Understanding Eco-Friendly Promotional Products

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa Mertes

Promo Expert

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

What Does it Mean to be Eco-Friendly?

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 many different products, including promotional giveaways. It's a term that means 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?

What Makes an Environmentally Friendly Product?

If you search 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:

The 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.

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 it's the easiest to measure. Manufacturers know if their products contain 100% post-consumer recycled material, meaning it contains materials people actually used, as opposed to pre-consumer material from the factory floor.

Essentially, a term like "green" can be very gray and hard to define. And that has led to some controversy.

DID YOU KNOW?

How a promotional product is used is far more difficult to measure than anything else. 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 why using this product is eco-friendly.

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.

The Business of Being Green

The 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% of online consumers worldwide were willing to pay more for products they believed were socially and environmentally responsible.

Holding Companies Accountable

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 friendly. Here are a few examples of certification programs and guidelines:

EPA Logo

The Environmental Protection Agency is a major organization in environmental responsibility with the mission to protect human health and the environment. The EPA oversees a few eco-rating tools such as:

Energy Star Logo

The Energy Star program rates 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!

Smartway Truck Logo

The SmartWay program assists partner companies in supplying chain sustainability by measuring and benchmarking freight transportation efficiency.

Safer Choice Logo

The Safer Choice program approves products for a special label to quickly identify products with safe chemical ingredients.

Good HouseKeeping Logo

Good Housekeeping gives out a Green Good Housekeeping seal to environmentally friendly products. It even has its own lab facility, the Good Housekeeping Institute, where it tests environmental claims on products.

In 2003, California passed the California Organic Products Act, which requires that cosmetic products marketed as organic contain at least 70% organic ingredients. How do people know if ingredients are organic? With the help of another regulatory program, the federal USDA National Organic Program.

The Federal Trade Commission exists to protect consumers from fraudulent marketing. They published the Green Guides in order to prevent customers from becoming victims of greenwashing. 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:

Green Guide marketing icons, Biodegradable, Non-toxic, recyclable and 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 giveaways as being 100% eco-friendly?

Who Oversees Green Promotional Products?

The promotional products industry sells a wide variety of products made of different materials. There are resources available to help companies like Quality Logo Products, as well as customers like you, make informed choices with eco-friendly products.

Promotional product companies rely on trade organizations like ASI (the Advertising Speciality Institute) and PPAI (the Promotional Products Association International) for information on eco-friendly products. These organizations offer articles and tips to help companies accurately and honestly label their green products.

The Quality Certification Alliance

The QCA is an organization that certifies promotional product companies for meeting standards in five areas:

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

Procedures, Procedures, Procedures

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

The More You Know

If you're a promotional 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)

Understanding what it means to be "eco-friendly" isn't always easy with the deceptive advertising and false labels. Luckily, there are many great resources and articles available to help you stay informed. And when it comes to making good choices for the environment, you can never have too much information!