Sustainability Certifications: Easy Guide for Consumers & Sellers [2022]

Sustainability certifications are everywhere! Any conscious consumer has seen those little logos on everything from apparel to coffee, skincare, appliances, and even building materials.

Reliable, third-party certifications are a great way to differentiate products and companies that take their environmental and social responsibilities seriously.

The problem is that many certifications do not involve any kind of external assessment and rely on a company’s self-reported sustainability and ethical practices.

Some of these companies will dutifully tell the truth and do great work. Others will fudge the details to meet the criteria and carry on.

Then some companies shamelessly engage in ‘Greenwashing’ to impress their customers and increase their profits while taking no steps at all to improve their environmental or social impact.

So, how do you know which certifications are legit and which ones are less-than-reliable? How do you spot Greenwashing?

If you’re a maker, seller, or service provider, how do you know which sustainability certifications to choose so as not to harm your brand reputation?

In this guide, we’re going to cover exactly what sustainability certifications are, why they’re important, the different types, and how to choose credible, reliable ones.

Then we will show you 10 certifications to look out for so that you can be assured that you’re making the best choices for your brand or your purchase.

Let’s dive right in!

What Are Sustainability Certifications?

Sustainability certifications are voluntary certifications issued by an independent, second-, or third-party organization to a company, product, or service. To be certified, the company needs to demonstrate that their business practices and products meet specific criteria to demonstrate that they’re committed to good environmental, social and ethical practice.

Sustainability certifications are:

  • Voluntary: in contrast to legal requirements and standards, sustainability certifications are usually voluntary and are not issued by governments or industry authorities. This may, and should, change going forwards as more and more governments recognize the importance of incorporating sustainability and climate issues into policy.
  • Independently Standardized and Issued: the criteria, standards, and requirements for certification are developed by independent third parties. These may be a group of experts from the same industry or a collaboration between industry experts and external experts or consultants knowledgeable about the issue being assessed and certified.
  • Fairly Assessed: certifications are issued to companies based on a fixed set of industry-specific standards. These are realistic and achievable within that industry, which levels the playing field for applicants. Only companies that meet the minimum requirements are certified. Some certifications have different levels that denote how well the company scores and how many of the criteria are met at the time of assessment.
  • Verifiable, Credible, and Transparent: certifications are verified by an independent third party, which makes them more robust and reliable. To be credible, a certification must be issued by an independent party or auditor. Certifications that rely on self-assessment and self-reported results are less reliable.
  • Market Driven: voluntary suitability certifications are not regulated by governments and are market-driven. This means that they’re often less rigorously assessed and that criteria can be flexible or more easily achievable than most government regulations allow.

Globally, there are over 600 certifications relating to environmental sustainability, social responsibility, and ethical, fair labor practices. Numerous certifications relate to animal welfare and cruelty-free practices.

Check out this quick video by Nisa Fareeha for more on the types of sustainability labels:

YouTube video

Depending on the type of business and the nature of its products, a single entity may hold numerous certifications that relate to different aspects of its business.

Let’s look at why sustainability certifications are important and how they benefit companies and consumers alike:

Why Are Sustainability Certifications Important?

Sustainability certifications are important because they drive good practice, encourage transparency and require accountability. There are benefits for both consumers and the makers/sellers of products and services.

Benefits of Sustainability Certification for Consumers

  • Quick and easy way to identify products and services that meet your preferences and align with your values
  • Easy way to identify products that have multiple criteria you’re looking for without having to do research on the product or read the fine print
  • Simple way to determine if a product or service has been vetted and accredited by an independent third-party
  • Quick way to identify how committed a business is to the values and practices they claim in their marketing (as opposed to vague, sweeping statements and outright greenwashing)

Sustainability certifications - free image from canva of a stamp and the stamped words "eco-friendly" in green ink.

Benefits of Sustainability Certifications for Makers and Sellers

  • Great way to assess your impact in the environmental, social, and ethical spheres by seeing how well you meet criteria that relate to your specific industry. This also allows you to improve your practices.
  • Reach your ideal customers by showing them clearly and quickly that you care about the same things they do.
  • Increase trust and credibility for your brand by showcasing your commitment to best practices and are not afraid to have a third party assess your business and products.
  • Simple way to demonstrate transparency and showcase your commitment to accountability
  • Increased sales and profits – a recent survey by GreenPrint found that “64% of Americans are willing to pay more for sustainable products but most (74%) don’t know how to identify them. According to the findings, 78% of people are more likely to purchase a product that is clearly labeled as environmentally friendly”

Sustainability certifications help consumers quickly identify the products/services that want to buy. They help them see at a glance that a company is committed to issues that align with their values.

Now that we have seen why sustainability certifications are important, let’s look at the most common types of certifications:

Different Types of Sustainability Certifications

Broadly, sustainability certifications relate to environmental, social, and ethical issues.

Different certifications may relate to very narrow and specific aspects within each of these broad areas. This is why many companies hold numerous certifications that relate to different aspects of their business or only to specific product lines and not the company as a whole.

The three main types of sustainability certifications are:   

  1. Environmental: these certifications relate to a wide range of environmental impacts such as resource management, carbon, and greenhouse gas emissions, manufacturing methods and pollution, materials sourcing and farming methods, waste management, circularity, etc. This is possibly the broadest category and many companies will have numerous environmental certifications.
  2. Fair Trade and Ethical Labor: these certifications relate to fair economic practices and fair labor practices. They ensure that fair prices are paid for goods from developing nations, fair wages are paid to workers, and that companies do not use unethical labor practices like child, slave, or indentured labor.
  3. Animal Welfare and Animal-Free: these certifications relate to the ethical treatment of animals. They include cruelty-free products that are manufactured without cruelty to animals, animal testing or killing of animals and vegan/animal-free for products that contain no ingredients of animal origin.

There are hundreds of different certifications relating to each of the three categories above. Some are international, while others are specific to one country or region.

Some are highly credible and involve rigorous, external, assessment and strict compliance, while others involve self-assessment and self-reporting, vague requirements, or lax standards.

Here are 10 sustainability certifications that are highly regarded and considered to be credible, verifiable, and transparent certifications:   

10 Trustworthy Sustainability Certifications to Choose

These are some of the best certifications to look out for! With literally hundreds of different certifications and eco-labels out there, we have chosen to focus on those you will find on consumer goods, in most parts of the world. You will see these on everything from apparel to coffee!

These relate to manufacturing processes, how materials are sourced, and general business practices concerning environmental, social, and ethical issues.

We have chosen ones that are externally verified and considered to be reliable, trustworthy, and credible:

  1. B Corp Certified

B Corporation certification is one of the few certifications that relate to all spheres of sustainability – environmental, social, and economic. B Corp certified companies are assessed from end to end to measure their overall impact on the natural environment, climate, and social and economic environment.

Sustainable certifications - B Corp Logo

Issued by: B Lab

Head Office: Berwyn, Pennsylvania, United States

Area Covered: Global

Requirements for Certification: To receive B Corp certification, a company needs to demonstrate that they’re committed to environmental, social, and economic responsibility.

B Corps are assessed from end-to-end, in all spheres. This includes supply chain, materials sourcing, labor, and trade practices. This makes B Corp status one of the few certifications that cover all aspects of sustainability.

Assessment involves a series of evaluations, both internal and external, and regular compliance audits.

Membership fees are based on annual income and are used to fund operations, as well as B Lab’s non-profit operations.

  1. Cradle to Cradle

Cradle to Cradle has developed global standards to certify products that have been designed and manufactured to be safe, made responsibly, and, most importantly, to fit into a circular economy.

They focus on “material health, product circularity, renewable energy and climate, water and soil stewardship, and social fairness” in their standards and assessment processes.

This holistic view of sustainability covers all aspects of environmental, social, and economic responsibility.

Standards and assessments are developed and implemented with input from experts in the industry and experts on the impacts that each sector has on the environment, social and economic spheres.

Sustainable certifications - Cradle to Cradle Certified Logo

Issued by: Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute

Head Office: Oakland, California, United States

Area Covered: Global

Requirements for Certification: Certification involves assessment across five key sustainability categories to measure performance. These are material health, material reuse, renewable energy and carbon management, soil and water stewardship, and social fairness.

A product is then assigned a four-scale achievement level (Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum) for each of the five categories. The lowest tier achieved is then given as the overall certification level.

Certification is renewed every two years, based on a follow-up assessment. This encourages improved performance to move up a tier.

Fees include a final certification fee that covers registration, a database listing, and the first two years of membership. Renewal assessment and the next two years of membership also incur a fee, which is lower than the initial fee.

Cradle to Cradle is a member of 1 for the Planet, and a percentage of their profits are donated to environmental conservation.

  1. Carbon Trust Standard

The Carbon Trust Standard is an organization that assesses and recognizes companies that are working to reduce their environmental impact. They focus on carbon, water, and waste management.

Their assessment process for certification is a rigorous process that evaluates the current state of a company’s impact on the environment and then offers expert advice on how to do better.

They aim to reduce impacts year on year, to achieve net-zero.

They offer a range of different certifications relating to carbon emissions, water, and waste management. They also offer carbon-neutral certification.

Sustainable certifications - Carbon Trust Standard Triple Logo

Issued by: The Carbon Trust

Head Office: London, United Kingdom

Area Covered: Global

Requirements for Certification: To obtain Carbon Trust Standard certification businesses are assessed to measure their environmental impact and must then develop a 12-month plan to reduce that impact in a measurable and responsible way.

The strategy, plan, and implementation are guided by the experts at the Carbon Trust, who work with leading environmental scientists and industry experts. Certification is awarded at the end of the process when the plan is implemented.

  1. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certifies that wood products come from forests that are responsibly managed with the environmental, social, and economic environments in mind.

FSC forests and forestry products are assessed for compliance with laws relating to environmental management, social responsibility, and economic good practice.

This ensures that FSC products are sourced from responsible sources that do not exploit natural resources or the people involved in the supply chain.

Sustainability Certifications - FSC Logo

Issued by: FSC certification is issued by various independent auditors that assess the company against FSC standards and local and international laws. These independent certification bodies are overseen by Assurance Services International.

Head Office: Bonn, Germany

Area Covered: Global

Requirements for Certification: FSC offers two certifications – Forest Management and Chain of Custody certifications. Both certifications require assessment by external auditors for compliance with FSC standards and applicable local and international laws. Assessment findings and reports are published by Assurance Services International to achieve accountability and transparency.

  1. Rainforest Alliance

The Rainforest Alliance is an international non-profit. They work with businesses, farmers, and foresters to promote sustainable and environmentally conscious practices throughout the supply chain.

Their focus is on environmental good practices to protect forests and promote sustainable farming practices. They also work to improve livelihoods and promote human rights for communities in proximity to the farms.

The Rainforest Alliance provides science-based, scalable solutions and drives change through education and economic benefit member businesses.

Sustainability Certifications - Rainforest Alliance Logo

Issued by: The Rainforest Alliance

Head Office: New York City, United States

Area Covered: Global

Requirements for Certification: Certification is available for Farmers and Supply Chains. To be certified, the applicant is assessed against the Sustainable Agriculture Standard developed by the Rainforest Alliance and/or the Sustainable Agriculture Standard’s Supply Chain Requirements.

Assessment is done by independent, third-party auditors to ensure integrity and credibility. The assessments address the following key focus areas: Forest management, deforestation, and ecological preservation. Climate protection through soil and emissions management. Human rights through policies for working conditions, wages, and indigenous land rights. Economic benefits and sustainable livelihoods.

  1. Environmental Working Group (EWG) Verified

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) Verified certification applies to cosmetics, cleaning products, and baby care products. Their certification verifies the safety of all ingredients in the product for the environment and human health.

All ingredients are compared to a comprehensive database of substances and chemicals to determine the safety of the product. They also require strict transparency regarding production processes.

Sustainable Certifications - EWG Logo

Issued by: Environmental Working Group

Head Office: Washington DC, United States

Area Covered: Global

Requirements for Certification: Certification requires an online application and legal disclosure agreement. Individual product ingredients are then compared to the database of hazardous substances to determine a safety rating.

It must be noted that EWG verification is for three years, which means that products may change during that time so the seal does not guarantee that the product currently meets all the requirements.

  1. Leaping Bunny Certified Cruelty-Free

Leaping Bunny Certified Cruelty-Free is a certification for cruelty-free products by the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics (CCIC). The CCIC is made up of eight animal protection groups, with the aim of developing and promoting the use of a single, comprehensive, standard for cruelty-free and animal-friendly products.

Leaping Bunny certification ensures that products do not contain any ingredients that have been tested on animals. This applies to the whole supply chain, including external suppliers and materials sources.

The certification process ensures that there are no loopholes in the system and that only products that meet all the requirements are certified.

Sustainability Labels - Leaping Bunny Logo

Issued by: Cruelty-Free International (CCIC for the US and Canada only)

Head Office: London, United Kingdom

Area Covered: US, Canada, UK, and EU but internationally recognized

Requirements for Certification: To obtain Leaping Bunny certification a brand must not use any product or ingredient that is tested on animals. This goes right down the supply chain to the individual ingredient manufacturers.

The certification process involves a detailed assessment, a cutoff date to switch any products found to be using animal-tested ingredients, and the implementation of an ongoing monitoring plan.

They also conduct external audits to ensure compliance. Fees are based on annual income and business size.

  1. Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)

The Global Organic Textile Standard or ‘GOTS’ is an international standard that certifies materials as organic. To be certified, a product must contain at least 95% natural, organic fibers.

Certified products are also prohibited from containing certain chemicals, solvents, and heavy metals that are considered toxic. Organizations must also adhere to social responsibility and fair labor practices, in line with the International Labour Organization.

Sustainable Certifications - GOTS Logo

Issued by: Global Standard gGmbH compliant accreditation councils

Head Office: Global – through locally based accreditation councils

Area Covered: Global

Requirements for Certification: The certification process for GOTS is a rigorous and extensive process. Independent third-party inspections of the entire production chain, from where the material is grown to where it is eventually sold.

Inspections take into account the materials used, chemicals used in dyes and processing, and waste management. Workers are interviewed and financial records are also evaluated.  

Any areas that need improvement have to be resolved before certification is granted. Re-evaluation is annual and required for recertification.

  1. Fairtrade International

Fairtrade International is an international non-profit that promotes fair wages and safe working conditions for labor in many sectors, but particularly in coffee and textile production.

Fairtrade International certification is awarded to producers, farmers, traders, and importers/exporters. The certification process is undertaken by FLOCERT, an independent body that was originally formed by Fairtrade International but became independent in 2008.

Sustainability Certifications - Fairtrade International Logo

Issued by: FLOCERT

Head Office: Bonn, Germany

Area Covered: Global

Requirements for Certification: To be certified, companies must apply and be evaluated by FLOCERT to measure compliance with the Fairtrade Standards set by Fairtrade International.

These standards are strict and complied in conjunction with various stakeholders, where producers/farmers are also represented. License fees vary, depending on what the product is and where the applicant is located. 

  1. Bluesign

Bluesign is a system that evaluates the production, processing, and manufacturing of textiles and provides solutions to improve environmental and social impacts and drive sustainable development.

Chemical suppliers, manufacturers, brands, and retailers can all use Bluesign to improve their operations and reduce their impacts. Bluesign develops auxiliary materials and services that help the company achieve its sustainability practices, right through the whole supply chain.

The aim of the Bluesign system is to ensure that textile products are safe for the environment, for workers, and for final consumers.

Their assessment methods and operational requirements are some of the strictest and most comprehensive for textile manufacturing.

Sustainability Certifications - BlueSign Approved Logo

Issued by: Bluesign Technologies AG

Head Office: St. Gallen, Switzerland

Area Covered: Global

Requirements for Certification: For a product to carry the Bluesign Approved certification, it must be made from at least 90% Bluesign approved materials. This includes all chemicals, additives, and dyes, as well as the actual fibers.

Bluesign certification involves the entire supply chain being assessed, from the bottom up. Once the assessment is complete, changes must be made to the process and supply chain to meet minimum requirements for certification.

Recertification is based on continuous monitoring and a commitment to continued, measurable, improvements.

  1. Energy Star Certified

Energy Star by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) certification is an energy-saving certification for electrical appliances and fixtures.

The Energy Star eco-label can be displayed on energy-efficient appliances that meet specific targets for energy use reduction. For example, an Energy Star Certified refrigerator must be at least 15% more energy efficient than the minimum manufacturing industry standard.

Sustainability Certifications - EPA Energy Star Logo

Issued by: US Environmental Protection Agency

Head Office: Washington DC, United States

Area Covered: United States, with international equivalents e.g., EU Energy Star

Requirements for Certification: Products are tested to see if they meet the Energy Star standards for that specific product and specifications. Testing is to ensure that the product meets the energy-saving requirements but does not come with a trade-off in performance.

Test results are reviewed by third-party experts and laboratories. Any changes needed must be made and the product is retested before it can be given certification.

Final Thoughts on Sustainability Certifications and Conscious Shopping

Sustainability certifications are an important tool to guide businesses to do better in terms of their environmental, social, and ethical impacts.

They’re also a quick and easy way for consumers to identify products and companies that fulfill their requirements as conscious consumers.

Trustworthy certifications that involve external, third party, evaluations, and ongoing assessment are the most reliable and credible certifications to choose from.

They help us avoid greenwashing and differentiate the businesses that are truly committed to meaningful sustainability practices, from those who just want to cash in on sales from consumers who care.

However, not all certifications are accessible and affordable for smaller brands and businesses. This does not mean those businesses are not doing good. In fact, your small, local supplier is often going to be your most sustainable option!

It is important to reach out and find out what their policies are and to evaluate the information they provide to see how transparent it is – they might not have a formal certification but still be a great choice!

References and Useful Resources

Eco-Label Index: Searchable Directory of Eco-labels and Certifications

Elemental Green: 23 Green Certifications to Look for When You’re Building or Remodelling Your Home

Environmental Science.Org: What Is Sustainability and Why Is It Important?

US Environmental Protection Agency: Ecolabels and Standards for Greener Products

World Green Building Council: Directory of Global Green Building Councils

Frequently Asked Questions

What are sustainability certifications?

Sustainability certifications are voluntary certifications issued by an independent, second-, or third-party organization to a company, product, or service. To be certified, the company needs to demonstrate that their business practices and products meet specific criteria to demonstrate that they’re committed to good environmental, social and ethical practice. Check out the full guide for more info.

Are sustainability certifications the same as eco-labels?

Yes and no. Eco-labels are the little stamps or logos that you see on products. These often denote sustainability certification but not all eco-labels are from a legitimate certification body. Some companies will make their own eco-labels or use eco-labels that require no assessment or evaluation. That is why it is better to go by sustainability certification than just an eco-label that you see. Check the full guide for more on how to find trustworthy certifications.

Are Sustainability Certifications Trustworthy?

Some certifications are highly trustworthy and some are completely fraudulent. A trustworthy sustainability certification will have transparent information about the standards they use, how they assess an applicant and how they monitor and evaluate members after the initial accreditation. They will use external, often expert, auditors and do not rely on honesty and self-assessments to determine a company's impact on the environment. Read the full guide for more info on selecting trustworthy certifications.

How much does it cost to get a sustainability certification?

In general, most certification bodies require some kind of payment. This may be a once off fee or an ongoing membership fee. The cost varies significantly and can be prohibitive for smaller companies or those in developing nations. Many certification bodies have a sliding scale where membership fees are determined by revenue or business size and location. Read the full guide for more info.

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