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USDA Certification raises bar for biobased

The scientific rigor of ASTM combined with the credibility of the USDA raises the bar for industry and makes the USDA Certified Biobased label a new source of competitive advantage.

Chart: J. Ottman Consulting, Inc.
Chart: J. Ottman Consulting, Inc.

With carbon footprinting and energy independence on everyone’s minds, many marketers are looking to capitalize upon their product’s biobased content. But not all biobased claims are alike. The scientific rigor of an ASTM standard combined with the credibility of the USDA raises the bar for the industry and makes the USDA Certified Biobased label a new source of competitive advantage within the consumer and government procurement markets for brand owners who make the effort to get their biobased products certified.

What is ‘biobased’? 

There is no Webster’s definition of biobased. So, marketers have tended to define it loosely or link it to perceptions of biobased as anything biological, living, natural, renewable, or even biodegradable. Some do not reveal the amount of, or basis for, claiming biobased content, making comparisons difficult. This can even represent greenwashing, when biobased content levels are insignificant. Many questionable biobased claims have emerged, including several official-looking logos with no third-party backing. With more than 25,000 biobased products on the market, clearly there’s a need to clear up the confusion.

The USDA Certified Biobased label, introduced in February 2011, helps to level the market for biobased claims by providing a clear definition and an internationally recognized test standard backed up by the credibility of the USDA. The label has already certified 500 products, with applications in the pipeline for at least 400 more. (See our previous column for more detail.)

Not just any biologically derived product or package can qualify for the label. Certified products must meet three key criteria:

• They must meet the definition of biobased as written into the 2008 Farm Bill

• They must contain minimum levels of biobased content set forth by the USDA and verified by the ASTM D6866 test standard (minimums are determined on a category-by-category basis and are pegged to performance and other criteria)

• They represent alternatives to petroleum-based materials introduced after 1972

So, products that were on the market before 1972 made from natural fibers or forestry resources such as cotton tee shirts, office paper, or a 2x4 made of pine would not qualify. And neither would products whose biobased content does not meet minimum levels. (See the USDA BioPreferred® site for more details.)

Translating biobased content into marketing benefits

The label, with its sun, sea, and crops motif, was designed to help communicate that biobased products can be derived from the sea or forests—not just grown from plants. For transparency, it requires that the exact percentage of biobased content be listed on the label for the product and/or package. Thus, marketers are provided with a level playing field, and consumers have an easy way to identify legitimate biobased products, as well as to compare and trust in their stated content levels.

Marketers can use the label to support a range of benefits, including energy independence, alternatives to petroleum, carbon cycle management, enhanced farm and rural economies, and green jobs. Related and specific product environmental benefits as applicable, including renewable, biodegradable, natural, or compostable, must be supported and substantiated with scientific evidence.

The USDA Biobased certification process is administered by Iowa State University, an independent third party. Only accredited independent laboratories conduct testing. Since the certification only measures carbon content, no proprietary formulas have to be disclosed. Unlike most other certifications, there is no upfront fee, licensing, or royalties, so even the smallest businesses can take advantage of the program. Only a $500 lab test is required—a small price to pay for a potentially big competitive advantage.

Seventh Generation leads the pack
Seventh Generation has already certified more than 35 of their household and personal care products. Their motivations: to promote transparency, to avoid greenwash, to allow consumers to make side-by-side comparisons, and to change the way the industry talks about “natural.”

Says Julia Walker, associate scientist of Seventh Generation, “Our consumers want to know where their products originate without being ‘greenwashed.’ The USDA Certified Biobased label enables us to disclose the percent renewable carbon in our products, telling consumers how much carbon comes from plants versus petroleum. The credibility of the method will give consumers the confidence they deserve to make conscious choices about their purchases and the products they bring into their homes.”

Jacquelyn Ottman and Mark Eisen, of New York-based J. Ottman Consulting, Inc., advised USDA BioPreferred on the launch of the USDA Certified Biobased label during 2011 and are now working with labelers on how to market their participation in the program.

Ottman is the author of “The New Rules of Green Marketing: Strategies, Tools, and Inspiration for Sustainable Branding” (Berrett-Koehler, 2011), in which she provides a template for infusing bold, creative thinking and implementing practical strategies to successfully integrate sustainability into consumer brands. A 35% discount is available to Greener Package readers through the publisher’s Web site, or by entering discount code “newrules12” when ordering.

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