One way marketers get consumers to part with their hard-earned dollars is through the use of third-party certification seals. If an independent third-party says the company is reputable or has granted use of its seal or logo (or other form of certification) for a specific marketing claim, surely consumers have nothing to worry about, right? Not always. Each certification seal has its strengths and weaknesses. Here are five that TINA.org has covered:
Non-GMO Project Verified The first thing you need to know about this certification seal is that “Non-GMO” does not mean “GMO-free.” The Non-GMO Project, which has granted use of its butterfly seal to tens of thousands of “verified products,” says claims like GMO-free “are not legally or scientifically defensible due to limitations of testing methodology,” adding that “the risk of contamination to seeds, crops, ingredients and products is too high to reliably claim that a product is ‘GMO Free.’” The nonprofit says consumers should view the seal as “a true statement acknowledging the reality of contamination risk and the realities of the current food system.” In August 2022, the Non-GMO Project increased its verification fee from $70 to $105 per product.
BBB Accredited Business Companies must also pay a fee to be accredited by the BBB for the right to display the organization’s blue seal of accreditation, which the BBB says increases the likelihood of consumers making a purchase by 83 percent. (In fact, annual membership fees can add up to thousands of dollars depending on the size of the company.) But the BBB itself notes that “BBB accreditation does not mean that the business’s products or services have been evaluated or endorsed by the BBB,” and adds that “[b]usinesses are under no obligation to seek BBB accreditation, and some businesses are not accredited because they have not sought BBB accreditation.” Meanwhile, a 2017 TINA.org investigation documented more than a dozen instances in which a business held onto its BBB accreditation (and/or high letter grade) even after settling deceptive advertising charges. In 2020, TINA.org published a follow-up to its 2017 investigation reminding consumers that, by its own admission, the BBB is not a consumer watchdog so it’s important they always do their research beyond a company’s BBB page.
Cruelty-Free/Animal Test-Free (PETA’s Beauty Without Bunnies) Of the three organizations that certify cruelty-free products that TINA.org highlighted in a 2019 Decoding Cosmetics Claims post, only PETA’s Beauty Without Bunnies had the word “cruelty free” in its logo. It has since changed the language in the logo to “animal test-free,” while increasing the one-time licensing fee to use the logo from $100 to $350. The strengths of PETA’s program include an online database that allows consumers to search not only “companies that do not test on animals” but also those that, according to PETA, do test on animals, in addition to companies that PETA says are “working for regulatory change,” a category that PETA says recognizes companies that test on animals only when required by law. One of the weaknesses of the program? It is not hard to get on PETA’s nice list. Companies need only complete a short questionnaire and sign or submit a statement “verifying that neither they nor their ingredient suppliers conduct, commission or pay for any tests on animals for ingredients, formulations or finished products.” In other words, PETA has to trust that the companies are telling the truth. The same goes for consumers.
Energy Star In 2010, the U.S. Government Accountability Office put the Energy Star seal of approval to the test, developing 20 bogus products and submitting them for energy-efficient certification. In a blow to the reputation of the program that was created by the EPA and the Department of Energy in 1992, 15 of the bogus products passed and were awarded the coveted blue star, including a phony gas-powered alarm clock. Following the fiasco, the EPA and DOE vowed to strengthen the program. Yet appliance makers that display the Energy Star seal on their TVs and refrigerators continue to have their energy-efficiency claims challenged in court.
The Higg Index Introduced in 2011 by a trade group consisting of some of the world’s largest fashion brands and retailers, the Higg Index is touted as a sustainability ratings tool that measures the environmental impact of individual products based on factors such as water use, carbon emissions and labor conditions, resulting in a consumer-facing sustainability profile. But critics say the methodology behind the Higg Index is flawed and accuse companies that use the index of greenwashing. They say that the index strongly favors synthetic materials made from fossil fuels over those that come from natural sources, such as cotton, wool or leather, and that the index doesn’t account for the full life cycle of products, excluding environmental factors such as whether a garment is biodegradable.
In sum, third-party certification seals are not a silver bullet. Consumers should not make purchasing decisions based solely on whether or not a product displays this type of marketing. Look at the ingredients list, dig deep when researching a company and question broad environmental claims that can be difficult to substantiate.