Top 10 Green Labels Guide

Do you find yourself checking the green labels on products before purchasing them?

They validate social and environmental concerns for both businesses and consumers, promising everything from healthier food to better stewardship of the land. With nearly 400 certifications worldwide, it can be difficult to understand what each one means and distinguish between legitimate seals of approval and marketing schemes.

BBMG, a branding and integrated marketing agency, recently released a Conscious Consumer Report. They tested 13 of the seals to see how 2,000 adults responded, in terms of recognition and alliance. Here are the 10 most recognizable labels, according to that study:

1. The Recycling Symbol

RecyclePerhaps one of the most recognizable notations, the universal recycling symbol is used to designate recyclable materials in a product or a product’s packaging. The three chasing arrows symbolize “closing the loop” by recycling and buying recycled products. Originally designed by a 23-year-old college student, Gary Anderson, during a design contest spurred by the first Earth Day, the label’s use is varied.

  • The universal recycling symbol indicates that the product is recyclable.
  • The American Forest and Paper Association uses an inverted color-recycling symbol to designate products made of all or partially recycled material.
  • The recycling symbols has influenced a host of similar symbols that are used across hundreds of products. One is example is the  Plastic Bottle Material Code System, which utilizes three chasing arrows and a number of inside of the triangle to designate the plastic resin from which the product is made.

While the label is not trademarked, and therefore in the public domain, its use in the U.S. must comply with the Federal Trade Commission’s Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims.


Image courtesy of MoneyBlogNewz

Image courtesy of MoneyBlogNewz

ENERGY STAR is a joint program between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy to help consumers save money and protect the environment. Since 1992, ENERGY STAR has been a trusted source when it comes to cost-effective and energy-efficient products. In 2008, ENERGY STAR helped Americans save $19 billion on their utility bills, which is equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions from 29 million cars.

The bright blue ENERGY STAR label has been placed on more than 40,000 product models in 1,000 retailers around the country. This label can be found on appliances, lighting, home office equipment, consumer electronics and heating and cooling equipment. Examples are compact fluorescent light bulbs, computers and refrigerators.

3. USDA Organic

The most well-known organic label is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As a part of the National Organic Program (NOP), they “develop, implement, and administer national production, handling and labeling standards for organic agricultural products.” The label may be used on raw, fresh products and processed products that contain organic ingredients.

The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 created the need for consistent national standards for organically produced agricultural products.

Organic crops must be raised without conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Animals raised organically must be fed organic feed and given access to the outdoors. No antibiotics or growth hormones can be used.

Image courtesy of Paul Swansen

Image courtesy of Paul Swansen

In production and handling, no genetic engineering, ionizing radiation or sewage sludge may be used. Synthetic substances are also prohibited.

There are a few different classifications for organic products:

  • 100 percent organic: Contains only organically produced ingredients and processing aids.
  • Organic: Contains at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients. Remaining products must not be commercially available in organic form.
  • Made with organic ingredients: May be processed products with at least 70 percent organic ingredients.

In order to become certified, applicants must submit information to one of the USDA’s accredited certifying agents. An inspection and compliance review will proceed before certification can be complete.

4. Smart Choice

Smart Choice, a Pepsi Co. program, helps consumers make healthy living choices with their beverages, foods and snacks by labeling them with the “Smart Spot.” The amount of sugar, sodium and fat, as well as fiber, vitamins and nutrients are all taken into account to determine when the label can be used. Statements from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Academy of Sciences helped establish the nutritional criteria.

'Smart Choices' Food Label

Image courtesy of Ali Damron

According to the Web site, “Products must contain at least 10 percent of the Daily Value of a targeted nutrient (i.e., protein, fiber, calcium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C) and meet limits for fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium and added sugar, or are formulated to have specific health or wellness benefits, or are reduced in calories or nutrients such as fat, saturated fat, sodium or sugar.”

More than 250 products including Tropicana, Gatorade, Baked! Lay’s, Quaker and Diet Pepsi use the Smart Spot on their packaging.

5. Green-e

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

According to the Green-e Web site, only 2 percent of all U.S. energy is produced using renewable resources. This program, part of the Center for Resource Solutions, has two certification and one verification program to let consumers know the products they are buying have been produced using a set amount of renewable energy.

  • Green-e Climate is a certification program for carbon offsets sold on the retail market.
  • Green-e Energy is the nation’s leading independent certification and verification program for renewable energy.
  • Green-e Marketplace allows companies to use the Green-e logo if they buy Green-e renewable energy or generate their own.

6. Whole Trade Guarantee

Whole Trade Guarantee Label

Image courtesy of Whole Foods

The Whole Trade Guarantee, created by Whole Foods Market, inspects products from foreign countries. It is a buying program which guarantees four qualities for each product:

  • Meets high-quality standards
  • Provides more money to producers
  • Ensures better wages and working conditions for workers
  • Utilizes sound environmental practices

Whole Foods wants to provide its customers with the assurance that foods imported from the developing world are being traded ethically, helping the other countries increase income, crops and business practices.

Whole trade items include cleaning products, tea, coffee and fresh fruit sold at Whole Foods.

7. Fair Trade Certified

Image courtesy of Boris Mann

Image courtesy of Boris Mann

TransFair USA, a non-profit organization, is the only independent, third-party certifier of Fair Trade products in the U.S. The label guarantees each product is manufactured following strict social, environmental and economic guidelines. Fair Trade standards put emphasis on the following manufacturing requirements:

  • Fair price
  • Fair labor conditions
  • Direct trade
  • Democratic and transparent organizations
  • Community development
  • Environmental sustainability

Fair trade currently certifies coffee, tea, chocolate, vanilla, fresh fruit, rice, sugar and flowers.

8. Rainforest Alliance Certified

Image courtesy of Simon D

Image courtesy of Simon D

By encouraging sustainable land-use, business and consumer behavior, the Rainforest Alliance hopes to conserve the planet. They work with large, multi-national corporations, as well as small businesses to spread their mission: “To conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods by transforming land-use practices, business practices and consumer behavior.”

The certification is a set of rigorous standards in forestry and agriculture. Strict guidelines that protect the environment, wildlife, workers and local communities are used to evaluate farms being considered for certification. Trained specialists prepare a report evaluating compliance with the standards. If the farm is approved, and if manufacturers can prove they purchased from those farms, the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal may be displayed on the product’s packaging.

The tree frog label is found on coffee, cocoa, chocolate, tea, nuts, fruits, paper, furniture, building materials and more. The Rainforest Alliance encourages consumers to buy these products and “vote with their dollars,” by supporting corporate commitment to sustainability.

9. Certified Humane Raised and Handled

Image courtesy of Stacina

Image courtesy of Stacina

Ten billion farm animals are raised for food each year according to Humane Farm Animal Care, a non-profit organization responsible for the Certified Humane Raised and Handled seal. The standards include:

  • The use of growth hormones and antibiotics is prohibited
  • Animals must be free to move and not be confined
  • Farmers and tanchers must comply with food safety and environmental regulations

Humane Farm Animal Care ensures that animals are taken care of in a humane way from birth to slaughter. Products with this label include beef, pork, chicken, turkey, eggs, veal, cheese, milk and other animal products intended for consumption.

10. LEED or Green Building Certified

LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is the most recognized third-party green building certification in existence. According to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), buildings in the U.S. account for 72 percent of all electricity consumed.

As such, the USGBC developed the LEED standards to verify a certain level of environmental consideration in the design and construction of both commercial and residential buildings. There are minimum requirements in order to even be considered for LEED Certification, including compliance with environmental laws, as well as minimum sizes and occupancy rates.

Image courtesy of Eric

Image courtesy of Eric

Once these prerequisites have been met, buildings are then scored on a 100-point scale. Credits are weighed based on environmental impact, and placed in the applicable category.

There are eight categories included in the evaluation of each building, including:

  • Sustainable sites
  • Water efficiency materials and resources
  • Indoor environmental quality
  • Locations and linkages
  • Awareness and education
  • Innovation in design
  • Regional priority

If a project receives at least 40 points, it is certified. However, with a higher score, buildings may receive a silver, gold or platinum certification.

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  1. Thanks for including us in your piece, Lauren! I just wanted to clarify that companies aren’t Rainforest Alliance Certified – the farms from which they buy their raw products (coffee, cocoa, tea, etc.) are the ones that are audited and receive the certification. If the company can prove they purchased from those farms, they are allowed to use the seal on packaging. Hope that clears it up! Feel free to contact me with any questions!

  2. Great article! It’s important that people know what these logos/labels mean. I would add to your list the cruelty free logo/label, as exploiting animals is definitely NOT green!

  3. What a great article! Many of us see these labels without truly understanding the content and meaning behind them. Thank you for posting this article and introducing me to a few new organizations!

  4. Saw this article and heard about a Good Morning America so wondering where the Sustainable Forestry Initiative stands? Since I work for a paper company and see the efforts they have to get SFI chain of custody certification, I have a keen interset in other parties’ knowledge of this program. Thanks for the input.

  5. “Great article! It’s important that people know what these logos/labels mean. I would add to your list the cruelty free logo/label, as exploiting animals is definitely NOT green!” – Really? What do you define as exploiting animals? Riding a horse, using a mule to plow a field, catching a fish, hunting, killing bugs on the windshield of your car, etc? Recycling and conserving energy is great but the “don’t use animals for food/work” argument has absolutely nothing to do with being green. If humans didn’t use animals and eat them we would not be here.

  6. There is also a system they use to label wood as coming from a sustainable source. I can’t think of the name of it right now. They sell it at Home Depot alongside wood which is not from a sustainable source, so it is good to look for the difference if you are thinking of building something.

  7. Excellent article, Lauren. You would be surprised how many consumers still understand the symbols–almost like the washing instruction symbols on clothing which many garment makers use. Did not know if you heard that Omaha, NE is trying to start a ‘green’ school–should be interesting to see if they get the funding. (see Omaha World-Herald articles)

  8. Hi Greens(eco conscious human)

    Simiya House is blessed to post the eight(8) comment on this well compose and enlightenning article. Eight is a mostly use number of earth911.
    Our company( clothing) is in the beautiful Island of Jamaica,we export to USA quit often. As my wife says” honey this information is what we need to put the business on the highest level” we use a lot of vegetable fiber in production. Lauren thank you please, let us know which logo is most suitable for garment construction.
    All the seven(7) comments are so relevant.


  9. Exploiting animals huh? Wouldn’t you say that if you raise a calf on your own, kept him in a warm barn, fed him the best organic hay everyday, let him roam 1000 acre fields, brushed his fur to keep him clean, never gave him any growth hormones, named him Buster and then shot him and ate him… that you expoited Buster?

    Pretty hard to classify whats expoiting and whats not expoiting. Would you argue that the above is not exploitive? What if we changed the hay from organic to petroleum fertilized? Then we expoited the calf?

    If you say any case is exploitive, then we need to talk to the sharks about eating seals… and we definitely need to talk to the grizzley bears about eating caribou. Especially the ones that have flurished along the alaskan oil pipeline. Pretty much a petroleum fertilizer for carabou.

  10. Courtney,

    Perhaps you are thinking of FSC? Forestry Stewardship Council, the ecolabel that certifies forest management and chain-of-custody, and supported by most ENGOs and purchases throughout the world?

  11. Liked the article but…. Smart Choices? The last that I heard, they were under a lot of fire for effectively buying the scientific basis of their campaign. Tufts University nutritionists backed out when they were being scrutinized for putting the “Smart Choice” label on boxes of Froot Loops.

    So in the spirit of your article, why don’t we scrap #4, which is mostly a corporate ad campaign, and replace it with a label that designates sweat free working conditions (non-sweatshop made goods) such as UNITE? Agreed.

  12. Great list- a key concept is third party verification. I have used consumer reports Green Label program for years to really learn about the transparency and verification behind claims. I highly recommend their site.

    For instance, can whole foods claim third party verification or are they verifying their own claims>

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