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What Does Green Mean?
By Shane Dale
April 2009

With no standards on how to actually define what qualifies as eco-friendly, distributors are left in the dark about how to position these items to clients. Here’s some insight on how to separate what’s truly green from what’s no more than the color green.

You see that question at the top of the page in the big letters? Yep, it’s the same thing that many clients are asking these days. What does green mean?TIt’s today’s $64,000 question. As suppliers are increasing their eco-friendly offerings, a bit of creative marketing and packaging is also coming into play. Indeed, there are levels of eco-friendliness. And, well, not every product that is billed as green is actually any friendlier to the environment than it was before it had the marketing positioning of "green."

But this nebulous landscape of what does and does not qualify as green is something that distributors need to navigate. With no real guidelines to separate truth from marketing, distributors need to educate themselves and their clients about the differences.

When it comes to the green phenomenon, definitions and opinions differ so greatly that it can be difficult to know where to begin. There’s also the threat of buying from manufacturers who participate in greenwashing – the practice of passing off a product as eco-friendly when it’s not. So, distributors need to be especially careful about simply accepting what suppliers say about their products.

Here’s one way to look at the eco-friendly movement: Since the industry – and America as a whole – has yet to come up with universal green guidelines, distributors have to begin to create their own. "The first thing a distributor should do is set up their own green standards," says Colette Chandler, founder of The Marketing Insider, a firm that holds seminars nationwide to help companies understand and conquer the eco-friendly market. "As a company, if they really want to go down this green path, they need to set up standards for the manufacturer to comply with. They need to say, ‘We’re looking for these types of products.’

"They should have a green checklist and ask their vendors to comply with certain things. If they say, ‘We have a lot of environmentally friendly products,’ but the manufacturer is involved in greenwashing, the distributor is going to look a lot worse. You’re only as good as the company you keep," says Chandler.

Of course, for eco-friendly newbies, it may be impossible to compose a list of green standards without a little help. Fortunately, some ad specialty suppliers have been part of the green movement since day one. Dale Denkensohn, president of econscious (asi/51656), has made it his mission to educate distributors on what makes a product eco-friendly – and perhaps more importantly, what disqualifies a product from carrying such a label.

"As suppliers, it is incumbent upon us to provide our customers with as much information as possible about the products we make so that they can make informed choices," Denkensohn says. "We encourage our customers to ask questions about why our products are better than conventional options."
More Harm Than Good

Chandler encourages distributors to learn as much about a supplier’s manufacturing process as possible because "sometimes, the process is worse than the outcome," she says.

Along those lines, Denkensohn believes in making the manufacturing process at econscious fully transparent. "Our design process involves looking at the environmental benefits of a sustainable fabric as compared to a conventional fabric – we make sure there are no toxic materials used in the processing," he says. "Producing a poor-quality organic cotton shirt that wears out and is tossed into a landfill after a couple of uses would be of no great savings to the environment. In that light, we decided to add some polyester – now recycled polyester – to our fleece sweatshirts. The polyester reduces the shrinkage and significantly increases the durability of the garment, and makes more sense to us than having a 100% organic cotton sweatshirt."

While it’s important to identify materials that are considered eco-friendly, Chandler says it’s just as vital to be aware of the materials’ manufacturing process. For example, bamboo has quickly become a top eco-friendly apparel alternative. "It’s something that’s been pushed a lot in the marketplace – for towels, shirts – as an alternative to cotton," Chandler says. "It has a lot of moisture-wicking potential, and it’s being utilized in a lot of ways."

However, questions about bamboo have arisen. "There is some speculation that the process does create a lot of emissions, and there’s some harm to the environment," Chandler says.
Denkensohn confirms that bamboo isn’t always as eco-friendly as it may seem. "We were quite excited about bamboo fiber garments when we first heard the sales pitch for them: grows like a weed, requires little water, no fertilizer or pesticides, has wicking and anti-microbial properties inherent in the fiber and feels great," he says. "What was not to like about that?"

Well, the process involved in turning it into a fabric that can be used in apparel is less than kind to the environment. "It turned out that most of the bamboo fiber sold to us was rayon from bamboo, and the more we investigated rayon processing, we decided that we did not feel confident about calling it a sustainable product," Denkensohn says. "We tried to get reassurances and certification from the fiber mills that they recycled the chemicals and had closed-loop processing in place, but we could not get this audited or certified, so we decided to hold off. At the present, we would only pursue bamboo if we found a fiber supplier who was willing to be transparent and certified by a third party."

Faux Green

The kind of discrepancy that apparel manufacturers now face with bamboo is similar to many items sold in the ad specialty market. And, some suppliers are taking liberties with what they’re claiming is eco-friendly. Jeff Lederer, vice president of Prime Line (asi/79530), has a problem with a lot of items that are deemed recyclable these days.

"It depends on how it’s being used," he says. "It’s a problem when there’s no recycling program in an office or community. Just because there’s a number assigned to it doesn’t mean there’s a way to recycle it. It’s just some undefined way to make something greener. It’s disingenuous and deceptive."

Lederer uses an example of Rubik’s Cubes that are being manufactured with 100% recycled plastic. "Do I call that item green now? It’s the same item and it will still sit in a landfill, but now they use recycled plastic," he says. "Do I know if it’s any better? Not really. So, that’s why we’re very strict with how we label our eco items."

And since end-users are learning more and more about the green movement, Lederer says distributors must keep up. "When you run up against an end-user that really knows this stuff and a distributor calls an item green, the end-user can say, ‘That’s not green, it’s just a bag.’ So then, they’re caught," he says. "But if they say, ‘It’s reusable because we want you to use this bag instead of a plastic bag, for this reason,’ then you can call it reusable. It has to be in context." To help customers make sense of the growing number of eco-terms, Prime Line offers up a tutorial for distributors on its Web site, and features icons in its catalogs showing the level of "eco-friendliness" for various products.

Christopher Duffy, senior vice president of marketing for Bag Makers Inc. (asi/37940), acknowledges that some suppliers may be trying to pull the (organic) wool over the eyes of uninformed distributors. "In our industry, the trend grew so fast and everyone wanted to get on board, but I think some pretty outlandish claims were being made," he says.

Duffy, whose company offers a number of bags made with varying amounts of recycled material, says there are plenty of inaccuracies out there. "There’s a competitor who sells a non-woven polypropylene bag. It’s the same material that you see at the grocery stores, and they print on their bag that it’s biodegradable, but polypropylene is not biodegradable," he says. "So, that’s a pretty flagrant claim. In my own conversations with them, they said, ‘Yeah, we know, but that’s what somebody in the company wanted.’ That was their conscious choice."

Denkensohn agrees that there are varying degrees of greenness to certain products. "We think it is useful to think of the term ‘green’ as being on a continuum from very green to better than the conventional alternative," he says. "For example, a non-woven polypropylene tote may not be very green with regard to the material it is made from. On the other hand, the fact that the tote can be reused in place of disposable plastic bags has a beneficial impact on the environment. Everything that is produced has an impact on the environment, so it becomes a question of taking a holistic view of the entire manufacturing process and its impacts, from water and energy
use, to transport and product life cycle analysis."

A Matter Of Opinion

Lederer has taught a class on the meaning of "green" and "eco-friendly" at recent ASI trade shows. Ironically, he contends that such definitions do not exist, because being green or eco-friendly is all relative.

"What everyone does with their green programs is an opinion, in most cases," Lederer says. "They say, ‘This is my opinion of why this item is green.’ Our program is based on fact. We don’t call anything green or eco-friendly, specifically. All we say is that an item is recycled, bio-plastic, or organic. That’s all we’re saying. We tell them exactly what the facts are and allow the distributors and end-users to make up their minds about what’s important to them."

Duffy agrees that distributors can take advantage of the fact that the definition of green is wide open to interpretation. "You can have something a little green and something wholly earth-friendly in the hopes of gaining a market advantage," he says. "So, you add a marketing spin to it that will attract the eye of a buyer."

Chuck Fandos, president of Gateway CDI (asi/202515), says distributors can take advantage of the fact that "green" has a different meaning for everyone. In fact, he says that eco-friendly items can fit into three categories: 1. Items that are made from recycled materials; 2. Items that can be recycled; and 3. Items that aren’t necessarily green, but are used in lieu of an environmentally offensive product.

For category number one, Fandos sells T-shirts, caps, outerwear and bags created from organic cotton or recycled materials. Under category number two come writing instruments and paper products that are recyclable, including notepads and self-stick notes. Fandos admits, though, that end-users could question the eco-friendliness of the latter. "It comes down to how you define eco-friendly," he says. "Does the fact that it’s made of recycled paper make it eco-friendly, or does the glue on the back negate it?"

The third category includes insulated drinkware. Fandos reasons that using a single reusable cup for coffee each day, rather than using 365 plastic cups a year, can certainly be considered a green cause.

Of course, Fandos knows that most end-users have their own definitions of green in mind when placing an order. "Everybody right now has different standards," he says. "So, without good standards in the industry, you have to ask the client, ‘What are your expectations?’ If they say, ‘I want my outerwear to be 100% recycled, including the zipper,’ we might not be able to do that."

What distributors can do, according to Chandler, is provide a wide selection of green items for clients who want to go green but don’t know how to get there. "They really need to have a good selection of products," she says. "A page and a half of a catalog is a good starting point, but there has to be a bigger selection. Items have to be health-oriented, more colors than blue and black, and unusual things. Give clients an alternative to what they’re already using, and make it green."

Question Suppliers Aggressively

In pursuing eco-friendly products that their clients want, Chandler says distributors should not be shy with their suppliers. "Push back to your manufacturers. Ask, ‘Is there any way you can green this product?’" she says. "Ask them to help your clients to become greener as companies. If you look at some of the larger manufacturers in the retail arena, they had to teach their manufacturers how to manufacture green products for them. If you can push back as a distributor, that’s a great strategy in the marketplace."

There are some clients, however, who will accept nothing but the greenest of green products. Kris Robinson, vice president of Promo Shop (asi/300446), calls these items "dark green." "This is something made out of a sustainable resource," he says. "You’re not having to make something and you’re not destroying part of the environment to make something."
To ensure the "green-ness" of products, Robinson has a list of questions that he makes sure to ask any supplier before placing an order for a product that’s marketed as eco-friendly. Among the questions Robinson asks before placing a green order with a supplier are:

  • Was the environment damaged in any way to make this product?
  • What was the carbon footprint in the making of this product? 
  • Was the product made in the U.S., or did the manufacturer have to use air freight to ship the item from an overseas plant? 
  • In what kind of factory was the product made?

Robinson says he "personally quantifies" all of his eco-friendly items – from apparel to desk accessories, to trade show giveaways and recognition awards. "I don’t think it’s necessarily a green product because it’s recyclable," he says. "There’s a gray area there, and I think green needs to be defined in black or white. If you have that gray area, I don’t think you can really call it green. To me, the backbone of green is something that’s made out of products that have already been recycled. People take old cotton T-shirts and recycle them and make new garments. That’s good, but you still use all those pesticides in the process."

In an effort to define "green" and "eco-friendly" for an industry that provides no such clear-cut definitions, Fandos and Robinson have collaborated to classify the green levels of the products they sell. Since there is currently no governing body in the U.S. that determines the degree of an item’s eco-friendliness, in 2007 Robinson and Fandos created their own numbering system that both Promo Shop and Gateway CDI have since implemented. According to

  • A rating of 1 means the product is made of 100% recycled or sustainable material. 
  • A rating of 2 means the product is 60%-99.99% recycled/sustainable.
  • A rating of 3 means the product is 45%-59.99% recycled/sustainable.
  • A rating of 4 means the product is 0.01%-44.99% recycled/sustainable.
  • A rating of 5 means the product is deemed an alternative or "green-style" item, and has a smaller carbon footprint than a similar competing product.

Some manufacturers offer certificates that guarantee the greenness of a product – but since the U.S. doesn’t have the same green regulations that are in place in much of Europe, Fandos says that those kinds of assurances from suppliers don’t always carry a lot of weight. "We ask for certification when they have it. If they don’t, we try to have lengthy conversations with them and try to get information from their factories," he says. "We try to find suppliers that generally have good reputations in everything they do. It’s hard to verify everything right now. I would say that Europe is well ahead of the U.S. But I think we’ll get caught up because this is a movement, not a fad."

Shane Dale is a freelance writer based in Arizona

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