made from “green” materials. Organic items are also green! I didn’t know that either! Super great stuff! Thank you for the lesson in GREEN! 🙂

  3. Jeff Jacobs

    Sheila, great article, and thanks for reaching out and including us. We’re glad to have distributors like QLP with a sincere interest in sharing content regarding environmental responsibility on our Distributor Advocacy Council!

    • Sheila Johnson

      Thanks, Jeff, and thanks for sharing all of that information! It’s great for customers to be able to understand more about the role QCA has in promoting environmentally conscious promo products.

  4. Shauna

    Love this article! I am all about going green and trying to reduce as much waste as possible and sometimes it really is hard to know if the product you are buying is truly a “green” product or not. This was hugely helpful and educational about all the processes that go into making a product environmentally friendly and really will help me to know what to look for and what to recommend to people that are trying to make smart, enviro-conscious decisions. Way to empower, Sheila! BOOM!

  5. Kat D.

    What a helpful and insightful article! Who knew there was so much to being “green”?! I’m blown away by “greenwashing”. I’ve never heard that term before and I think it’s awful some companies attempt to get away with that. Something to certainly think about when purchasing something advertised as “green” or “eco friendly” from other companies for sure.

  6. Anthony

    Going green is definitely a thing in the right direction!! 🙂 Since we only have one planet, we need to keep moving forward with this type of mentality! It’s also crazy to think that people try to do the ‘Greenwashing’ method of things. Totally unacceptable in my eyes and just throws a lot of bad juju in the world along with it!

    But more QCA and Eco-Friendly products need to be the future and this article is a great turning point to this realization. Great post!! 😀

  7. Kelly Bird

    Eco + Friendly = two of my favorite words to see together! Reused, renewable, sustainable…however it’s made or used and reused, every bit helps! Great information and I’m so happy to see so many manufacturers and customers joining the movement to do their part reducing our footprint.

  8. Ashley

    The Eco-Friendly Movement: coming at you like a spider monkey!

    It’s great to see how quickly we as an industry and as a world are slipping away from the “old skool” method where the environment wasn’t taken into account when making products. There are too many plastic water bottles floating in the ocean or sitting in landfills. The harm we have already caused is daunting, and the need for these measures to be taken is exponentially increasing.

    Fortunately, the tactics with which to promote environmentally friendly methods of production are increasing as well. It’s cool to see all of the QLP products created by recycled materials, too. And this article is great and pointing out the other ways to be eco-friendly. I would have never thought of the manufacturers using solar power or other natural resources to lessen the blow of pollution, an issue that’s typically associated with manufacturing. As it turns out, factories and products alike can help save all those spider monkeys I was talking about =]

  9. Leo Avila

    GREEN! It’s not just the “IT” thing, but it’s the RIGHT thing! If everyone just did a little, just a little, we can make a difference. Such easy things like using your own grocery bags at the store, or buying a re-usable tumbler or plastic bottle (BPA Free of course) to drink water, instead of a one time use water bottles (hate those things). My grandfather always thought the craziest thing he ever saw before he passed was people paying more for water. Doesn’t it come out of the sink mijo for FREE?? We live in a society of overabundance in not only our product consumption, but of everything. How many T.V.’s does a house really need? No wonder China loves us, we can’t stop the urge to buy. I am glad to see our government finally making small changes to restrict the creation of items coming to the states that are not Eco–Friendly. There is still a lot of work, and the US, is the standard for all to look at on what is seen as the best for global economy, but at least it’s a start. Many other countries still have a long way to go… Keep selling “GREEN” and make a difference in your kids future life. RANT DONE! ?

  10. Angie

    This is a great, fact filled article. I, too, have never heard the term “greenwashing”. It’s a shame that there are always businesses looking to jump on the bandwagon and see it as opportunity to make a stack of money.

    “All-natural” is another green-like term that can be misleading. A lot of harmful chemicals are naturally occurring, like arsenic and mercury.

  11. George Sezemsky

    Organic Cotton and regular cotton grown with herbicides and pesticides.
    About 5 -6 years ago there was a article published that compared how much herbicides and pesticides were used to grow enough cotton to make on white t-shirt. It was a very enlightening article.

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