We previously called the hoverboard industry “a parable of modern life,” looking at how quickly they were invented, knocked off, manufactured, imported and sold online. The story took another turn recently, when the big testing laboratory, UL, announced that it has developed a way of testing and labeling hoverboards. The company's vice president said:

UL has been evaluating, testing, and certifying battery cells, modules, and packs as well as related battery chargers and power supplies as individual components for many years. With UL 2272, our expert science, research, and engineering teams have now developed the appropriate requirements and methodology to confidently evaluate and test the entire self-balancing scooter for electrical and fire-hazard safety as a system.

Now before your eyes totally glaze over, please believe me when I tell you that labels and certifications are a really interesting subject. Who decides what it means? Can you trust it? Why are there so damn many of them?

What's a label anyway?

The first thing to understand is that there are different kinds of labels and certifications, and they have different meanings.

First Party Certifications are not tested or verified; really, they are just Trade Association Labels, such as the imaginary The Shenzhen Hoverboard Manufacturers Association (SHMA) making a label that says “this is a lithium ion battery hoverboard that should not explode under normal use.”

Second Party Certification is where the SHMA sets its own standard and has the hoverboards tested by an outside agency, perhaps certifying that “this hoverboard will travel a minimum of 10 miles before it explodes.”

LG Eden adHippies and treehuggers make a product green. (Photo: LG Eden)

It can be anything the manufacturer wants; the best one ever was for a kitchen countertop marketed as the greenest product that ever existed, complete with levitating hippies and people hugging trees. "When we go green, we go all the way!" says the ad. What made it supposedly green was that it was up to 12 percent recycled content: pre-consumer waste, the cut-offs and the mistakes and the leftovers, ground up and put back in. As I noted in TreeHugger, this is somewhat "akin to calling a product vegan when it is made from 88 percent lard." Yet they could find a certifier to say that yup, it’s 12 percent recycled, and they could call themselves green.

ULUL will test hoverboards like they used to test stoves. (Photo: UL)

Third party certification is a whole other ballgame. Here, the manufacturer gets together with regulators, engineers and other interested parties to develop a standard that manufacturers have to build to, and then the product gets rigorously tested by a testing lab like UL, which bangs it around and checks all the wiring and determines that it meets the standards. Or, in the hoverboard case, the company applies the knowledge that it has from other Li-ion products and the standard developed for them, and applies it to the hoverboard. The board makers have to look up that standard and make sure that they build their boards to comply with it if they want to get that label.

This is such a pain for everyone, but it's necessary.

Product designers and manufacturers find this all a total pain. It is time-consuming and expensive to get tested, and some complain that it really stifles innovation and protects the existing manufacturers from new competition. It could certainly have prevented a new product like a hoverboard from exploding, literally and figuratively, into the marketplace.

Architects and designers find them bothersome too, because so many codes have restrictions, saying that everything that goes into a building must have a label or a certification. It can take years until you can try a new product or assembly.

lots of labelsSo many labels! (Photo: Ecolabel Index)

But the consumer has it worst of all; there are so many labels and certifications, and it is almost impossible to know what they all mean, especially if you are trying to find green products. You can look up most of the sustainable labels and certifications here, and all of the American government approved UL-type Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratories (NRTL) here, but it’s a lot of work.

It’s also another good reason to support your local store where they know you and don’t want to get sued by you, and to avoid this year’s hot new fad that you bought online from who knows where. And look for those labels!

Disclosure: MNN is produced by Narrative Content Group, which also produces SafeBee for UL.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.