Career Opportunities For The Certifiably Green

May 18, 2010

Witness a trend:

eco friendlys

Almost daily, the news media report on a new building receiving certification under the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program, which ensures that sustainability standards are met for energy savings, water efficiency, CO2 emissions reduction, improved indoor air quality, stewardship of resources, sensitivity to building impacts and other related criteria.

Last week, Business Review reported that packaging for Dell netbooks and laptops has been certified "compostable." The seal of approval comes from the American Society of Testing and Materials under their D-6400 certification standard, which verifies products as degradable, biodegradable, or compostable. In this case, the wrapping is made from Forest Stewardship Council-certified bamboo, which will break down in an active compost pile and provide high quality compost.

Meanwhile, AlterNet reports that Newman's Own Organics, the "green" company started by Paul Newman known for its salad dressings, cookies, and more, is getting into hot water because many of its products are not "certified organic." Critics feel that the company name is misleading and should be changed.

Green certification is growing

The point is that we're seeing more and more products, services and locations exhibiting green flags, stars, leaves and check marks on their labels or signs, indicating that they have been certified as environmentally friendly and/or socially responsible. The preponderance of green certification programs is making it easier for all manner of items - including organic and fair trade food, personal care products, cleaning solutions, household appliances, buildings, building materials, energy supplies and tourist attractions - to claim to be sustainable.

While the credibility of some of these "eco-labels" can be questionable, there is no doubt that the field of green certification is burgeoning. Even though a company's decision to certify its products is purely voluntary (and can be expensive and time-consuming), it's seen as necessary to attract consumers who are increasingly concerned about how their consumption impacts the environment. As a result, there are jobs to be had and careers to be made in green certification.

An article in The Daily Green about easily accessible green job training programs lists several fields which offer work for those interested in pursuing the wave of green certification. Among the most promising areas mentioned are green building, where the LEED is the giant, and renewable energy. Opportunities to work in the latter include eminent programs such as Energy Star, which certifies energy efficient products and practices, and lesser-known Green-e, which bills itself as "the nation's leading independent consumer protection program for the sale of renewable energy and greenhouse gas reductions in the retail market." And, not to be overlooked is the huge organic products market, which includes food, as well as other products derived from vegetable matter.

Plenty of opportunity

"There's lots of opportunity in green certification," says Arthur Weissman, President and CEO of Green Seal which has been working since 1989 with manufacturers, industry, purchasing groups, and governments to "green" production and purchasing chains. It uses a life-cycle approach, examining all stages of production, usage and disposal.

To date, it has developed nearly 50 sets of environmental certification standards covering products ranging from paper products, to engine oil, to windows. " It's a field of great interest to fledgling fly-by-night programs enabled by the Internet, as well as to bona fide, credible programs."

"While you hear a lot about confusion in the marketplace [because of the burgeoning number of green certifications], I think it's overblown," says Weissman. He points out that there are many product sectors where there are no certification programs, and/or where the ones that exist are not sufficiently holistic. Textiles, vehicles and manufactured wood products are examples. "I see the dearth of certification in these areas as the real problem."

Weissman reviews the process of developing certification standards and describes aspects that show promise for people interested in a career in green certification. He says, "Developing the standard is fascinating and stimulating. We're at the pulse of the market, looking at the entire life cycle of a product. For example, we don't just look at greenhouse gas emissions, but also at toxicity, water, energy use, waste, etc. And, once the standard is set, there is the job of evaluating products and services using desk and field audits. It can be painstaking, but we're finding out a lot about product design, formulas, etc. We're discovering many interesting things."

Markets for green consultants

In some fields, such as building design and construction, the establishment of a green certification program has spawned new careers for consultants. In particular, LEED - the most popular and highly marketed green building certification in the U.S. - has developed a professional credentialing program for LEED professionals to work as consultants to architects, builders, contractors, designers and others in order to help them through the certification process. The US Green Building Council, who developed LEED, provides (or oversees) training for LEED professionals within six different categories relevant to the product or operations to be certified.

In addition, some certification programs have created cadres of consultants to work directly with businesses to help them become certified. For instance, the Green Business League (GBL) employs 300 certified Green Consultants "to offer guidance to homes, schools, and businesses in how to install green practices." The consultants help clients achieve the Green Business Certification, which - according to their website - is "Earned, and not Bought." Green Clean Consultants are another example. They are trained by the Green Clean Institute, which operates a certification program for green cleaning products and services.

Assessing company claims

The most credible certification programs are those that require independent third party auditors to ensure that all standards are met. A number of companies or organizations provide this audit or assessment service. Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) is one that develops internationally recognized standards and certification programs, and verifies compliance of a variety of environmental, sustainability, stewardship, and food quality, safety and purity claims. According to spokeswoman Rebecca Graham, SCS prides itself on its scientific methodology, rigorous standards and transparency. The company currently employs about 35 staff auditors and an additional 200 contract auditors, all of whom are trained to assess the standards specific to each certification program.

Some assessors spend time on the road, conducting site visits farms, factories, homes, businesses, hotels, etc. to determine environmental and social compliance, while others work in laboratories, examining products for energy savings, environmental safety, water usage, hazardous waste, etc. In fact, as a result of a recent announcement by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Energy (DOE), who administer the large and well-renowned Energy Star program, more laboratory personnel will be engaged.

According to PRNews, Energy Star has begun to take steps to strengthen the verification, testing and enforcement of certified products. As of March 30, manufacturers now need to submit complete lab reports and results demonstrating that their products meet the ENERGY STAR requirements. And, by the end of 2010, the labs they use must be approved and accredited by EPA. In addition, the strengthening of Energy Star will require that all applications for Energy Star eligibility rating be reviewed and approved individually, rather than using current methods of automated approval. Staff within the agencies will be needed to implement these new procedures.

Outreach, marketing and education

Another crucial aspect of developing and implementing successful and effective green certification programs is outreach and marketing. Weissman points out that in addition to developing credible standards and assessing them independently without bias, programs need to market themselves to customers of green-labeled products and services, as well as to the buyers and users of the standards themselves - i.e. the companies. Otherwise, they have no business.

However, there are certification programs that put more emphasis on marketing themselves than on ensuring that claims of environmental or social responsibility are indeed true. This is where Urvashi Rangan, Director of Technical Policy for Consumers Union (CU) - which publishes Consumer Reports - comes in. She works to educate and empower consumers about environmentally-friendly products and practices, and advocatea for credible eco-labeling.

"We work on a number of different fronts. Our main interest is in making sure that consumers know what they're getting and not getting. Consumers need more information to decide which labels are credible and which aren't, and they need help with understanding and differentiating labels. Not all organic food labeling is the same," Rangan says. One case in point is organic farm-raised fish, controversial because part of their diet may consist of wild non-organic fish. Likewise, organically labeled fertilizers and many "organic" personal care products are open to question. Certainly there's a need for more research and examination into the true meaning of many eco-labels.

Rangan cites some examples of the advocacy that she and her colleagues have been engaged in to improve green certification and cut down on greenwashing. CU was instrumental in getting the USDA to issue rulings on pasture access for organic livestock, and they filed a petition with the Federal Trade Commission requesting that they examine and consider prohibiting use of organic labels on personal care products that do not comply with national organic standards.

And with its advocacy, CU may just have created a few more jobs in the field. It successfully convinced the EPA and DOE to require independent verification of Energy Star standards. The upshot is that there will be continuing work for trained professionals to ensure that products and services of all types truly meet the green claims made about them.

Written by Abigail Rome

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