- Getting More Out of Certifications
Behind the Logos: Understanding Green Product Certifications
By Tristan Roberts and Jennifer Atlee
The more self-evident a product’s attributes are, the less they need to be verified with certification. Lumber doesn’t need certification of its wood content, for example, but certification is helpful for distinguishing forest products that were sustainably harvested in responsibly managed forests, since their origin isn’t immediately evident. Similarly, a manufacturer of furniture that doesn’t emit formaldehyde benefits when an accredited third party verifies its product’s performance and gives it a seal of approval. When green products are visually indistinguishable from their conventional cousins, “the only way you’re going to peel away the onion is by certification,” says Brandon Tinianov, Ph.D., P.E., of View, Inc., a manufacturer of dynamic glazing products.
The “UL” symbol of safety from Underwriters Laboratories and the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval have influenced purchasing decisions for decades. But more recently, the environmental movement has created a new market for certifications. The success of major certification programs like Energy Star or the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which are responsible for some of the best-known green building product certifications today, has required growing public awareness of ecological problems, interest from buyers in purchasing environmentally friendly products, and the willingness of manufacturers to comply with a standard, among other things.
This article starts with a bird’s-eye view of the certification world and then provides overviews of many green product certification programs, beginning with single-attribute certifications, those developed to address specific environmental claims such as sustainable forestry and indoor air quality. Later, the article looks at multiple-attribute programs that consider broader factors and at programs that provide even more comprehensive information.
A standard is a set of guidelines and criteria against which a product can be judged. A certification says that a product meets those criteria. In the green building product arena, numerous certifications follow this general outline, but in widely varying ways.
Helping to govern the world of standards and certifications is the International Standards Organization (ISO). This international nongovernmental standard-setting body, founded in 1947, includes representatives of national standard development organizations, such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) in the U.S. ISO defines terms and develops worldwide standards that frequently become law or form the basis of industry norms.
The most robust standards are generally considered to be those developed through a formal voluntary consensus process characterized by openness and due process, such as defined by ISO and ANSI. Consensus standards have built-in buy-in, government support, and international clout. For example, U.S. federal agencies are required by law to adopt existing private-sector voluntary consensus standards in lieu of creating proprietary, non-consensus standards. The World Trade Organization has decreed that purchasing criteria developed in accordance with internationally accepted principles of standardization are not considered technical barriers to trade.
Most of the green product standards currently available, however, are proprietary or regulatory standards developed outside this formal consensus process. Depending on the development group, these may be more or less stringent than consensus standards, and they often include some degree of transparency and public comment. Increasingly, manufacturers are recognizing that, with their customers sensitive to “greenwashing,” proprietary industry-developed standards and industry-certified labels are not enough.
Deborah Fuller, an interior designer at HOK, said that she is wary of less robust product certification programs. “When it’s a third party, a separate organization that’s strictly in the business of certifying, I feel more comfort,” she said. Her colleague Sibylle Ruefenacht also said that she is very aware of where a certification comes from. “One of the things I like to consider is how it came about,” she said. “I have found that in some situations a manufacturer may be sponsoring it, and those are more partial.” But, she added, “it’s hard to find that out because they don’t advertise it.”
The consensus process gives standards a measure of protection against conflicts of interest, but it also pulls standards toward a “lowest common denominator,” level of achievement. Because of that dynamic, the green certifications landscape is populated with proprietary standards, or standards developed by a controlled subset of stakeholders, that are nonetheless trusted because they come from a group with strong environmental credentials and set more aggressive performance targets.
First, second, or third party
First-, second-, and third-party levels of certification define the degree of separation between the certifier and the company whose product is being certified. Most marketing claims, product specifications, and material data safety sheets are first-party declarations that have not been independently tested or verified. Second-party certification can provide more credible information by involving a trade association or outside consulting firm in setting a standard and verifying claims. Second-party certification offers little assurance against conflicts of interest, however. A certification is most robust when an independent third party conducts the product testing and awards the certification. As a further measure of quality control, a certifier can be ANSI-approved, which verifies the certifier’s objectivity.
From certifications to labels
ISO defines different types of labels that can be used for products, depending on what is being claimed. Type I labels provide a seal of approval for meeting a multiple-attribute set of predetermined requirements. Type II labels are verifiable single-attribute environmental claims, for such things as energy consumption, emissions, or recycled content. According to ISO, Type II labels can be first-party self-declared claims of the manufacturer, but manufacturers are increasingly seeking third-party verification of those claims. Type III labels display comprehensive and detailed product information. Certifications available in the U.S. today lead mostly to Type I and Type II labels, although not all meet ISO’s requirements.
Among the most visible single-attribute green certification programs are those covering sustainable forestry. Several such programs operate in the North American market, including FSC, SFI, ATFS, and CSA.
Canadian Standards Association (CSA): In 1993, the Canadian forest-products industry turned to CSA to develop a standard for sustainable forest management. That effort culminated in 1996 with the release of Standard Z809, creating the CSA Sustainable Forest Management certification system. CSA created this system as a process-based standard along the lines of ISO environmental management standards rather than a performance-based standard like FSC and SFI, but it has since evolved to become similar to SFI. CSA is the dominant certification system in Canada, partly due to the large proportion of timberland in Canada that is publicly owned and government requirements to certify forest operations on public land. Like SFI, CSA has become more rigorous in recent years. www.csa.ca
FSC vs. SFI
This Minnesota home, a runner-up in the 2007 Designing & Building with FSC competition, uses local, FSC-certified wood throughout.
With its industry origins, SFI has long been seen by environmental groups as less rigorous than FSC, but SFI’s advocates have argued that it leads to equivalent outcomes on the ground. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has been a focal point for this conflict, because it allows projects seeking LEED certification to earn points for using FSC-certified products but does not recognize SFI. In the last year, USGBC turned to the Yale Program on Forestry Policy and Governance to analyze programs other than FSC as part of a proposal to recognize them in LEED (see Certified Wood Credit in LEED Gets Makeover).
The Yale analysis compares the programs’ breadth and level of prescription as a basis for judging their rigor. The team’s findings suggest that SFI and FSC address most of the same issues—except for social considerations, which only FSC addresses—but that FSC is more specific and prescriptive in its guidelines. For example, on the subject of management of old-growth timber stands, FSC mandates several factors that, calculated together, put a premium on the preservation and enhancement of old-growth stands.
Overall, the Yale draft report suggests that FSC rules are the most prescriptive among the certification programs studied, while ATFS guidelines are often the least prescriptive. SFI guidelines usually fall somewhere in between. Either FSC or SFI could make a case for itself from an environmental perspective. Performance-based guidelines leave a lot of power in the hands of logging companies, potentially creating a “fox guarding the henhouse” scenario in which rules could be interpreted to favor short-term resource extraction. On the other hand, a given forester working under this system may have better latitude to pursue exceptional environmental and economic performance. The more prescriptive system sets a higher and more clearly defined bar for foresters but allows less flexibility to adjust to local conditions.
Indoor Air Quality Certifications
The array of existing certifications of a building product’s emissions can be daunting, and the product-emissions certification world is in flux. Key issues include the measurement of emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), a major contributor to poor indoor air quality; how to deal with measurement of both product emissions and product content, which may raise different concerns; and interactive effects of different chemicals. Also, consumers should understand that emissions certifications are just that—they don’t cover other health and environmental concerns. For an in-depth discussion on product emissions, see Get a Whiff of This: The Lowdown on Product Emissions Testing.
California Standard Method: California Department of Public Health (CDPH) Standard Method for the Testing and Evaluation of Volatile Organic Chemical Emission from Indoor Sources Using Environmental Chamber, (formerly known as the California Section 01350 specification), offers guidance to ensure that pollutant concentrations in a finished space do not exceed California’s chronic reference exposure levels (CRELs). CDPH has also codified the test methods, set guidelines for applying them to a standard classroom space, and published a list of labs accredited to test for this standard. The Standard Method test guidelines and thresholds are now incorporated in several other programs listed in this section. The CDPH standard also enabled the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS), a California-based consortium, to establish a list of products with pollutant emission rates that meet the standard. www.cdph.ca.gov/
were acquired in 2011 by UL. In the early years Air Quality Sciences was the sole testing laboratory for Greenguard certification. Greenguard now works with additional laboratories, especially overseas. www.greenguard.org
Carpet Industry and California Agree on a New Green Label). Both programs are run by CRI, which is the trade association for participating companies. That qualifies them as second-party—not third-party—certifications, although CRI has ramped up the program’s credibility by getting the testing program accredited by ANSI. Green Label Plus provides the basis for NSF-140’s emissions criteria (see below). www.carpet-rug.org
FloorScore IAQ Testing Program Launched). RFCI created FloorScore for hard-surface flooring and flooring adhesives, and contracted with Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) to serve as a third-party certifier. In addition to reviewing and authenticating test results, SCS visits manufacturing sites to verify product content and manufacturing procedures. www.rfci.com
Energy Performance Certification
Energy efficiency, a dominant issue in the green building world, tends to be addressed more by building-level certifications such as LEED than by product-level certifications. The major exception—perhaps the best known green product label of all—is Energy Star.
Energy Star Programs: Uncle Sam’s Partnerships for Energy Efficiency) and has been widely adopted. Its standards are set to capture a broad slice—often about 25%—of the market in a given product category. Manufacturers supply EPA and DOE with data supporting their use of the Energy Star logo. Although the program is based on this self-declaration, EPA and DOE monitor claims. www.energystar.gov
Verified Directory: The Consortium for Energy Efficiency (CEE) and Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI) use a collaborative process to set tiered energy performance standards beyond Energy Star. The CEE/ARI Verified Directory, launched in 2004, lists residential and small commercial mechanical equipment that, in addition to being Energy Star qualified, meets the higher CEE efficiency standard and has had its efficiency verified through testing by AHRI. www.ceedirectory.org
EPA Introduces WaterSense Label). WaterSense differs from Energy Star in that a product’s conformance to EPA standards must be independently tested before qualifying for the label. www.epa.gov/watersense
Multiple-attribute certifications assess a range of issues around a product, such as material composition, emissions, energy use, manufacturing impacts, and even social responsibility of the manufacturer. At their best, multi-attribute certifications help consumers quickly and easily identify best-of-class products. A danger, however, is that they can imply a positive overall performance while actually allowing poor performance in key areas.
Green Seal: Green Seal, a nonprofit, has certified products since 1992. Green Seal now provides third-party certification for a wide range of products, including paints, adhesives, lamps, chillers, windows, cleaners, and occupancy sensors. Green Seal follows the ISO process for open standard development but is not ANSI-approved. Following ISO requirements, Green Seal considers impacts over the entire life cycle of a product in developing a standard. It then develops criteria relating to the most significant impacts for which roughly 20% of existing products have superior performance. Green Seal reviews its standards every three years and updates them when it sees a shift in the market. Green Seal’s certifications are based on data from accredited laboratories and audits of manufacturing facilities. www.greenseal.org
C2C is the first certification program in the U.S. to address chemistry by looking at the chemical properties of ingredients. This approach distinguishes itself from the more common method of avoiding specific chemicals, which often has the unintended effect of sending manufacturers toward similar chemicals that may turn out to be just as bad but are less well understood.
Steve Bradfield, who has worked both for MBDC and one of its major C2C clients (Shaw Industries), said that the value of C2C is really about risk: “As the supplier of the end product that goes to a consumer, we need to know what’s in there,” he said. “C2C requires we understand the supply chain down to 100 ppm.” That rigor is a key attraction for consumer adherents of C2C, but unfortunately it doesn’t translate into a lot of information for consumers, because a C2C certification reveals little specific information about a product.
In 2012 ownership and control of the standard shifted from MBDC to nonprofit Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute (C2CPII), which implemented measures to establish the standard as independent and to support a robust third-party certification program. In part thanks to these changes, C2C is now embedded fully in LEED version 4, and is moving towards alignment of ingredient and hazard reporting with other programs. (see Cradle to Cradle Gains Independence: A First Look at the 3.0 Launch). www.c2ccertified.org
NSF/ANSI-140 Sustainable Carpet Assessment Standard: Under the auspices of NSF International, a nonprofit behind many health and safety standards, the carpet industry was the first to produce an ANSI-approved, multi-attribute certification for environmentally preferable building materials (see Making Carpet Environmentally Friendly). NSF-140, first released in November 2007, evaluates products in the areas of public and environmental health, recycled and biobased content, manufacturing process, and end-of-life management. Using a checklist covering numerous areas, NSF-140 is quite thorough, and was updated in 2013. Most carpet certified to this standard has achieved Platinum-level certification, largely because that’s the level required for all carpet purchased by California State agencies. Some have criticized its approach for failing to penalize products that include materials responsible for human health concerns. For example, carpet backed with PVC, which is explicitly banned from C2C-certified products, has an easier time meeting NSF-140’s recycled-content requirement than other carpet. In addition to NSF Sustainability (a subsidiary of NSF International), Scientific Certification Systems and UL Environment also certify products to this standard. www.nsf.org
Additional NSF/ANSI Standards: Building on the success of Standard 140, NSF International has also developed standards for Commercial Furnishings Fabric (NSF/ANSI 336), Resilient Floor Coverings (NSF/ANSI 332), Wallcovering (NSF/ANSI 342), and Single Ply Roofing Membranes (NSF/ANSI 347). NSF, SCS, UL, all offer third-party certification to these standards.
Furniture manufacturers Kimball Office and Steelcase have taken different approaches to BIFMA Level certification. Steve Brewster, director of sustainability at Kimball, explained that the company’s approach has always been a comprehensive one. “Well over 90% of our product is Level 1 certified. We took that approach so all facilities are moving together,” he explained. Rather than move some products up to Level 2 as they are ready, Brewster says, the company is waiting until all, or at least a large block, of the products are ready and will move them at once.
Like Brewster, Angela Nahikian, director of global environmental sustainability for Steelcase, takes pains to explain that its focus is on comprehensive improvement driven by sustainability policy—with certification as an outgrowth of that. But rather than certifying everything, Nahikian laid out a complex set of considerations for what product gets what kind of assessment based on the target market. In the U.S., Steelcase pursues certifications like C2C and Level because those labels are relevant here. “Certifications are a way to demonstrate to the market that we’re actually doing the things we’re talking about,” she said. In the European Union, Nahikian explained, the company has focused on providing standardized environmental data to purchasers. For customers with a global reach, Steelcase provides customized reporting. “There are so many lenses that people prioritize—lots of customers are coming with unique lists completely outside of any established protocols—so for us it is most important that our data sets have integrity and can report out for them,” she says.
Other Certifications and Performance Labels
A variety of other certifications address specific attributes of particular products. For instance, the International Dark-Sky Association has a “Fixture Seal of Approval” label for exterior luminaires that avoid polluting the night sky with light (see Dark Sky Association Begins Certifying Products). In addition, some third-party certifiers, notably SCS, certify the validity of specific performance claims, such as a product’s recycled content, without comparing those claims to requirements of particular standards.
Other programs offer labels with key environmental performance information but leave it to the consumer to judge the value of that data. The presence of the label certifies only the test procedures behind the performance data or the validity of the claim. The Cool Roof Rating Council rates roofing products, for example, but does not set a standard for “cool.” It simply provides third-party verification of products’ solar reflectance and thermal emissivity (see Cool Roof Rating Council Gaining Steam). Similarly, the National Fenestration Rating Council label ensures that companies have followed standardized procedures for measuring performance parameters but has not set a minimum level of performance.
Some programs mix different characteristics to meet their needs. Master Painters Institute (MPI), the authority on paint coverage and durability in North America, independently tests and verifies performance requirements for its Green Performance Standards but relies on manufacturer’s self-declared data for VOCs and composition. In contrast, MPI has partnered with Green Seal to provide certification of recycled paint, for which Green Seal verifies the environmental attributes and MPI verifies performance.
Comprehensive Environmental Information
While multi-attribute certification programs behind Type I labels offer a more comprehensive review of products than single-attribute programs, they are not set up to provide consumers with detailed comparative information on performance on any particular attribute. Type III labels such as environmental product declarations (EPDs) and ingredient reporting formats like Health Product Declarations (HPDs) are designed to do just that. EPDs provide standardized environmental information, frequently in the form of brochures that include a product description, life-cycle data, and performance characteristics. HPDs disclose product contents and potential health hazards associated with those contents. For more details, see The Product Transparency Movement: Peeking Behind the Corporate Veil.
Green Information Programs
Although multiple-attribute certifications offer the most comprehensive green product labels now available, a variety of other initiatives help fill the gaps, often offering information not contained in a more straightforward certification. A number of key programs are not certifications at all but serve unique and important screening and informational functions.
The Pharos Project: The Pharos Project from the nonprofit Healthy Building Network is an online tool designed to streamline the process of evaluating products for potentially hazardous ingredients. Built on a Products Library and a Chemical and Materials Library, the system contains ingredient information on nearly 1,500 products and chemical hazard information—drawn from a variety of “authoritative lists” on tens of thousands of chemicals. www.pharosproject.org
In addition to these programs, a variety of new websites aim to provide consumers with the most valuable information on green products and green building. While each has a unique set of features, none appears to screen out products that fail a set of criteria. These new efforts include the following.
EcoScorecard.com, which lets users find products for LEED and other projects based on information submitted by manufacturers.
GreenWizard, which features a database of products tagged with environmental attributes, and series of tools designers can use to organize selected products into custom sets. It also offers manufacturers options for enhancing the visibility of their products in the database.
Each of these systems offers intriguing features, but the true test of their usefulness will be how well and how quickly they offer useful product information, whether they can woo a large enough group of active and independent users to make interactive features worthwhile, and how well they are maintained.
Getting More Out of Certifications
For green product certifications to be useful, the industry has to be aware of their limitations—and to continue to push for improvements.
Rating the company, not just the product
Most new multi-attribute standards include some points that go beyond a product’s manufacture and material supply chain to overall corporate performance. Whether that is a good idea is a matter of debate. “One of things I love about the BIFMA Level certification is that it is focused not just on products but what the factory is doing,” explained Brewster. “It is possible to get a green product out of a non-green factory. [Level] provides assurance that people are getting a green product out of a sustainable factory run by a socially responsible organization.” Bradfield disagrees: “I am a big proponent of both product and corporate standards; I’m not a proponent of mixing the two.”
More and better minimum requirements
Another trend that’s helping improve the base level of performance is that newer standards are increasingly including prerequisites that address the product itself—such as requiring low emissions and testing of functional performance—not just requiring company policies, programs, and data collection. Adding results-oriented prerequisites like this can help ensure that consumers get what they need, while still providing the easy assurance of a simple label. Needs vary, though, and a single designer may have different priorities for different projects.
Exposing the scorecard
One big concern with multi-attribute certifications is that they do not provide the transparency needed to assess whether particular needs are met. In other words, with point-based systems, the points a purchaser cares about may not be the ones achieved—and unless the actual scorecard is published they don’t have a way of knowing. In response, some programs are starting to encourage or even require that scorecards be made public along with a certification.
Manufacturers aren’t likely to be fully on board with providing deeper disclosure—be it through scorecards or more detailed environmental declarations—until the market demands it more strongly and they feel reasonably confident the information will be used appropriately. Companies fear that if they become more transparent with environmental data, they’ll be punished for it. For example, there may be a harmful chemical that virtually everyone in a given industry uses, but the first company to be transparent about it could take a public relations hit.
“The industry has not wanted nitpicking,” Bradfield said. Bradfield also questions whether purchasers or consumers reviewing scorecards will have or will develop enough specialized knowledge to fully understand and put in context what they’re reading.
“None of us have made the scorecards public,” said InterfaceFLOR’s Melissa Vernon, who gives a more positive reason. “There are a number of credits [in NSF-140] we could have earned, but we had enough for Platinum so we stopped pursuing the credits—we didn’t do the documentation,” which adds costs. In the meantime, Interface has moved ahead with Environmental and Health Product Declarations, revealing a tremendous amount of information about its products. She noted, “You don’t get extra credit for being a high Platinum, but it doesn’t mean we don’t have activity in that area.”
Gensler’s Kirsten Ritchie rejects that argument. “The reality is people will learn with time. It’s the right thing to do,” she said. “People will have different priorities as they seek to define what is a sustainable product from their point of view,” she said, and that justifies disclosing scorecards.
What’s Ahead for Certifications
Consumers who are already well-versed in the green products market may have enough background knowledge and faith to be comfortable with the peculiarities of green certifications. As the market grows, however, an axiom attributed to W. Edwards Deming, Ph.D., the industrial quality guru, grows in relevance: “In God we trust; all others, bring data!” Getting various parties talking in the same language, with comparable, verifiable data, will be increasingly important.
Even as the green market has surged ahead, it has been dogged by dissonanace and inconsistency in certifications, which have made them hard to understand. “Keeping up on it and being an educated consumer is really difficult,” said consultant Meredith Elbaum, AIA, about the certifications market. “There’s too many of them, and they’re too confusing.”
“There’s got to be some oversight,” argued View’s Tinianov. “I don’t care how we get there,” he said, but added, “I really look to consensus organizations. You get these rapid, multiple-stakeholder meetings that drive a standard, that get a lot of visibility, and then they move it out.” Tinianov also noted that the current proliferation of standards doesn’t make sense from the manufacturer’s perspective: “I relish getting a certification; I dread getting 20 certifications,” he said, because costs are added for each certification.
There is reason for optimism, however, as two organizations that have the reach to force some structure onto the certifications market, USGBC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), appear to be stepping up to the plate. With version 4 of its LEED rating system, USGBC has provided a platform for rewarding the use of products certified under approved programs. While just a few programs are included in the original credit requirements, more are likely forthcoming.
EPA, meanwhile, is nearing the end of a long process of defining “a set of criteria that could help identify which private sector standards and ecolabels federal purchasers should consider when buying greener products.” Once those criteria are finalized they could help filter out the less meaningful labels.
“I need to rely on someone else to be an expert rather than to spend the time trying to weed through the nitty-gritty in becoming an expert in forest stewardship,” said Elbaum, expressing the need for a rigorous cohort of green certifications in sustainable forestry and other areas. Noting that the overall design of buildings usually has a greater influence over long-term environmental performance than the selection of individual products, she added, “I would rather spend my time advising my designers on design.” To have architects and designers paying attention to selection of green products is a sign of great progress in the green building world. But further progress will require greater use of certifications by manufacturers; more transparent, rigorous standards that do a better job of helping customers meet environmental goals; and certifications that take less time and attention to comprehend.