A Guide to Using Sustainability Certifications

Talia Vicars
Cover Image for A Guide to Using Sustainability Certifications

So... what's the difference between EWG, Fair Trade, Made Safe, and all of these other sustainability certifications related to human well-being? We're so glad you asked. For World Fair Trade Day, we're pulling together a list of some of the certifications you might see on your favorite products, and explaining what they actually mean. Lucky for you, these are the three top certifications we use in our science-backed rating system.

Fair Trade

How Do You Define ‘Fair Trade'?

Fair Trade Certified™ is the global brand of the nonprofit organization, Fair Trade USA. The Fair Trade certification ​​works on the ground with suppliers to ensure that people making Fair Trade-Certified products work in safe conditions, protect the environment, and earn additional money to empower their communities. You'll find the Fair Trade seal of approval and logo on products that have met these standards.

How does Fair Trade certification work?

The Fair Trade theory of change includes a multi-pronged approach. They develop standards by which to evaluate corporate behavior and then conduct supply chain audits to check for ethical business practices. They also provide educational opportunities to give farmers and growers more agency in the market and ensure fair wages, while monitoring and evaluating outcomes to measure impact.

How can I use it to make informed, more sustainable decisions?

Look for the Fair Trade logo right on a product's packaging! There are products, materials, and ingredients all over the globe that are Fair Trade certified. The most commonly known Fair Trade certified commodity may be coffee, but there are products in almost every sector that have this certification. You can also find Fair Trade certified raw materials, including gold and cotton, from wedding ring bands to bathrobes! This certification can even be found on personal care products, like diaper rash cream and moisturizer, ensuring that ingredients, like argan oil or shea butter, are produced by folks that are being compensated appropriately for their labor. And, keep an eye out for food products with this certification, like rice mylk, which works to ensure safe working conditions, financial support, and disaster relief efforts.

EPA Safer Choice

How Do You Define ‘EPA Safer Choice'?

An EPA Safer Choice label indicates that the chemicals in a product have been reviewed by the Environmental Protection Agency to meet strict safety criteria for both human and environmental health. The Safer Choice label indicates that a product is safer for you, your family, your pets, workers' health, fish, and the environment. The EPA also tests the quality of these products to ensure that they perform as well as conventional products. The list of ingredients can be found in the EPA's Safer Choice Standard and Criteria for Safer Chemical Ingredients.

How does EPA Safer Choice certification work?

To earn an EPA Safer Choice certification, companies can voluntarily submit to the assessment. The assessment includes an investigation into product performance (against other, conventional product standards), pH, packaging, and other criteria. Manufacturers have to disclose all ingredients. If even just one ingredient doesn't meet these standards, the manufacturer is allowed to change the formula and go through the audit process again to meet compliance requirements.

How can I use it to make informed, more-sustainable decisions?

Option 1: Look for the EPA Safer Choice label. Option 2: Use the EPA's tool to search for products that meet this standard. You can also check out our Wise Guides to find products that have this certification, including Laundry Detergent, Dish Soap, and Tile and Tub Cleaner. When it comes to environmental and human health, the EPA Safer Choice label does conduct a rigorous assessment to make sure products don't contain ingredients that can cause human and planetary harm. That said, even though it does also look into packaging, the EPA Safer Choice label doesn't address human rights along the supply chain, labor practices, or sourcing concerns like deforestation and biodiversity. Heck, one certification can't do it all!

Made Safe

How Do You Define ‘Made Safe'?

The Made Safe program is a nonprofit organization that has created a product certification to identify products that aren't 'toxic' to human and planetary health.While it's important to understand what 'non-toxic' means first, the Made Safe certification ensures that a product is made without any chemicals found to be harmful, according to its ingredient database. This list of ingredients is assessed for a variety of human health impacts, bioaccumulation, persistence, and general and aquatic toxicity.

How does the Made Safe certification work?

Companies of any size can apply for a Made Safe certification, and the cost of the audit process is adjusted to make the certification more accessible. The product then goes through an audit process conducted by Made Safe, through which its ingredients are screened for behavioral toxins, carcinogens, developmental toxins, endocrine disruptors, fire retardants, heavy metals, neurotoxins, high-risk pesticides, reproductive toxins, toxic solvents, and harmful VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds). This audit process reflects deeply researched and scientifically supported information to examine not only human health, but also environmental hazards. As the final step in the assessment, Made Safe walks the company through the results to help companies identify potential areas of risk and develop strategies to address these problematic ingredients and identify substitutions.

How can I use it to make informed, more-sustainable decisions?

It's simple: Look for the Made Safe label or identify certified products through their shopping center. They offer products in apparel, baby and child, bedding, cosmetics, personal products, pets, household, and more. For anything from bathrobes to toothbrushes, Made Safe has you covered. If you're looking for a deeper dive, check out our Wise Guides for the why behind what matters when shopping in each of these product categories. Keep in mind... we do have a bone to pick about the use of the word 'toxic' to describe ingredients. 'Non-toxic' doesn't mean much of anything and it's not regulated. In fact, no chemical or material is purely 'non-toxic'. But, because Made Safe describes what it means when discussing toxicity, we'll let it slide.

Want to see science-backed sustainability ratings on all of your fav products?