Green Seal in the Sustainability Movement: Our relationship to other NGOs and government

Arthur-ColorBy Arthur Weissman, Ph.D, Green Seal President/CEO

Green Seal was one of the first U.S. non-profit organizations (“NGOs”) to make the greening of the economy the focus of its efforts. We have worked from the start on promoting more sustainable business practices by identifying greener products and services in many categories and helping to catalyze market demand for them.

When I espoused this view of Green Seal years ago, the head of another environmental group, who happened to be on my Board, objected that his (advocacy) organization was also about greening the economy. No doubt he was correct. But there was a critical difference.

Traditionally, environmental NGOs have advocated for particular governmental programs and legal requirements or played watchdog on their enforcement. Both of these agendas have been crucial for environmental progress since the 1960s. Without grass-roots pressure stoked by NGOs, many of the iconic environmental protection laws (Clean Air, Clean Water, Safe Drinking Water, Superfund, Endangered Species, etc.) may not have been passed. As important, without NGOs threatening and carrying out lawsuits to enforce these laws on companies and government agencies, the laws would not have been nearly as effective in stemming pollution and protecting resources.

The traditional NGO approach thus focused on legal requirements and predominantly “end-of-pipe” solutions to environmental problems. This certainly made sense for the first several decades of the modern environmental movement, since industrial growth had led to unacceptable pollution of our natural resources. Moreover, compliance by industry was not guaranteed: many companies saw pollution as an inevitable byproduct of production, and fines for polluting a necessary cost of business.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s that the idea of voluntary programs to encourage performance beyond legal compliance started taking hold. Energy Star (1992) was the iconic voluntary program in government, and LEED (1993), Forest Stewardship Council (1993), and Green Seal (1989) the counterparts in the NGO community. Moreover, other NGOs, even those historically involved most in litigation, began working directly with companies such as McDonald’s and Dow to reduce their environmental footprints through pollution prevention initiatives.

Today virtually every major NGO has a partnership program with companies, and voluntary programs in government have proliferated at all levels and in many industry sectors. Government remains, however, primarily a rule-making agent to define the minimum level of acceptable performance by industry. NGOs in the environmental protection area likewise still function primarily in an advocacy role to spur new governmental programs or the implementation and enforcement of existing ones.

Green Seal, unlike its other NGO brethren, cannot also play an advocacy role. Instead, we focus on market incentive programs and methods to stimulate the greening of the economy. This remains our sole line of work.

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