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Guide to Sustainable Certifications

Certifications are a hot topic - especially in the sustainable packaging world. As more and more brands work to bring ethically-made, environmentally-sound products to market, most will inevitably interact with the certification world in some way or another. Certifications are an excellent way to communicate your investment in thoughtful production and products. But, like most things in sustainability, they are not inherently a silver bullet or failsafe to achieve a "sustainable" product or supply chain.

Here we breakdown certifications - what they are, how they can help businesses, where they fall short, and when you might consider them in your strategy.

Most importantly, find a library of sustainability certifications at the bottom for your reference.


Certifications 101: Everything You've Wanted to Know

Reaching a certification criterion or scheme point-blank is not a corporate sustainability goal. Certifications aim to assist you in overcoming obstacles toward achieving your sustainability goals. Do your best not to conflate a sustainability certification with your sustainability values and framework as an inherent part of your company mission.

At EcoEnclose, we frequently interact with certifications on behalf of our customers and in our procurement of raw goods and supply chain partners. As our industry multiplies, we continually return to certification schemes for guidance and level-setting and to implement more scrutiny into our product offering. Over the last eight years, we've also found many ways to continuously improve the sustainability attributes of products and systems without pursuing certification. We've also learned that there are many valuable things that certifications do not accomplish.

This goal of this guide is to allow you to:

  1. Understand the basics of certifications (what they entail, their cost, and how they compare to other guidance types in your industry)
  2. Understand what certifications can and cannot help you accomplish.
  3. Determine relevant certifications for your needs and whether those certifications are essential to accomplish your goals.
  4. Understand the role that certifications can play in a transparent and progressive supply chain.

It's essential to understand the basics of sustainability certification before embarking on a journey to choose and implement certification - since doing so requires a hefty investment of time, energy, and (financial and human) resources.

The Bottom Line: A Summary of Insights

We do not see certification as a requirement for all businesses, nor are they a critical drive for positive environmental change among conscious companies and their customers. But, ultimately, certifications serve two purposes:

  • Third party verification of claims that your supply chain partners are making and that you are then passing along to your customers. While you can take steps to verify this information on your own, your verification processes may be time-consuming, or you may only be able to share them with your customers under an NDA.
  • Marketing and branding. For B2B companies, certifications may help them check the box when selling to businesses requiring or prefer this third-party verification level. In addition, B2C companies may find that their end consumers may find the seal of a sustainability certification comforting. The upfront and annual fees associated with certifications are hefty, but they may have a positive ROI if you believe they will increase sales and customer loyalty.

Several areas where certification can be valuable:

  • Sourcing virgin forest fibers and ensuring the threads in any virgin product or packaging come from FSC or PEFC certified forests and are unlikely to pull from ancient and endangered forests.
  • Compostable plastics, whose compostability should be field-tested (ideally by CMA) and verified with a label and claim that consumers and composters can see.
  • Recyclable packaging and products that can easily be confused with non-recyclable, standard counterparts.

If you decide to certify, be thoughtful about which certification(s) you pursue. Which product or company claims are you making that could enormously benefit from third-party verification? What will resonate with your buyers and help answer questions they commonly ask you? Identify a trustworthy and rigorous standard, and be sure you can set aside resources and budget for it.


Certifications, Scheme Developers, and Certifying Bodies, oh my! AKA How Does This All Work?

Certifications are often confused with certifying bodies or scheme developers. And it makes sense that they are confusing because every certification is a bit unique in terms of how these things play out. But, here is a fundamental and relatively standard approach:

Scheme developers are the creators of a standard.

Certification is the standard to which a product/process meets.

Certifying Bodies, or auditors, are the in-between actors that verify and audit that someone pursuing a certification has legitimately met its requirements.

Labeling: The certification label is typically created by the scheme developer (though not always) and is licensed to the company at the auditor's / certifying body's discretion.

Here is how this plays out:

  • Scheme developer creates standards and certification assets.
  • Brand decides they want to certify their source inputs
  • Brand determines what standard and certification will do this best and be recognizable to their buyers
  • Brand then identifies a certifying body to work with (often after an RFP process)
  • Certifying body audits the brand, and (where relevant), all supply chain partners for the product being audited
  • If Certifying Body decides that the product has passed the the standards set forth by the scheme developer, the product will pass
  • At this point, the brand can utilize the certification assets / labeling on their products, website and marketing material
  • Brand pays fees to the certifying body and to the scheme developer, including one-time fees and annual fees.

Other Players: Industry Interest Groups, Voluntary Sustainability Initiatives, Sustainability Accounting

Certifications are often confused with affiliations and other key players in sustainability. As you'll see in our below summary of certifications, we've included a handful of affiliations and membership organizations that are either (1) often confused with certifications or (2) can achieve the same purpose as a certification.  

They all serve a slightly different purpose and support an overall goal through a specific role.

See below for examples of other organizations that can assist you in your overall sustainability goals and level-setting.

Considerations for each:

  • Certifications
    • Often the most time and resource-intensive initiative.
    • Typically (if product-centric) are applicable to a specific product or service, and not the entire supply chain, product set, or company.
  • Industry Interest Guidance Groups
    • These groups (like the Sustainable Packaging Coalition) are excellent resources for ongoing learning, thought leadership, and research.
    • Since these are technically interest groups, they may not be the most impartial sources of information, so we should take their research and material through a lens of critical thinking.
    • Membership in these groups typically requires a fee structure and annual membership costs.
  • Voluntary Sustainability Initiatives
    • Members of an industry often found these initiatives and groups. They usually focus on creating a space for brands facing similar obstacles to work together on collective goals.
    • Example: Responsible Packaging Movement, launched by prAna. This initiative is for brands working to reduce the amount of single-use plastics and plastic packaging in their supply chains.
    • These groups often do not require a fee structure or membership dues.
    • These groups provide a space for collaboration, support, and like-mindedness - but do not take over the work of actually implementing the changes and work into your company's processes.
  • Accounting
    • Where we get actual baseline data. It is focused solely on digging into your supply chain and various business scopes to gather enough data to give you a baseline metric for a specific goal, like carbon footprint.
    • This is often accomplished by consulting groups or independent contractors but can also be achieved by your team through various standards and software meant to make this process easier and more accessible (i.e., GRI.)
    • If using external consultants, expect to pay hourly and at a rate that correlates to your project scope and company size and complexity.

Key Benefits of Certifications and When They Play a Critical Role

Third-party verification of claims about products or raw ingredients that are critical for a downstream user to confirm and would not otherwise be able to be verified.

Example: Biodegradable in industrial composting streams.

As compostable bioplastics are on the rise, primarily to help divert food waste, certifications like BPI can play an essential role. Because it is difficult for any consumer and composter to tell the difference between a compostable plastic and a standard plastic, this certification tells folks what to allow into compost or not.

There are other critical areas where verification is integral to a product's success, like for allergens in food and household products.

Third party auditing of a particular supply chain and/or product where this visibility or traceability is very difficult to achieve through manual and/or in-person auditing.

Example: FSC Certification to verify the forest of origin of virgin wood or paper.

When you use virgin paper, it is essential to ensure that this material is not coming from unsustainable sources (especially since it doesn't draw from old-growth forests!).

It can be challenging for a paper purchaser to confirm the origin forest, given how much pulp (from various sources) each mill purchases and how many steps the paper may go through between the mill and your business.

That's where FSC's in-depth Chain of Custody Certification comes in. With FSC Certification, plantations and commercial forests are certified. Then every step in the supply chain (from the pulper to the mill to the converter to the printer and distributor) needs to carry a Chain of Custody or Trademark Certificate for the particular product line you are purchasing. When you make your purchase, you should have an FSC number that you can verify on their website.

Given the importance of avoiding wood from ancient forests, certifications like FSC play a crucial role for anyone sourcing virgin wood products.

At EcoEnclose, we frequently run up against this question: "Are you FSC certified?"

The short answer: We carry trademark certifications for our Glassine Bags and Tissue Paper, which are made with virgin material.

The long answer: Our primary goal is to use as much recycled content as possible in our products. For the vast majority of our paper-based products, which are made with 100% recycled content, the FSC certification is not as relevant. In addition, it is not a good investment of the vast time and resources required (resources that we can redirect to other things - product innovation and development, employee benefits and well-being, etc.).

Setting broadly accepted standards and goals for an industry / businesses to work toward, that allows companies to vet and learn more about their supply chain and product.

ISEAL's Codes of Good Practice provide frameworks that Code Compliant scheme developers follow to establish their rigorous sustainability standards. This means that well-respected certifications can provide total value even to organizations that aren't in a position to pursue them officially and can benefit tremendously from them simply by reviewing their standards and auditing their supply chains against them.

For example, GreenBlue released their Recycled Materials Standards in May of 2021, before any auditors were ready and trained to certify against these standards. They did this because their members were eager to learn from the standards and apply them to their supply chains. As a result, many are applying these standards, even those that aren't yet planning to pursue the certification.

Sometimes (often), when companies investigate their supply chain partners and sourcing processes against these standards, they learn more about their product and identify opportunities for improvement that they otherwise would have missed.

Can help to simplify complex sourcing decisions.

Example: Massive brands, whose supply chain and logistics systems are highly decentralized and numerous, will often select their suppliers through an RFP process.

Certifications can be valuable in these situations as they help these brands make quicker decisions and may be critical to keeping their supplies in line with their certification requirements without building the capacity and skill set to conduct these types of audits on their own.


Shortcomings of Certifications and What They Don’t Replace

Certifications can be extremely costly and time-consuming. Because of this, they can create significant advantages for large businesses (those that tend to have all of the benefits already!) and consolidate power across supply chains.

Certifications can cost $5,000 to $50,000 or more (much more!), sometimes per product line. These costs are not just one time. A portion of this amount becomes a recurring annual cost to pay for the time required for the yearly review and the licensing fees that are given to the scheme developer. That can add up to an annual budget of $50,000 to $100,000 quickly, depending on the certification schemes you're interested in.

This cost is a significant line item for most small to midsize businesses worldwide.

But for a large mill or converter, it is a manageable amount that they may see as a critical element of their sales and marketing budget.

This means that the most prominent operators can get a variety of certifications because they have the internal capacity to manage these processes and the associated budget. As a result, these suppliers become preferred sustainable suppliers in their industry - making it far more difficult for smaller players or new entrants to compete.

Most conscious brands and companies (including us at EcoEnclose) are interested in working with smaller, independently owned partners. We are interested in working with women and minority-owned businesses. We are interested in working with partners that have invested in the sustainability of their supply chain and operations. We require written verification that the inputs going into our products are made with 100% recycled content. But we recognize that if we need certification of all of these claims, we will immediately give more power and preference to large conglomerates that already own so much of the market and aren't necessarily driven to innovate.

This leads to our next point.

Certifications inadvertently stifle sustainability innovation because each new product formula requires new certification. Certifications can accidentally put branding and marketing above real, positive progress.

Let's say you have a 90% post-consumer waste product. But you want to get to a 95% and eventually a 100% line. If you prioritize certification as an essential part of your supply chain, this could become difficult or limiting.

You might find a provider with 95% post-consumer waste but hasn't gone through a certification process (so it would be more difficult for you to certify the new formulation!), so you'll be less willing to work with this new formulation.

Or you might work with your existing provider but still not be in a position to take on the extra fees that you'll incur to certify your new product line.

Certifications can make brands lazy! They do not replace the importance of developing your brand's sustainability goals and values and (continuously) working with your team to align on a greater mission.

In our supply chain, we've often seen certifications lead to laziness. They become a label or claim organizations can slap onto a webpage, product, or marketing material to showcase sustainability. Then brands don't feel the need to do much more to push their company forward.

Example: We sometimes see brands put all of their eggs in one particular certification. They may think, "We are sustainable. We source only sustainably certified wood-based products."

But this isn't a sustainability goal! The goal and ethos may be: Eliminate plastics and any paper that has the risk of coming from old-growth forests. Minimize paper that comes from virgin trees.

Or, it might be to achieve Carbon Neutrality by 2030.

The development and execution of these goals are essential to any sustainable brand as it drives and directs every sourcing decision thoughtfully. And this is an inside job - and one we would not recommend outsourcing to others! When brands ask us to tell them the "best" sustainability goals, we turn them right around and send them back to their team and themselves.

If you're pursuing higher levels of sustainability generally - we commend and applaud you! The goals that we are the most passionate about achieving strike a chord with our values. Instead of looking outward to competitors in your industry or asking your customers what sustainability goals you should pursue, dig deep to determine your values and the aspects of environmental sustainability that resonate with you. (Is it ocean pollution? Carbon reduction? Habitat destruction and endangered species? Clean water? Cradle-to-cradle design and material circularity? Transparency in products and your supply chain? Etc.)

Customers are less drawn to a type of goal but more to a brand's singular ownership and commitment to a value, goal, or mission and consistent progress towards it.

Certifications are not an audit of your environmental impact.

Carbon accounting, water or material footprint, plastic footprint, energy use, etc. While certifying bodies or outside consulting groups can help you audit your current environmental impact, it will cost a pretty penny. Do what you can to gather this data on the front-end, then determine what information you need help figuring out.

For example: Say you're committed to carbon neutrality by X date. Instead of approaching a scheme developer directly or employing a generalized environmental consulting group to help you get started and tell you what to do, do your homework to learn about the first and inertia steps to get you started. Get a good idea of your sources of GHGs, what data you can access easily and what information you need help quantifying. Then, seek out professionals (independent contractors, consultants, or agencies) who focus on carbon footprint and greenhouse gas inventorying in your industry and scope (i.e., apparel industry, scope 2 and 3 emissions).

This process will save money because consultants and groups often charge by the hour, the complexity of your supply chain, and the scope of your project. It will also save time in the form of calls to various potential groups, exploratory meetings, internal meetings, and the actual amount of time it will take for an outside group to audit your supply chain in ways that would be incredibly efficient for you to determine.

Certifications should not take the place of building solid relationships between you and your partners and having transparency across your supply chain.

Good, conscious businesses work to get to know their direct partners (the companies from which they purchase). Then, they create partnerships, working with their manufacturers to achieve greater and greater levels of sustainability over time. However, achieving this typically means businesses need to go even further upstream - connecting with their direct suppliers and their suppliers to identify opportunities to operate and manufacture in more eco-friendly ways.

Certifications are not intended to take the place of this type of collaborative, goal-oriented partnership with your partners!

Certifications should not take the place of knowing your product in detail.

Example: Something can be certified as 100% recycled but still have ancillary components that are not recycled. In a plastic bottle, this would mean that additives (for functionality) and colorants are likely made with virgin materials and carry a virgin plastic cap. Additions to support opacity, color, and slippage reduction in a poly mailer could still be virgin. The release liner is also likely virgin. Paper mailers can be certified as 100% recycled but contain fillers and adhesives made with virgin content and carry a virgin release liner.

Suppose you have blinders on for the recycled content certification. In that case, you may pigeonhole yourself and miss an opportunity to improve other aspects of your product, not to mention an improvement that could set you apart from the competition.

Certifications claims are not without fraud and greenwashing (unintentional and intentional).

Many companies across various industries utilize certification claims on their product or website incorrectly - either knowingly or unknowingly. For example, a company may purchase all their paper from an FSC Chain of Custody certified paper converter. This may lead them to believe that all of their paper is FSC certified and may go on to market it to their customers as such. The paper purchaser and their customers may genuinely believe their paper is FSC certified, but it may or may not be.

Being an FSC Chain of Custody certified paper converter does not mean that every product sold is FSC certified! Each separate line requires product-level certification, held by a chain of custody certified business. FSC makes it very easy to audit claims. Each FSC certified product has a unique number, which can be searched on their website and used to trace back the supply chain and original forest of origin of that product. Unfortunately, this is not a clear and natural step for most businesses and consumers. Most of us stop when we see the certification name or symbol we want to see!

The above is an example of unintentional misuse of certifications. Unfortunately, more and more, we are learning about more blatant fraud, particularly in paper. As businesses, we can help clean this up by asking companies that claim certification to share their numbers and verify this information before taking the next step of marketing this to our customers.


When and Why to Pursue Sustainability Certifications

The two primary certification values are (1) branding and marketing and (2) third-party auditing. These are valuable but are not foundational to a brand.

Before pursuing certification for your product or supply chain, it will be essential to ask yourself (and your team) the following questions:

  • What are our sustainability goals?
  • What values are most important to us?
  • How will we measure success towards these goals? (benchmarking)
  • Where are we now? (baseline data)

We've found much of the work to find transparency and accountability in your supply chain can be accomplished without the presence of a certifying body, sustainability consultant, or accountant.

We've found that we must always do this work BEFORE considering and pursuing certification! You'll want to have done your due diligence on your supply chain, feel comfortable and satisfied with your product and formulation, and only then begin any certification process.

In other words, if sustainability is core to your brand and product, it's possible (and less expensive) to do much of the investigative work on your own first instead of outsourcing it. This way allows you to be a more informed consumer (and customer of scheme developers and certifying bodies) and better understand your product, choices, and exactly what you want to pursue.

When to pursue certification:

  • After you've determined your CSR goals and core sustainability values.
  • After compiling as much data as possible about your current products and processes from all supply chain partners.
  • After you've determined that you have personnel that can manage the certification process and a big budget. You must certify according to well-respected standards to avoid any inadvertent contribution to greenwashing (that comes about when beautiful but highly substandard labels emerge).
  • After you've determined that this is the correct use of your personnel and budget, recognize that spending your resources on certifications means not spending on other things (such as product innovation, investments in more sustainable operations, or higher wages). Again, this is likely to be based on a projected return on investment (i.e., you anticipate generating more revenue).

How to increase supply chain and product transparency without a certification:

Do not be afraid to ask your supply chain partners questions, sign NDAs, and look (potentially) stupid on a discovery phone call with the manufacturers in your network.

Your supply chain partners are a wealth of knowledge and can often find information quickly about your product's sources, blends, and capabilities.

Some things you can ask for:

  • SDS sheets of the raw ingredients going into your products
  • Statements from raw material suppliers specifying claims
  • Contact information of raw materials suppliers so you can reach out to verify claims
  • Openness to in-person visits to facilities

How Does a Company "Get Certified"?

First, decide which certification scheme(s) makes the most sense for your business and product set. Some of this is obvious. If you only work with glass or cotton fabrics, FSC certification doesn't make sense! But some of this isn't as obvious. Should you consider something like B Corp, which is more of a broad overarching assessment of your business operations or a more specific claim, such as one related to organic or recycled content claims. In determining this, work to match your certification(s) with your sustainability goals.

Then, learn more about the certification and its standards. Review each standard and be sure that you have the information about your product and formulations to be reasonably confident in your claims and likelihood of getting certified.

At this point, engage your supply chain partners. Auditors will likely require a lot of input, paperwork, and transparency, so you need to make sure they are on board and ready to work on your timeline! The good news is that auditors will work directly with your supply chain partners, allowing them to share information without the fear of disclosing important, proprietary information about their formulation, raw materials, and supply chain. This is a significant benefit of certification (versus simply asking your supply chain partners to reveal everything about who they work with and how they make their products!).

Then seek out auditors or certifying bodies. Most certification schemes have a list of certifying bodies on their website. Contact at least three auditors and ask for a proposal that will outline the fee structure, timeline, process, and requirements.

Identify someone on your team who will run point on the certifications process and ensure that person has ample capacity to manage this work. Then, decide which certifying body you want to proceed with and get going! Note that if you plan to pursue multiple certifications, it is beneficial to work with a single certifying body that can certify to your desired standards, as this will cut down on your costs and time required.


Library of Certifications Related to Sustainability

The following is a list of certifications and details about their standards and what claims they verify.

We have collected more detail on these certifications, including costs and how to certify.

Click here for this read-only certification information.

* These certifications are ones that EcoEnclose "prefers" and believes can provide unique value and, depending on your circumstances, may be worth pursuing.

Source Material Certifications

NOTE ON SUSTAINABLE FORESTRY CERTIFICATIONS

Certifications for Sustainably Produced Forest Products
Protecting ancient and endangered forests - critical carbon sinks, foundational to indigenous communities, and homes to untold species - is a core component of the climate movement. And growing trees in a sustainable, soil and planet-friendly way is essential to ensuring that virgin wood and paper do not destroy our lands.
 
Forest product certification has an interesting approach. First, the forest is certified. Then, the supply chain players in between (mills, converters, printers, distributors, etc.) become Chain of Custom Certified. Finally, officials must give each product line a product-level certification that verifies the product's source materials came from certified forests and traveled through a CoC-certified supply chain. Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of fraud in forest certifications. Supply chain players become CoC certified and then inadvertently claim that all of their products are sustainably sourced.

*FSC: Forest Stewardship Council

  • Forest Management Certification: Confirms that "a forest is being managed in a way that preserves biological diversity and benefits the lives of local people and workers while ensuring it sustains economic viability."
  • Chain of Custody Certification: Applicable to players across the wood or paper supply chain. "Verifies that FSC-certified material has been identified and separated from ineligible and unacceptable material as it makes its way along the supply chain from the forest to the market."
  • Trademark Certification: Similar to Chain of Custody certification, but applies only to distributors or printers of a product that does not alter the good's construction.
  • Product Level Certification (100% FSC, Mix, Recycled): When vetted and applied accurately (with a specific FSC number on the product certification label!), this claim ensures that any virgin content is used in a product comes from FSC certified, sustainably managed forests.
According to Canopy Planet and most environmental organizations, FSC is preferred over SFI because it: (1) employs science-based decision making, (2) has strict limits on the conversion of natural forest lands and the protection of indigenous peoples' rights, and (3) is independent and third-party verified.

Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI)

  • Forest Management Certification: Promotes sustainable forestry practices by certifying forests according to 13 Principles, 17 Objectives, 41 Performance Measures, and 141 Indicators.
  • Fiber Sourcing Certification: Governs how SFI-certified organizations procure fiber from non-certified forestland. This is not something that is part of FSC or PEFC. According to SFI, given that 90%+ of the world's forests are not certified, this certification demonstrates that the raw material in a forest product purchaser's supply chain comes from legal and responsible sources, whether the forests are certified or not.
  • Chain of Custody Certification: Companies can use a chain of custody certification to track and communicate forest fiber content using three optional approaches for a chain of custody: physical separation, percentage, and the credit method (mixed inputs).
  • Certified Sourcing Standard: The SFI Certified Sourcing label tells buyers and consumers that fiber comes from a certified company to the SFI 2022 Fiber Sourcing Standard or comes from recycled content or a certified forest. All fiber must be from non-controversial sources. According to SFI's website: the SFI Certified Sourcing label does not make claims about certified forest content. Instead, it tells the consumer that the fiber in the product was purchased from responsibly managed forestlands.
Over time, SFI's standards have evolved and closely resemble FSC standards. However, FSC is more ecologically focused; SFI is more industry-focused (as it was started as an outgrowth of an industry association and has many wood, pulp, and paper executives on its board). For example, SFI is more permissive of clear-cuts and allows for more harvesting of trees from old-growth forests. In addition, many SFI-certified forests cannot pass FSC certification, suggesting that FSC standards are stricter.

Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC)

As an umbrella organization, PEFC endorses national forest certification systems developed through multi-stakeholder processes and tailored to local priorities and conditions. Ultimately, PEFC's primary role is to certify forests and ensure that wood is produced in ways that meet PEFC's standards.
 
Sustainable Forest Management: Holds forests to their benchmark, which lays out the international requirements for sustainable forest management. Developed by a working group representing all relevant stakeholders, it describes the criteria and indicators we believe are vital for the sustainable management of a forest.
 
Chain of Custody: This certification traces the path of products from a PEFC-certified forest through the entire supply chain, verifying that certified material is identified or kept separated from non-certified material throughout the chain.

Rainforest Alliance

On forestry products, such as paper and cardboard packaging, the seal means that the product or package is sourced from forests certified to the standard of the Forest Stewardship Council®, of which the Rainforest Alliance is a founding member. Businesses carrying this seal on their packaging are also members of their Forest Allies Initiative.

*Canopy Planet: Canopy's Pack4Good Initiative is not a certification scheme. However, given its relevance here, it is essential to include it. Pack4Good members sign policies that commit their company to following Canopy's Paper Steps: 100% Recycled, followed by Next Gen fibers, followed by FSC certified fibers (in this order). Canopy's Eco Paper Database can list and promote products that meet these standards. Canopy's focus is to ensure no paper sourcing from ancient or endangered forests.

A NOTE ON RECYCLED CONTENT CERTIFICATIONS

The next section of certifications covers some of the most reputable schemes that verify recycled content claims. There are a myriad of additional schemes that have developed but we have not found others to be as rigorous as these (and some of the others we have seen often contribute to

*Textile Exchange - Global Recycling Standard (GRS)

This scheme is designed to assess and audit the processing, manufacturing, packaging, labeling, trading, and distribution of products made with a minimum of 20% recycled material. It is a standard developed to support companies looking to verify and better showcase the recycled content of their products and responsible social, environmental, and chemical practices in producing these products. Although Textile Exchange owns the GRS, the range of products is not limited to textiles and can include any type of product containing recycled content materials. The standard applies to the entire supply chain and addresses traceability, environmental principles, social requirements, chemical content, and labeling.

*Textile Exchange - Recycled Claim Standard (RSC)

This is a "single-claim" standard designed to track recycled raw materials through the supply chain. It is intended for use with any product that contains at least 5% Recycled Material. Each production stage must be certified, beginning at the recycling stage and ending at the last seller in the final business-to-business transaction. The RCS standard is a single attribute certification and does not consider social or environmental aspects of processing and manufacturing, quality, or legal compliance.

*SCS Global - Recycled Content Certification

Evaluates products made from pre-consumer or post-consumer material diverted from the waste stream. Certification measures the percentage of recycled content to make an accurate claim in the marketplace. Clarifies post-industrial and post-consumer content, typically on the label itself.

*GreenBlue - Recycled Material Standard (RMS)

The newest recycled content standard in this list, RMS, focuses on plastic and has adopted the same "Chain of Custody" model that FSC and paper sourcing certifications have. This means that, for a plastic product to be certified, every upstream player in the supply chain needs to be Chain of Custody certified, and the source material has to be certified as having a set percentage of recycled content. The Chain of Custody approach makes this certification more cost-intensive to secure. Still, it has the upside of creating a system by which vendors with recycled goods can promote themselves as certified.

OK BioBased by TUV Austria

As more companies seek out bio-based alternatives to fossil fuel inputs, this certification gives a product one, two, three, or four stars, based on the percentage of carbon input in an item derived from bio (versus fossil fuel) sources. The certification does not attempt to rate the ecological footprint of how the bio-based sources were derived.

End of Life Certifications

A NOTE ON COMPOSTABILITY SCHEMES AND LABELING

Certifications related to composting and biodegradability are unique. Schemes have been developed (such as ASTM and EN), and then, globally, a few certifying bodies have become the leaders in testing and certifying finished goods. The labels of these certifying bodies (such as BPI) have become the publicly accepted cue that the package or product is genuinely compostable in a home or industrial environment.
 
A note: To qualify as being "compostable," schemes will typically state that a set percentage of material must have visibly biodegraded from a compost pile after a set number of days. We see packaging developed specifically designed to have no more than X percentage of it with non-compostable inputs. This means the packaging is being designed to meet the threshold but still bring in contamination! This is an unintended but important and potentially destructive consequence of these certification schemes.

ASTM Standards

ASTM International, formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials, is an international standards organization that develops and publishes voluntary consensus technical standards for a wide range of materials, products, systems, and services. ASTM has several standards related to product end of life:

  • ASTM D6400: The primary "gold standard" that sets the aerobic compostability standard for Compostable Plastics.
  • ASTM D6868: Specifies compostability standards for biodegradable plastic coatings on paper and other naturally compostable substrates (such as the compostable coating on a paper coffee cup).
  • ASTM D6691: Test method for determining aerobic biodegradation of plastic materials in a marine environment. While this standard verifies marine biodegradability, it is only relevant in test environments.
  • ASTM D5511: Standard test method for determining anaerobic biodegradation of plastic materials under high solids conditions. ASTM D5526 is an anaerobic biodegradation test used to determine the anaerobic biodegradation of plastic materials under accelerated landfill conditions.

Learn more

EN Standards

Similar to "ASTM," European Standards (EN) is an expression of requirements for products, processes, or services to meet the need of fitness for a particular purpose. They have a handful of criteria related to compostability.
  • EN 13432: The criteria for the industrial compostability of packaging. Requires the compostable plastics to disintegrate after 12 weeks and completely biodegrade after six months. That means that 90 percent or more of the plastic material will have been converted to CO2.
  • EN 14995: The exact same criteria as EN 13432, but developed for non-packaging applications.

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AS Standards

AS: Standards Australia is a standards organization established in 1922 and is recognized through a Memorandum of Understanding with the Australian government as Australia's primary non-government standards development body.
 
  • AS 4736: This standard provides the criteria against which plastics materials that are to be biodegraded in industrial anaerobic composting facilities are assessed.
  • AS 5810: This standard provides the criteria against which plastics materials that are to be biodegraded in home composting environments are assessed.

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Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) - Certifying Body

A third-party verifier of ASTM standards for compostable bioplastics. BPI's labels denote that a package or product has passed ASTM 6400. It is a well-known and widely accepted sign in the US. While many composters will take plastics with the BPI compostable label on them, some will require "in-field" testing beyond BPI's scope.

TUV Austria - Certifying Body

A third-party verifier of a number of different types of certifications, including EN standards for compostability and bio-based inputs.

It is important to note that TUV Austria developed their OK compost HOME testing system to guarantee complete biodegradability in a home, garden, or compost heap. This was due to the demand they saw for home compostability certification and the fact that, at the time, there were no broader standards in place. This work then set the stage for the development of:
 
  • AS 5810: Biodegradable plastics - Biodegradable plastics suitable for home composting
  • NF T 51800 (France's standards): Specifications for plastics suitable for home composting
  • EN 17427: Requirements and test scheme for carrier bags suitable for treatment in well-managed home composting installations

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Australasian Bioplastics Association (ABA) - Certifying Body

A third-party verifier for AS standards related to biodegradability and compostability. Their seedling logo has become well-known and preferred across Australia, New Zealand, and Asia.

*Composter Manufacturing Alliance (CMA)

The CMA is a partnership of compost manufacturing facilities. These facilities have seen firsthand how clinical standards to be tested in a lab don't always play out successfully when they face real-life situations of operational composting facilities. In response, the CMA has developed its certification for compostability, which combines lab and field tests across various composting styles to vet compostables for real-world industrial processes. We believe anyone designing their packaging for compostability should seek out CMA certification.

A NOTE ON RECYCLABILITY CERTIFICATIONS

Packaging is considered "widely recyclable" based on whether or not its material and structural design is accepted by the MRFs (or local recyclers) of most households or by readily available single stream recycling drop-off points (such as thin-film bins). Historically, individual MRFs have simply posted a list of items they accept and don't accept based on their sorting equipment and end markets for reclaimed material. For example, your milk jug is typically HDPE (#2) rigid plastic and is accepted by almost all MRFs. On the other hand, your yogurt container is typically PP (#5) rigid plastic and only accepted by a small handful of MRFs in the US (though it is commonly recycled in Europe).
 
Complicated packaging (such as the layered bags used for potato chips or insulated packaging used to distribute cold goods) has typically been bound for the landfill or could only be recycled through a specialized outlet like TerraCycle. However, as brands seek to make "recyclable" versions of these packaging constructions, the need for Recyclability Certification has popped up, so a brand, consumer, and MRF can distinguish between a "Recyclable" version and a traditional version of the same package.

*GreenBlue’s - How2Recycle Labeling

This is a part membership/part certification labeling, and brands become members of How2Recycle for a fee. Then, every package they want to place the How2Recycle label on undergoes a recyclability assessment based on its specifications, according to H2R's set standards, which one can find here: https://how2recycle.info/guide. EcoEnclose believes this is an essential and valuable certification for any brand using recyclable packaging that one could easily mistake for a more familiar, standard non-recyclable version.

*Western Michigan University - Recyclability and Repulpability

WMU has advanced knowledge and capabilities related to fiber (i.e., primarily paper) recycling. As a result, they have become the go-to sources to test fibers for repulpability. This is a crucial testing process and certification for fiber applications that can easily be mistaken for non-recyclable versions. For example, a standard label release liner is coated with silicone. EcoEnclose's Zero Waste release liner has no silicone but does have a UV coating. Therefore, before moving forward and promoting this product as curbside recyclable, it was essential to have it tested for repulpability.

NexTrex Recyclability for Thin Film

Trex is one of the largest recyclers of polyethylene in the US. As a result, products historically made with non-recyclable film (such as polypropylene or nylon) are now made with PE instead for recyclability. Trex works with brands to test these items for recyclability into high-performance decking and then offers the NexTrex certification at no cost to brands.

Broader and Company Level Certifications

The following certifications are not necessarily related to packaging or products relevant to EcoEnclose. However, they are programs we are either asked about or that we know are becoming common among our EcoAlly community. We are describing them here but do not attempt to make claims about which we would support over others.

Global Organic Textile Standard Certification (GOTS) Certification

This standard certifies the use of organic cotton in textiles and apparel and the final products these items may be used in (including fiber products, yarns, fabrics, clothes, home textiles, mattresses, personal hygiene products, and food contact textiles).

OEKO-TEX

Certifies non-hazardous end-products and all of their components. Products that carry the Standard 100 label have been tested and proven free of harmful levels of toxic substances.

Blue Sign

Standards for the textile industry, taking into account the whole production process, aim to minimize the impact on the environment and safeguard human health. The standard is built around five principles: Resource productivity, Consumer safety, Air emissions, Water emissions, Occupational health, and safety.

Cradle to Cradle

Cradle to Cradle Certified assesses the safety, circularity, and responsibility of materials and products across five categories of sustainability performance: Material Health, Product Circularity, Clean Air and Climate Protection, Water and Soil Stewardship, and Social Fairness.

Fair Trade

Fairtrade International sets Standards under the ISEAL Code of Good Practice on Standard Setting. Standards cover three pillars: Economic, Social, and Environmental impact farmers and traders have on their communities.

Green America - Green Business Network Certification (Standard and Gold)

Businesses earn a standard seal when their application is received and reviewed by Green America's team. Gold Certified Green Businesses go above and beyond Green America standards in every facet of their work. They are leaders in their industries that embed social responsibility into the DNA of their company. Gold Certified businesses have been reviewed and approved by the Standards and Certification Committee, appointed by Green America's Board of Directors.

B Corp Certification

B Corp is a third-party certification administered by the nonprofit B Lab, based partly on a company's verified performance on the B Impact Assessment. Certifies the companies are committed currently and through future planning to address business social and environmental standards, public transparency, and legal accountability. Always helpful to note that this is not the same as a Benefit Corporation, which is not a certification, but a business's legal structure, an alternative to an LLC, S-Corp, or C-Corp.

1% For the Planet

Not a set of standards. Instead, it is a membership model in which member businesses give 1% of gross sales each year to approved nonprofit partners through various support. That 1% contribution can be made monetarily through volunteer hours or product donations to nonprofits. Can become a member of a company, brand, or individual product line.

ISO Standards

ISO 9001: ISO 9001 sets out the criteria for a quality management system and is the only standard that the family can be certified to (although this is not a requirement). Organizations use the standard to demonstrate their ability to consistently provide products and services that meet customer and regulatory requirements.
 
ISO 14001: An organization-wide standard (run through ISO) focused on environmental management programs. It helps companies to create and manage an EMS - Environmental Management System. This covers their overarching environmental goals, environmental regulations and requirements, and sustainability initiatives.

Common Certifying Bodies

The best way to identify a certifying body to work with is to review the certification scheme you are interested in pursuing and search for accredited CBs to certify those standards. The following are testing, assurance, quality, and certification bodies - most of whom have a global presence - that seem to be accredited to audit against various certification schemes.

  • SCS Global Services
  • Control Union
  • Intertek
  • SGS
  • TUV
  • Bureau Veritas
  • EcoCert
  • DNV GL

The Bottom Line: A Summary of Insights

We do not see certification as a requirement for all businesses, nor are they a critical drive for positive environmental change among conscious companies and their customers. But, ultimately, certifications serve two purposes:

  • Third party verification of claims that your supply chain partners are making and that you are then passing along to your customers. While you can take steps to verify this information on your own, your verification processes may be time-consuming, or you may only be able to share them with your customers under an NDA.
  • Marketing and branding. For B2B companies, certifications may help them check the box when selling to businesses requiring or prefer this third-party verification level. In addition, B2C companies may find that their end consumers may find the seal of a sustainability certification comforting. The upfront and annual fees associated with certifications are hefty, but they may have a positive ROI if you believe they will increase sales and customer loyalty.

Several areas where certification can be valuable:

  • Sourcing virgin forest fibers and ensuring the threads in any virgin product or packaging come from FSC or PEFC certified forests and are unlikely to pull from ancient and endangered forests.
  • Compostable plastics, whose compostability should be field-tested (ideally by CMA) and verified with a label and claim that consumers and composters can see.
  • Recyclable packaging and products that can easily be confused with non-recyclable, standard counterparts.

If you decide to certify, be thoughtful about which certification(s) you pursue. Which product or company claims are you making that could enormously benefit from third-party verification? What will resonate with your buyers and help answer questions they commonly ask you? Identify a trustworthy and rigorous standard, and be sure you can set aside resources and budget for it.