Deciphering Ecolabels for Greener Schools

For school facility managers, architects, designers and even school faculty and administration, credible certifications and their ecolabels make it possible to find greener, healthier products with which to build, furnish and maintain school facilities. However, not all certifications and ecolabels conform to the same principles or set of standards, so knowing the differences between them is important.

Types of Certifications
Third-party — A certification carried out by an impartial, independent organization for conformance to a specific standard, third-party certification is considered the most credible for its objectivity and rigor. Often, though not always, third-party certification also involves science-based testing and data analysis.

Third-party certification to both single- and multi-attribute environmental standards is possible. Examples include EcoLogo, GREENGUARD, Green Seal and UL Environment certification.

By contrast, first-party certification is a self-declaration whereby an organization providing a good or service makes and backs up its own environmental claims without third-party substantiation. And second-party certification is a declaration made by an organization that appears to be a third-party but, in reality, has ties to the manufacturer of the product it is certifying. First- and second-party certifications are less credible due to their potential for bias.

Multi-attribute — Multi-attribute certifications take into account every phase of a product’s lifecycle, including:
  • impacts of harvesting the raw materials,
  • manufacturing process,
  • use of the product itself,
  • distribution and
  • disposal (or recycling/re-use).
The benefit of a multi-attribute certification is that it assures a specifier that multiple environmental impacts of a particular product have been addressed. Examples are UL Environment, EcoLogo and Green Seal.

Single-attribute — Single-attribute certifications address 
one environmental impact category only, such as energy efficiency, indoor air quality or recycled content. Examples include GREENGUARD Certification, ENERGY STAR and USDA Organic.

Types of Ecolabels
Type 1 Ecolabel — Defined by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) as third-party verified ecolabels, these 
represent lifecycle-based, multi-attribute certifications. UL 
Environment, EcoLogo and Green Seal offer Type 1 ecolabels.

Type 2 Ecolabel — Described by ISO as a label representing a self-declared environmental claim, Type 2 ecolabels lack verification by an independent party.

Type 3 Ecolabel — Defined by ISO as a label that represents a third-party certified Environmental Product Declaration, a Type 3 ecolabel is a detailed report about a product’s cradle-to-grave environmental impacts. Type 3 ecolabels do not define or assess the product’s performance against any standards.

How to Evaluate Ecolabels
When sizing up an ecolabel’s credibility, ask yourself, who’s vouching for the ecolabel — a reputable third party, or a first or second party? Do your homework and see what information you can find about the ecolabel. In general, the more scientific information available, the more credible that ecolabel is.

Are the sustainability performance standards against which the product is certified science-based? Are they available to the public? A legitimate ecolabel should have nothing to hide and its scientific standards should be easily accessible.

Does the label address the health or environmental impact 
that is most important to you? Not all certifications address individual environmental impacts equally. In general, third-
party certifications that address a product’s indoor air quality performance are critical for schools. For this reason, look for either single-attribute indoor air quality certifications (e.g. GREENGUARD Children & Schools Certification for building products and furniture) or multi-attribute environmental certifications that take into account a product’s indoor air quality performance along with other environmental impact categories (e.g. UL Environment certification for cleaning products and printers).

Admittedly, determining which ecolabels are trustworthy can seem daunting. But once you’ve armed yourself with the knowledge to make those determinations, you’ll be well on your way to creating healthier, more environmentally responsible learning environments for students and staff. 

Steve Wenc is president of UL Environment. UL Environment provides environmental claims validation, multi-attribute product certification, environmental product declarations, indoor air quality certification, product emissions testing, organizational sustainability certification and consulting. Learn more at