How much does a sustainability certification cost?

Written By: Dennis Ruhlin | Nov 16, 2015

Time to Read 9 Minutes

How much do sustainability certifications cost? What's the average price of a sustainable certification?

Consumers are going green. Everyone wants to see some sort of verifiable label proving that your product is better for the environment, for their health, or just better than a competitors. It's documented that customers aren't necessarily driven by cost anymore. Take a stroll through the grocery store. Or a Home Depot. Or practically any store these days. You'll notice something similar no matter where you go.

Certifications claiming sustainable characteristics. Wood products, cars, granola bars, fish, beef, concrete, iron, etc. Everyone is scrambling to show that their product(s) are in some way, shape, or form, better than the rest.

Most people at this point have a general idea as to what sustainability is. And people aren't buying into greenwashing anymore. That means you, the product maker, the service provider, the widget manufacturer, all need to communicate to your client base that your product is green, and there's proof to back it up.

Simple enough, right? Call up the local sustainability expert and get something verified, right? Not necessarily. For some the path to providing proof is easy. For others, the costs involved might pose an insurmountable roadblock.

We get this mentality a lot from our clients and customers. We'll be talking about quantifying and documenting sustainable practices and they'll invariably ask us how do they do it? But, since so much of sustainability remains voluntary today, an awful lot of people we talk to are concerned - and rightly so - about the cost to benefit ratio of moving forward.

People want a ballpark figure to base their ROI off of. "We're going to do all this work, and potentially spend a lot of money for a certification, how's it going to benefit us?".

THIS is really a great question and something that any business or other organization might want to consider. Sure, we're all in this together and becoming sustainable benefits everyone, but let's face facts. Your choices need to be made on sound business decisions. Which means, we hear this frequently

What's the price of a sustainability certification? What's the cost of achieving a sustainable certification?

I wish I had a simple calculator that could spit the answer out for you.

Unfortunately, it's just not that simple.

What is the cost or price of a sustainable certification?

How much does a sustainability certification cost?

Let's consider the following:

There's no central leadership for sustainable certifications.

There is no one grand group for getting a certification. Sure, there are leading groups in certain industries or fields for things like coffee or food products, and things like FCS for wood products or the Marine Stewardship Council for seafood immediately pop to mind. But what about your industry? What about your products?

There's no overarching association for just 'products' or 'goods'.

Don't get me wrong, there are things like Environmental Product Declarations and Health Product Declarations for products, and there are major programs for things like corporate sustainability reporting (CSR).

The problem is there's no one central authority to turn to. Meaning, you could reach out to any number of groups and get back a lot of different information, which also means a widely varying price range for certifications.

Industry 'sustainability certifications' might not be worth the paper they're printed on.

Your industry might be pushing generic EPDs, overall sustainability reports, or other unreliable metrics that apply to an industry as a whole. The problem is, it's borderline greenwashing. You might run a disgusting operation and that certification won't mean a thing. Conversely, you might run the most eco-friendly facility on the planet, and that certification makes you look worse than you really are.

Granted, I've seen some industry specific certifications that are great. But, I've also seen some that are utter garbage.

It all boils down to credibility. The problem is you might not be an expert in sustainability, so how can you determine credibility? Take everything with a grain of salt, when in doubt, reach out to colleagues in different industries, or consult with an expert. Get another set of eyes on what you're looking at.

Industry specific certifications usually are pretty cheap, or at least from what I've seen. Meaning, if you go this route, you might find a very cheap way to get a certification.

But will it mean anything to anyone outside your industry? Or a sustainability expert? Or a client or contractor or customer who actually knows about sustainability? Like I said, be wary of these.

Sustainability means different things to different people.

Sustainability means using renewable energy, or being a loved member of the community, or saving resources, or... The list goes on and on.

And so does the same with certifications. Some focus on what's important to a group, like an industry or a general product. They could focus on one aspect of the big picture, such as their products being made in a factory that doesn't employ child labor.

Great, but is that what you're looking to demonstrate? Does that resonate with your product, your practice, or your business?

You might have an eco-friendly facility turning out great products, but it's staffed by child labor in unsafe conditions because the laws in that country are lax at best.

Is that sustainable? No.

So when evaluating your needs out of a certification, think about what's really going to resonate the most with you. And your staff. And shareholders. And community. And your family, clients, customers, local governments, etc.

Your certification should reflect what you need to get across, but that means that many certifications are going to be specific to your operation or product, which can cause the price to vary wildly.

Your sustainability program is fledgling at best.

Chances are you're not ready to go right out of the box.

Do you have a sustainability program? Do you conduct your business in a sustainable manner? Are your core principles communicated to your staff, shareholders, community, and customers? Have you conducted sustainable supply chain management?

Are you in environmental compliance with all applicable laws and regulations? You'd be surprised with that answer...

In other words, from our experience, most organizations who start down the path of sustainability have to first build a solid foundation. Environmental compliance, maybe developing an EMS to ensure compliance and to go above and beyond.

Most folks have to change their ways in some way, shape, or form. That means your certification you're hoping to achieve is going to cost you money up front before you even get to it.

Environmental Compliance Does Not Equal Sustainability

That last issue there brings me around to another point.

Environmental compliance and sustainability are in no way the same thing. Compliance is a baseline. It's not sustainable, it's what you have to do. It's following the law. No one gets a medal for that. You're expected to be doing that already. If you're not, you're trying to run before you can walk. Start at the beginning and work your way up.

Using an environmental management system (EMS) like an ISO 14001 EMS? Great! You're hopefully completely in compliance and doing a little above and beyond what you can be doing.

Having an EPD for a product doesn't necessarily mean you're sustainable. Your EPD could show you're making a product that is awful for the environment!

And your products aren't LEED certified. And LEED isn't necessarily sustainable.

Yes, those are all good things. They're all a good step forward towards a greener tomorrow for our grandkids and all that feel good talk.

But, those are not sustainable.

What is the cost of a sustainable certification?

So is there an average price for sustainable certification?

I honestly can't put my finger on a number because it depends.

It depends on you, your needs, your product, your industry, and what type of certification you're even looking for.

For example:

What certification are you interested in?

Is it something easier to understand like GRI Reporting for your business, a more rigorous 3rd party verified EPD for your product, or are you looking to champion a new label specific to your product or industry?

For instance, an industry-wide generic EPD could be free, or very cheap. One EPD for one of your products could be very costly, while an EPD for all your products could be similar due to economies of scale.

The certification you choose, or are looking for, can cost anywhere from nothing to several million dollars. Like I mentioned, some soul searching and identifying targets and needs is necessary to get a read on what you can expect to pay.

Your time + my time = real dollars.

How much work have you already put into this. Do you have to make changes at your business? Is there a lot of prep work that needs to be done?

Additionally, how much of my (or any other environmental professional's time) will you need? How much are you relying on outside consulting help to get your certification? If you're working with an expert internally then you already know the price. If you're working with a consultant who works on a time & expense basis expect a never ending bill. If you're working with an NGO or non-profit, you might be getting some expert advice for free.

It all depends on your situation.

How much documentation is necessary?

For your certification, you are going to most likely need to show some solid documentation.

You're going to need to prove something to someone to demonstrate how sustainable you, your product, or your facility is.

Get ready to pull bills, invoices, reports, statements, receipts, training documents, equipment specs & manuals, employee information, etc. etc. etc. The list is almost endless.

Of course, the documentation you need to show is going to depend on what type of certification you're looking to achieve.

From our experience, facilities or organizations that already employ some sort of management system, be it an environmental management system, quality management system, or other comprehensive system, will generally have the easiest, fastest, and cheapest hurdles to jump when it comes to providing documentation.

Facilities that have no system, or use one poorly, will almost always need to get and start using one correctly. Like I mentioned above, this is time and money that isn't directly attributable to a certification, but it certainly should be factored into the final cost of one.

What is the price of sustainability certifications?

A ballpark estimate as to the price of sustainable certifications is...

impossible, but I'll say this.

The cheapest certification we've been involved in was free for the client, with about $5,500 in consulting costs paid to us.

The most expensive certification we've heard of was just shy of a $15 million dollar job. We weren't part of that $15,000,000 job FYI.

Point is, as I keep harping, it depends.

Honestly, it's kind of like asking how much does a house in the United States cost?

The word is that there are some bargains in Detroit that you can pick up for under $10,000.

Conversely, a mansion in Beverly Hills might run you $25,000,000.

It all depends!

The ultimate question shouldn't be the cost, but if it's worth it to your business. What's the end result going to be? Improved revenues? Better corporate image? Why are you looking for a certification?

I firmly believe that whatever you invest now will provide you with a competitive advantage over time that will more than pay for itself. It's my personal and professional belief that anything you do today to set yourself as someone who thinks about tomorrow will yield you benefits into the future. And I'm not alone.

In fact without it many believe you may have trouble doing business at all in the future. That's how seriously some folks believe in sustainability.

I stress that the best thing for you to do is to start identifying your goals, your hopeful results, and then look into it. Get some more specifics outlined before you start asking for rough estimates.

If you'd like to discuss what type of certification might be right for you, we might be able to help narrow down those costs so you can make an informed decision. Click here to contact us or give us a call anytime at 609-693-8301 to discuss more.

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