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Amazon tries to make it easier to identify green products with new 'Climate Pledge Friendly' label

By Benjamin Romano, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

SEATTLE - "Time is fleeting," Amazon tells shoppers who click on its new Climate Pledge Friendly label, an hourglass with wings. It began appearing next to about 25,000 items for sale on its website Wednesday that meet at least one of 19 sustainability standards.

The standards, including one related to packaging issued by Amazon itself, cover a wide range of product characteristics, some of which include explicit efforts to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with their production. Other standards that earn Amazon's Climate Pledge Friendly label require only that a product be made of materials including at least 5% recycled material, or that wool be sourced from farms that support animal welfare and responsible land management, for example.

The labeling represents the latest attempt by retailers to give shoppers a way to browse products based on their environmental and social impacts. But it is far from a clear picture, as shoppers still have to dig through loads of information about the standards from the organizations that issue them to glean what, exactly, they mean about the products.

ECOLOGO Certified is one of the standards. Products that meet this standard - such as Mrs. Meyer's cleaning brand and Scott Paper Towels - "can reduce the environmental impact of one or more stages of the product life cycle," Amazon says on a part of its website giving brief explanations of each standard, and linking to products that meet them. The company also links to the third-party organizations that issue the standards.

ECOLOGO, according to Underwriters Laboratory (UL), covers "a wide variety of criteria in some or all of the following categories: materials, energy, manufacturing and operations, health and environment, product performance and use, and product stewardship and innovation." UL goes on to list specific criteria for dozens of product types. But to read them, a consumer must create an account with UL and go through a digital checkout process.

Amazon has simplified this research for consumers to a certain extent, or perhaps oversimplified it, by lumping many sustainability standards - including some that focus on trade, workplace safety and worker well-being - under the broader Climate Pledge Friendly label. Despite the implication in the name, a shopper selecting products based only on the Climate Pledge label won't necessarily be buying a product with the lowest levels of greenhouse gas emissions, which are driving climate change.

"Some of the language is a little bit deceiving," said Alexis Bateman, director of the MIT Sustainable Supply Chains Initiative. "Not to minimize the value of animal welfare, fair trade or fair wages," but these attributes don't necessarily have a direct impact on reducing emissions.

"That said, the fact that Amazon is doing anything in this space is just awesome, because when Amazon acts, then the pressure will be diffused across every actor that sells on their platform and is in competition with them, the biggest retailers and e-tailers of the world," Bateman added.

She and others will be watching closely to see how and whether Amazon expands and refines the labeling system, and promotes it to customers who may want to search for products based on its attributes.

"While Amazon's sustainable shopping site is a good first step, it's not the level of ambition needed," said Jenny Ahlen, director of EDF+Business, an initiative of the Environmental Defense Fund, in a blog post. "Shoppers might be able to look through products with certifications, but what about the hundreds of thousands of other products sold on Amazon that don't have certifications. How will shoppers know what their impacts are?"

 

The standard with the most products is Amazon's own newly released "Compact by Design" certification, which is a continuation of the company's long-standing efforts to reduce packaging waste and improve shipping efficiency. Amazon says this has a direct climate benefit. Some 6,000 items, ranging from waterless shampoo bars to ultra-concentrated household cleaners to dog treats or electronics cables in svelt packages, comply with the company's certification, and thereby get the "Climate Pledge Friendly" label in search results and on product pages.

Bateman said Amazon has clear financial incentives to shrink the size of the goods that flow through its warehouses and delivery network, saving space on racks and in trucks. And while such standards are typically set and managed by third parties - as is the case with the other 18 tied to the new labeling - Amazon, with its immense power over suppliers, "might drive higher adoption" by using its own standard, she said.

The Climate Pledge Friendly label is at least the third effort in the last decade by Amazon to guide customers toward more environmentally benign products.

In 2012, it launched a site called Vine.com, under the online shopping rival Quidsi it acquired in 2010, that featured products with many of the same attributes as those now marked Climate Pledge Friendly: fair trade, energy efficient, natural, organic and reusable.

The company also had an Amazon Green shopping page, which was being shut down with the launch of the Climate Pledge Friendly label.

An Amazon spokesman described Climate Pledge Friendly as a new program, in which Amazon does the work of identifying and creating the most credible sustainability standards on behalf of its customers.

The spokesman said it was inspired by Amazon's Climate Pledge, a commitment made nearly a year ago to become "net carbon zero" by 2040.

That commitment extends only to emissions from Amazon's own operations, including its shipping, electricity use and branded products, not emissions stemming from the millions of other products sold by Amazon and its third-party sellers. Amazon is buying more renewable energy, adding electric vehicles to its delivery fleet and funding the development of emissions offsets projects in pursuit of that goal.

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