It’s a perennial challenge for marketing departments – how to convey the genuine performance advantages of their product, and step above generic marketing claims to something more firm and defined.
A great option for this is third party verification: asking a qualified outside body to validate the performance of the product. Any genuine certification or verification process will have a timeline associated with it – products will need to be tested or otherwise assessed, obligations of continuing compliance need to be agreed, an ongoing inspection process needs to be agreed.
With the speed of change in markets these days, and of course pressure on budgets, sometimes companies opt for a murkier alternative – the selfie seal. This is where a company places a logo or other device on a product that looks like a certification or seal of approval by a third party, but is actually an empty marketing tool. These are sometimes called ‘selfie seals’, or as the US Federal Trade Commission has described them, ‘performing seals’.
Here’s one example – on the front of this cleaning product there is a ‘seal’ that claims the product is ‘safe for pets and kids’. It is displayed in a different colour and style to the rest of the product packaging, making it appear like a third party claim or certification. But on the reverse of the same bottle, there is a caution that the product should be kept out of the reach of children and pets. What is a consumer to believe?
This type of problem is particularly common in the green product space, with manufacturers coming under increasing pressure to demonstrate the green credentials of their products and processes. Regulators are increasingly acting on selfie seals.
A recent EU Commission study looked at 150 environmental claims on products and found that over half of them provided vague, misleading or unfounded information. 37% of claims were vague enough to be likely to deceive consumers. As a result the Commission has recommended that the EU’s Unfair Commercial Practices Directive be amended to ensure the fairness and reliability of sustainability labels and seals.
In the USA, the Code of Federal Regulations states that “It is deceptive to misrepresent, directly or by implication, that a product, package, or service has been endorsed or certified by an independent third party.” The Federal Trade Commission carries out enforcement actions against “seals or certifications that companies award themselves without clearly explaining that to consumers”. Fines in the millions of dollars have been applied to manufacturers and retailers that make false claims of products being ‘certified organic’ or that textiles had been processed in an eco-friendly way.
Investing in genuine third party certification avoids these regulatory pitfalls, and it also reduces risk in general by having product performance claims validated by an independent third party. Let’s use our usual ESG lens to dig into this a bit further.
Relevant third party certifications can demonstrate to environmentally conscious customers a brand’s commitment to products and services that have a positive impact on the environment. Reputation is at stake when consumers buy into environmental and sustainability claims, and consumer trust is difficult to regain if lost.
Many of our certification standards include testing of Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) emissions, including in the categories of paint, flooring, and cleaning products. These kinds of claims depend on product testing, and there’s no higher bar than submitting your product to independent, third-party testing.
The social pillar relates to people and communities, and the values that people want to see espoused in the products and services they use. Transparency is key in a company’s activities being taken seriously by its customers.
At ASL, we are careful not to over-reach in the claims that we allow to be associated with our certifications, so that we are providing accurate and reliable information to consumers. For example, we do not allow ‘Zero VOC’ or ‘Zero Emissions’ claims to be supported by our certification or our product testing. While there are ways of defining ‘zero’ in this context as ‘practically zero’ without being open to regulatory challenge, we do not consider that this serves consumers in a transparent way.
A broader benefit for people and communities is also a key part of the value that companies should look to bring to their work. Some of our asthma & allergy friendly® Certification Program clients are currently supporting an important initiative run by our partners the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Rabbit Air, Renegade Brands and Pegasus Home Fashions have provided CERTIFIED products to families dealing with asthma, to reduce exposure to triggers in the home.
What runs through all credible third party certifications is a holding to account. In pursuing independent certification, a company is volunteering to hold itself to account by comparison to an independent quality standard. It’s a clear message to the consumer of the company’s confidence in its product, and commitment to its customer.
In the words of Bradley Gean, Marketing Specialist for one of our certification clients Tarkett, speaking about the asthma & allergy friendly® Certification; “You are holding us accountable, in the same way that we are accountable to having that logo on our product.”
It’s just as clear that choosing to mislead the customer with a selfie seal sends the opposite message.
 Commission Staff Working Document Impact Assessment Report (30 March 2022) Accompanying The Document Proposal For A Directive Of The European Parliament And Of The Council amending Directives 2005/29/EC and 2011/83/EU as regards empowering consumers for the green transition through better protection against unfair practices and better information (https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:52022SC0085 accessed 5 April 2023)
 Code of Federal Regulations, Title 16, Chapter I, Subchapter B, Part 260.6. https://www.ecfr.gov/current/title-16/chapter-I/subchapter-B/part-260/section-260.6 (accessed 5 April 2023)
 Dorsey & Whitney LLP, FTC Seal of Disapproval for “Selfie” Certification Marks, 11 October 2011. Selfie seals – the perils of self-certification https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/ftc-seal-of-disapproval-for-selfie-87764/ (accessed 5 April 2023)
 Environmentally Friendly Products: FTC’s Green Guides – https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/topics/truth-advertising/green-guides(accessed 5 April 2023)