The centerpiece of international green guidelines for advertisers recently underwent its first amendments in over a decade, finally being nailed down on December 15, 2011. These, of course, are the guidelines of the International Organization for Standardization [ISO], called ISO 14021:1999, Environmental Labels and Declarations – Self-declared environmental claims ("ISO 14021").
ISO 14021 has spread its seeds all over the world. Canada's own Environmental Claims: A Guide for Industry and Advertisers ("Canada's Guide") was squarely based on and incorporated ISO 14021. The International Chamber of Commerce's ("ICC") International Code of EnvironmentalAdvertising incorporates it and the UK's 2010 guidelines from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs ("UK Guide") refers to it as well, among others.
Why should you care about ISO 14021?
Even if your jurisdiction's regulator or self-regulator doesn't refer to ISO 14021, it is a great source of best practices in using and substantiating green claims.
The Guts of the Amendments: Focus on "Renewable" and "Carbon" Claims Similarly to the US Guide, what the amendments to ISO 14021 did was bring in brand new provisions to address some more modern claims and concepts. Thus, ISO 14021 now includes (in addition to two new symbols, which aren't particularly exciting ) direction on how to use and qualify the terms "renewable", "renewable energy", "sustainable", "product carbon footprint", and "carbon neutral" as well as direction on methodology to evaluate them. It also adds a number of new definitions – for "biomass", "greenhouse gases", "life cycle GHG emissions", "offsetting", "sustainable development" and "traceability."
Let's look at some highlights:
1. Renewable Materials
Think bamboo as a good example. ISO 14021 defines "renewable" in relation to materials as biomass from a living source that can be continually replenished. It also contains an important kicker: when virgin materials are the subject of the claim, they have to come from sources that are verified to show they are replenished at a rate equal to or greater than the rate of depletion.
If materials are less than 100% renewable, allowing for de minimus amounts of non renewable materials, you have to disclose the percentage. As well, the percentage for products and packaging must be stated separately – they can't be aggregated.
2. Renewable Energy
Renewable energy is defined as energy coming from sources that are non-exhaustible or capable of continuous replenishment. Examples given (non-exhaustively) are sunlight, wind-power, biomass and geothermal. NOTE, that the amendment goes out of its way to exclude energy sources associated with movements of water – unless the sources are managed in accordance with the principles of sustainable development. (Operations that interfere with aquatic life, for example, aren't desirable.)
As in the US, unqualified claims for renewable energy can only be made when 100% of the energy supply is renewable (although the US Guide generously allows it as well if "virtually all" is renewable). Otherwise, the percentage has to be stated. ISO 14021 also warns that you need to be especially careful with claims about products or processes that use energy from the grid and you want to claim that they contain a percentage of renewable energy.
The amendments to ISO 14021 re-emphasize that advertisers should NOT make an unqualified claim of "sustainable" or "sustainability". So saying that you are selling "sustainable bags" or that your business is sustainable, and leaving it at that, is out.
4. Carbon-related Claims
a. "Carbon Footprint" (for a product)
Lots of companies like to make claims about how they are reducing greenhouse gas emissions. If you want to talk about your product's "carbon footprint" (essentially how much carbon its existence is responsible for), ISO 14021 nails down a formal definition. The carbon footprint is the net amount of life cycle greenhouse gas emissions, including long term net removals of CO2. ISO 14021 also specifies how a carbon footprint should be evaluated, not surprisingly referencing the applicable ISO standards – i.e., ISO 14040 series, ISO 14064 and product category rules as specified in ISO 14025. Carbon footprint, of course, is just one of the environmental impact categories that is considered in a life cycle assessment. Note that ISO 14021 focuses on the carbon footprint of products rather than companies.
b. "Carbon Neutral"
"Carbon neutral" claims were really on the rise, although it seems a bit less so recently. In any event, under ISO 14021, a carbon neutral product has a carbon footprint of – guess...! Yes, zero.
To call a product "carbon neutral", you have to make sure that ALL greenhouse gas emissions from ALL stages of the life cycle have been reduced (or removed altogether if you're doing that well) and/or accounted for through a system of offsets or credits or by other means.
"An unqualified claim of "carbon neutral" shall not be made."
So sayeth Clause 18.104.22.168. Under this provision, carbon neutrality claims must always include a statement that the product carbon footprint is zero, thus explaining explicitly what carbon neutral means, and a clear statement about which elements of the product lifecycle have been offset. No being vague about that. And that's not all. ISO 14021 wants ads to detail what has been offset, which offset scheme was used and how one can get further information to explain the offset program.
Looking for standards to assess your product's carbon neutrality? Look at ISO 14040 series and ISO 14064.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.