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Green certifications are valuable programs that can help companies demonstrate their sustainable products, services and practices to employees, customers, partners and investors. If you want your business to be a great business with passionate employees and customers who respect and admire your business and brand, you’ll need to credibly and transparently show them you care about the environment and social responsibility. A green business certification can help accomplish this.

Benefits of A Green Business Certification

We know consumers and employees prefer green businesses. They flock to companies that care about the environment and are socially responsible. They avoid  “greenwashers” like the plague. By greenwashers, we mean companies that make false claims about their positive impact on the environment just to drive sales and profit.

Green business certifications are a great way to avoid green washing and a perfect way to demonstrate a company’s commitment to sustainability in a credible way. Trusted third-party organizations like LEED, B Corp and Green Business Bureau provide certification programs that can prove your company’s green cred. If you’re a small business owner, sustainability manager or green team leader, you need to understand your certification options and know how they work. Not all certifications are created equal and certifications can focus on a variety of areas including products, buildings, policies, processes and emissions. There are many programs to choose from in each area.This guide will try and simplify your options for you by giving you a complete rundown on the top green certification programs.

What Does “Green” Even Mean?

We’ve all seen the “green” marketing from companies. They say their product is “eco-friendly”, “natural”, “organic”.  Or they’ll say things like our company is 100% committed to sustainability and a member of the Sustainable Business Association. But consumers are skeptical. They’re on to those companies who are trying to manipulate them. And since there’s no legal definition of “green” or “eco-friendly”, they often get away with it.

Official 3rd party green business certifications try to address this skepticism. Completing an official certification can prove to stakeholders that you are truly committed to sustainability. And just as important, the certification process engages executives and employees and often forces businesses to adopt sustainable business principles, policies and practices. In other words, a certification program can drive systemic change in an organization.

For consumers considering businesses and products, certifications can provide assurance that a company is truly delivering on its promise of following green business practices and being environmentally and socially responsible. That makes certifications ideal for consumer marketing and packaging.

Types of Green Certifications

Depending on the type of business you are and the industry you’re in, you might consider any of the following types of green certifications:

  • Commercial Green Building Certifications
  • Overall Green Business Certifications
  • Green Product Certifications
  • Organic and Sustainable Food Certifications

Green Building Certifications

Here are the most popular and trusted green certifications for buildings:

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)
Certifies that a building is resource-efficient and cost-effective. This certification looks at performance in areas such as energy, water, waste, construction, lighting and site selection. It is delivered by the U.S. Green Building Council.

BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method)
BREEAM accreditation is administered by its parent company, Building Research Establishment (BRE). It is the oldest method of assessing, rating and certifying a building’s environmental sustainability.

LEED certification is the dominant green building certification used in the United States. BREEAM is more popular in Europe. LEED is considered to be simpler in its approach, while BREEAM is more academic and rigorous. Note: Companies should know that LEED certification is administered by a nonprofit organization whereas BREEAM is not. BREEAM is now administered by a for-profit organization and has become the target of industry criticism because it charges higher fees.

BREEAM uses licensed assessors who examine the evidence against the credit criteria. If BRE decides the building meets its requirements, BREEAM accreditation is issued. LEED does not use assessors to collect evidence for certification. Instead, the building’s design team collects data and sends it to the USGBC. Once the data is examined, LEED certification is awarded if the building meets the requirements.

Green Business Certifications

Here are the most popular and trusted green business certifications that look at an entire company across all functions. These are ideal for holistic corporate-wide sustainability programs.

ISO 14001, part of ISO (International Organization for Standardization) and its over 18,500  developed International Standards, is an environmental management system certification. It maps out a framework that a company or organization can follow to set up an effective environmental management system.

An ISO 14001 certification is well respected and understood in the industry, but it is a major undertaking. The budget, time and resources required are significant and hence ISO certifications are typically only taken on by large, mature, well-funded organizations. Here are the three main challenges with an ISO certification.

  • An ISO project can run several months and requires certified ISO consultants and auditors, an expensive endeavor. The potential cost of fines and penalties due to non-compliance is also a significant factor.
  • An ISO project will use up lots of internal employee time and take them away from their vital daily activities. This time can be reduced by having an employee who has completed an ISO 14001 certification in the past.
  • ISO Projects require the right expertise and knowledge. There are online resources and external consultants available, but this will obviously lead to more cost and time.

B Corp Certification is an international certification that verifies companies meet the highest standards of overall social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability. The scope includes 5 major areas: Governance, Workers, Community, Environment, and Customers. Adherence to the requirements are assessed and verified by B Lab, a non-profit corporation that certifies B Corporations.

B Corporation certification establishes very high standards of social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability that may be difficult for some businesses to meet. Companies applying must undergo a rigorous certification process and meet a long list of significant conditions. The B Corp certification looks at operations, which covers a company’s day-to-day activities and business models, which must be designed to create additional positive impact.

Unfortunately, not every company has the resources and budget to meet the standards, verify compliance and complete the audits required.  Companies considering B Corp certification can complete the assessment as a first step to see if they qualify and to better understand their compliance gap. They may discover that their governance procedures, customer processes and sustainability practices fall short. But the assessment would not be wasted as it would enable a company to set future goals and establish a roadmap to compliance.

Green Business Bureau’s program is a robust program for helping companies of all sizes become more sustainable and includes the online EcoAssessment and EcoPlanner tools and green business certification. It includes over 400 green initiatives and EcoPlans to consider and choose from.

The GBB certification is the most automated and guided certification available. GBB’s certification process is entirely online and initiative based, so a company will receive points for each and every activity it has completed. Initiatives are very granular and well-defined and the library is designed to capture your completed initiatives and give you full credit for all your accomplishments. This even includes  initiatives completed before joining the program. As more initiatives are fulfilled over time, your EcoScore will increase, granting an opportunity to reach Gold and Platinum certification levels.

Initiatives are organized by the business area they impact, such as building, cafeteria, transportation or office materials, and further marked by the effort, cost and greening impact of the initiative. This simple but flexible structure ensures a company can easily target and implement the efforts that best suit the company’s needs and opportunities.

The GBB seal is well-recognized so member businesses get the positive recognition of their commitment to sustainability and the environment. GBB provides a collection of tools and opportunities for member companies to share, differentiate and be recognized for their greening achievements with customers, prospects, partners, regulators and communities alike. A ‘clickable’ web seal takes customers and employees to a personal sustainability webpage that shows a business’s certification level, total points, sustainability mission and accomplishments.

Fair Trade USA Certified companies show customers that the company uses equitable trade practices at every level of the supply chain, ensuring fair treatment, prices and environmental impact. Certifications are available for a variety of different product categories and quarterly fees vary based on the type of business.

Green Product Certifications

Safer Choice certification is done by the Environmental Protection Agency and is a certification and labeling program that shows consumers which products perform well and are safe for human health and the environment. There are various qualifications and labels you can apply for, from fragrance-free products to safe chemical products.

Green Seal is a non-profit organization that certifies and promotes environmentally friendly products and services. The organization has different standards for different industries. You can find your specific application process on the organization’s website which includes products in 500 categories that meet 27 standards, including cleaning products, adhesives, and packaging.

Energy Star is one of the most recognizable certification symbols for appliances, lightbulbs, electronics and other similar products. You can also earn Energy Star certification for buildings or plants. The rating from Energy Start determines if a product is meeting energy-efficiency standards established by the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has a free online tool that you can use to measure energy use and emissions. Scores are given out between 1 and 100, and those that get a score of over 75 are eligible to apply for certification.

Rainforest Alliance Certification Program focuses on protection and promotion of workers’ rights. The certification applies to products like coffee, chocolate, fruit and paper. The seal means that the certified product or ingredient was produced using methods that support the three pillars of sustainability: social, economic and environmental. Independent, third-party auditors—critical to the integrity of any certification program—evaluate farmers against requirements in all three areas before awarding or renewing certification. The standards focus on the following themes:

  • Forests – Promotes best practices for protecting standing forests, preventing the expansion of cropland into forests; fostering the health of trees, soils, and waterways; and protecting native forests.
  • Climate – Promotes responsible land management methods that increase carbon storage while avoiding deforestation, which fuels greenhouse gas emissions. The climate-smart practices embedded in their agricultural training and certification programs help farmers to build resilience to droughts, flooding and erosion.
  • Human Rights – Advances the rights of rural people against human rights abuses. Their standard and assurance systems provide robust strategies for assessing and addressing child labor, forced labor, poor working conditions, low wages, gender inequality and the violation of Indigenous land rights.
  • Livelihoods – Based on the understanding that ecosystem health and the economic stability of rural communities are mutually dependent. The program focuses on Improving sustainable livelihood opportunities for smallholder farmers and forest communities, the most effective way to lift rural people out of poverty.

Green Certifications for Food

USDA Organic certifies compliance with U.S. Department of Agriculture organic standards. Certifiers are responsible for making sure that USDA organic products meet all organic standards. You’ll need to provide information about your growing or production process. Then you can include the USDA Certified Organic seal on your products to appeal to customers that prefer to buy organic. There are six basic steps to organic certification:

  1. The farm or business adopts organic practices, selects a USDA-accredited certifying agent and submits an application and fees to the certifying agent.
  2. The certifying agent reviews the application to verify that practices comply with USDA organic regulations.
  3. An inspector conducts an on-site inspection of the applicant’s operation.
  4. The certifying agent reviews the application and the inspector’s report to determine if the applicant complies with the USDA organic regulations.
  5. The certifying agent issues an organic certificate.
  6. To maintain organic certification, your certified organic farm or business will go through an annual review and inspection process.

SIP Certified provides third-party verification that a wine, winery, or vineyard has adopted and implemented stringent sustainable winemaking and wine growing standards. SIP Certified shows that winegrowers use practices that protect the people and planet so their customers know that their wine was made with care. This program is based on the three P’s: People, Planet, Prosperity.

Non-GMO Project is a mission-driven nonprofit organization offering non-GMO product verification and consumer education. They are the pioneer and established market leader for GMO avoidance since 2010.

How To Complete A Successful Green Business Certification Program

1. RESEARCH YOUR CERTIFICATION OPTIONS

As we’ve discussed, in a market tinged with greenwashing and illegitimate programs, a trusted third-party certification validates your company’s sustainability commitment and highlights your credibility. If you’re not a green product or food company, a more general certification like Green Business Bureau’s is likely ideal. It is employee-engaging and provides a sustainability framework for all departments and all employees. The GBB certification and assessment can be used to assess your sustainable green business practices and policies across the entire company and multiple locations.

Green Business Bureau public profile webpage

Below is a sample GBB green business profile from GBB member, Rivalita Wines. Member profiles reflect the company’s completed and in progress initiatives, total EcoScore and level of certification. The webpage is fully transparent to employees, customers and partners, and accessible via the clickable GBB seal that members incorporate into their company websites and marketing materials.

2. COMPLETE A GREEN BUSINESS ASSESSMENT

Organizations can bypass consultant costs and scheduled meetings by taking the B-Corp Assessment or GBB EcoAssessment online to assess your company’s current level of sustainability. Both have easy-to-follow surveys that entail a comprehensive list of questions involving company practices such as employee carpooling, use of energy efficient products, community involvement and much more. The GBB EcoAssessment can be completed at your own pace which is always a welcomed convenience to the world of business professionals. Further, the EcoAssessment recognizes the green efforts that you have already made and counts this towards your Member Certification Level. Rather than starting from square one, this gives GBB members a solid launching point to further their sustainability mission and reach higher certification levels. Simply fulfilling the prerequisite initiatives earns you the GBB Aware Seal to display on your company website.

3. PRIORITIZE NEXT STEPS AND SET GOALS 

Once you determine your company’s sustainability status, most certification organizations provide a library of initiatives available to improve your score or level. You can typically use an online system to set goals tailored to your company’s unique needs and capabilities. You can quickly filter green initiatives by category, level of difficulty and completion. For some certification programs like that of GBB, you also have the freedom to complete the initiatives in any order and at any pace.

4. ENGAGE EMPLOYEES

Being a certified green business means sustainability is at the core of internal operations and it requires teamwork and a “can do” spirit. A certification program is a valuable opportunity for employee engagement, learning and team building. By creating a green work culture, every employee can feel like a sustainability champion working towards a higher purpose. 96% of employees report that their company’s sustainability programs improved their relationship with their employer. Not only will your employees feel proud to work for a company committed to planetary and social good, but they will find satisfaction in seeing real results generated from your assessment scores.

5. SET UP YOUR INTERACTIVE CERTIFICATION SEAL AND GREEN PROFILE WEBPAGE 

B Corp and the Green Business Bureau provide a certification seal and green profile webpage that are dynamic and transparent online to employees, customers and partners. GBB provides several levels including Aware, Gold or Platinum certified. The GBB Member Seal is directly linked to your GBB Member Profile on their website and directory and automatically updates with every new initiative you complete. By clicking on the Member Seal, online users can see the details of your sustainability status in real time. The approach provides public transparency and reinforces your credibility and trustworthiness. It also eliminates the hassle of frequent website updates.

6. PROMOTE YOUR ACCOMPLISHMENTS INTERNALLY AND EXTERNALLY

The commitment to becoming a greener business is worthy of recognition both in and outside of the office. Release a PR statement to announce your new green business certification and what your decision to go green means for your company and stakeholders. This is a great opportunity to be recognized as a sustainability leader in your community.

7. UTILIZE MARKETING TOOLS AND RESOURCES

Green certification goes beyond the badge of achievement. Members can typically access valuable marketing tools and resources from the certification company. Consider posting a personalized Member Story with your company’s achievements on your site or on the certification company’s site to be shared worldwide. You can also expand your reach by featuring your certification on social media platforms. Further, become an active player in the green business community and network with other members.

8. MEASURE YOUR RESULTS AND SAVINGS

Actively participating in a green business certification program yields real results in the form of cost savings, employee retention and customer attraction. 89% of companies have seen a profit increase by making environmentally positive business model changes. While any sustainability certification comes at a cost, the framework ultimately pays for itself in the long-term as it targets the most energy-intensive and waste-generative areas of your company.

9. CONTINUE YOUR JOURNEY TO THE NEXT CERTIFICATION LEVEL

More than a one-time purchase, certification is a “tool for a lifetime” that can be applied repeatedly as your company grows and changes. With a variety of green initiatives offered and multiple certification levels to achieve, there is always room for your company to be ambitious with its commitment to sustainability.

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