Is The Company You’re Buying From Really Eco-Friendly? Dig deep to find out just how green a company may be

Most everybody agrees eco-friendliness should be a priority for modern human civilization — in part because of our horrific influence on Earth’s warming/cooling cycle, and in part because it just makes good sense. In fact, the only real holdouts left are the people who still manage to turn a profit by pretending otherwise.

There’s comfort in knowing, however, that even if we choose not to be political beings, we can still make small decisions and small changes to help create a new status quo.

One of the not-quite-political stands you can take is becoming a more conscientious consumer. More and more these days, that means buying only from companies that practice good stewardship of Earth from the top to the bottom of their operations and that practice good business ethics. Unfortunately, knowing the difference isn’t always easy.

Cases in Point

Why isn’t it easy? Because the world of industry and commerce is wheels within wheels. A tiny handful of companies owns most of the other brands and companies in the world. Consequently, even when a company seems to have earned your trust, and even when they seem to have figured out how to turn a profit without destroying the planet, there’s still a good chance they’re doing something behind closed doors you wouldn’t like.

This writer enjoys Apple products as much as many other people. And Apple deserves admiration for bringing all their facilities across the world up to 100 percent renewable energy. In 2017, 22 of Apple’s supplier facilities received third-party certification for being “zero waste.”

But we all need a reminder: Some of the Chinese factories that build iPhones have suicide nets. Misery is that common — and that grisly. Not all these factories are Apple-owned or even Apple-exclusive. But does it matter? American companies chose these suppliers for precisely one reason: cheap labor. It’s true iPhones are relatively more sustainably made than the competition, but even that innovation milestone came with a huge human cost attached.

Additionally, one of the standards we need to use more often in appraising a company’s ethical standing is who they partner with and how they treat those business partners. One example in recent years involves a court case between two “eco-friendly” companies, Sustainable Biofuels Solutions and Tekgar, which found Tekgar to have failed in its responsibilities as a transparent business partner by misclassifying critical documents so their partners wouldn’t have access to them.

Does it sound like wonky legalese? It’s not. It’s about lying and hiding things — nothing more. In this case, Tekgar was lying to a business partner with similar environmentally-conscious initiatives. You would think they’d be on the same side, but unfortunately, placing the broad label of “eco-friendly” on a product or service doesn’t always equal ethical (and we’ll further discuss the ambiguity of “eco-friendly” in a bit).

The point? You’re not your favorite brand’s only partner — they also have business partners, vendors and licenses to juggle. There’s a lot going on at the corporate level at any given time. But bad behavior spreads just as virally as good behavior.

One big question is whether individual human values like honesty and integrity can scale up to a size large enough to legally qualify as a corporation or even an LLC. The next question is how we can do better homework, as consumers, when it comes to the companies we buy from.

Tips and Tricks for Doing Better Homework While Shopping

It’s not always easy to tell how ethical a company behaves behind closed courtroom doors. The good news, where environmental stewardship is concerned, is that there are several independent certification entities that help consumers look for companies that manufacture their products sustainably. No matter what, this is a line we can draw in the sand with some third-party help.

Here are some of the labels you should look out for:

  • “Post-consumer” and “recycled content” — There’s little excuse these days not to reuse cardboard and paper. If a product package wears these labels, the company has made efforts to replace a significant portion of their material with reused content.
  • “Carbon-free” and “carbon-neutral”: — Natural Capital Partners and Carbonfund.org are responsible for furnishing these certifications. They indicate a company has made efforts to eliminate or offset its carbon emissions.
  • conscientious consumerRainforest Alliance certified — One of the gravest threats to the long-term health of our planet is the rate at which industrialized areas are replacing forests. The Rainforest Alliance investigates which companies contribute to deforestation and which do not. An “Alliance Certified” label indicates a score of at least 80 based on 10 criteria.

Here’s what not to look for:

Phrases like “environmentally friendly” and “eco-safe” have no fixed definition and no oversight body attached to them. Companies know consumers stop reading the labels after reaching words like these — a habit they leverage with Orwellian turns of phrase that sound mostly, but not quite, legitimate.

There are many other ways you can do some online legwork and figure out which of your favorite brands are practicing good environmentalism as well as good business ethics. Here, briefly, is a crash course.

Look for companies the Solar Energy Industries Association has named for having replaced a substantial portion of their power consumption with renewable energies. Additionally, whenever ground gets broken on a new facility, see if the company is promoting LEED certification, which denotes the use of energy-efficient design and Earth-friendly building materials.

There are more than 1,000 companies in the world that price their carbon. Despite the lack of a federal-level carbon tax, some companies are staying proactive by essentially charging themselves a fee for their carbon footprints. Finding such companies in North America is easy if you know where to look.

Finally, remember, no matter how loudly wealthy politicians howl about the commingling of business and government, there’s always a place for pro-social lobbying by a reputable company with a solid reputation for climate stewardship. There are several coalitions in the U.S., including BICEP (Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy), which advocate for better climate policy, a harder stance on deforestation and air and water quality, preserving publicly owned lands for future generations, shifting subsidies from oil to renewables and higher standards for energy efficiency.

Being a Conscientious Consumer Takes Work

Thankfully, public opinion is decidedly on our side. In 2015, a full 90 percent of surveyed consumers indicated they “expect” companies to do business in an environmentally and socially conscious way. Our job is to hold their feet to the fire and make sure they fulfill that obligation in every verifiable and certifiable way currently available.

When so many of us have trouble finding stability in our financial lives, “shopping around” can feel like a luxury we can’t afford. But not every lifestyle change will throw off your budget — and even a small amount of research, and one or two pro-social individual decisions, can go a long way toward changing the status quo.