What Shade of Green is That?

May 20, 2009

A holistic assessment of products alleviates eco-ambiguity and changes the purchasing paradigm.

As customer expectations around corporate social responsibility are increasing, purchasing is shifting from an administrative function to a strategic role. Organizations are realizing that purchasing decisions can set off huge chain reactions upstream that impact both the present and future … and can affect an organization’s brand value significantly.

Moreover, governmental policies and economic uncertainty are compelling businesses to rethink, retool and rebuild. In turn, these organizational and societal forces are prompting us to reinvent procurement. Thus, it is time to toss the former conventions aside and embrace a whole new way—a holistic way—of looking at products.

While green purchasing is sustainable and dynamic, in practice it is also an efficient, functional, and cost-effective way of evaluating, selecting and purchasing products. “Green” products must withstand strict “eco-scrutiny” and that process must be integrated into a broad view of all aspects of product performance, including aesthetics, cost, durability, human health issues, mechanical, safety, and sustainability.

Purchasers Commit to Using EPDs


To help advance a more holistic approach to sustainable design, development, specification and purchase, architectural and design firms are agreeing to use 21st century tools like The Green Standard’s Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). They feature all relevant product performance information in one resource with the Gaia Product Profile, which provides a visual summary of environmental, human health, life-cycle, mechanical, safety, and sustainability information. (Note the Interface Gaia Product Profile example to the right.)

Participating firms pledge the following commitment:

“Our firm recognizes the added value that Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) bring to the product evaluation and selection processes, providing us with a broad range of product performance information verified by experts. We are committed to giving preferential consideration to the products of manufacturers that provide EPDs, as we believe this tool will help us all use the common language and common metrics needed to engage in best practices in green purchasing.”

For a complete list of the A&D firms who have signed up to make this commitment, go to www.thegreenstandard.org/news6.html.

Accordingly, professionals engaged in product specification at architectural and design firms, as well as governmental, educational, institutional or corporate institutions, must be increasingly well informed about what is green and what is greenwash in order to make wise product choices. Programs such as The Green Standard’s Green Purchasing Accredited Professional Training are designed to help purchasers gain a thorough understanding of environmental/sustainability best practices and to learn to use different strategies and tools wisely as they select products for their clients.

To efficiently engage in best practices in green purchasing, one must first establish a systems approach that can be applied to all types of projects by all members of your firm. This entails learning about different types of EcoLabels, including the criteria each encompasses; what each measures; as well as economic, environmental and social impacts.

Purchasing professionals need to understand the available product evaluation tools as well as new state and federal requirements that may affect certain projects. They will also want to comprehend when and how to use green product performance information in combination with LEED®, Green Globes, the newly-approved ANSI ICC 700-2008 National Green Building Standard, and other green building rating systems.

A key part of a wise green purchasing program involves learning the basic concepts underlying different types of standards, certifications and labeling programs, as well as understanding credibility, development, and accreditation under organizations such as ASTM International, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). This will allow you to select and place each label within the broader framework of guidelines for successful green purchasing.

While many European countries use a single EcoLabel developed and managed by the national government, numerous labels are used in the United States, which leads to confusion in the marketplace. Purchasers must have an in-depth understanding of the standards, certifications and EcoLabels that are being used and marketed to green purchasing professionals. Educating yourself about the major standards, certifications and labels empowers you to use green labels effectively and determine which ones best fit your organization’s values, needs and procurement processes.

While this may seem complex, several existing tools can facilitate the process, and new ones are introduced each year. Carbon footprints and chemicals screening are single-attribute tools that are being widely used as a means of selecting green products, so you need to know what they measure, as well as how and where the results can be used for decision-making. Increasingly, Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is being employed to ascertain and help communicate the holistic impacts of products. A product LCA is a scientifically-robust measurement that provides the most complete information on a product’s environmental impacts throughout its full life-cycle. It includes information on:

  • Raw material sourcing (extraction and processing)
  • Transportation (raw materials to manufacturing plant)
  • Manufacturing
  • Shipping
  • On-site construction/installation
  • Use and maintenance
  • End-of-life (recycle/reuse/dispose)

A product LCA includes all 12 of the relevant environmental impacts identified by EPA’s Science Advisory Board to be threatening to the quality of our shared environment—impacts such as global warming, ozone depletion, fossil fuel depletion, indoor air quality, and others. Product LCAs are used as the basis for Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs), which are considered the core component in the emerging Global Product Information System. An EPD is essentially a comprehensive product performance report, based on LCA that has been third-party certified by an expert to ensure its completeness, credibility and transparency.

Manufacturers using EPDs are assured a fair and level playing field as Product Criteria Rules require identification of what specific data is to be collected and how it is to be analyzed. This feature and the comprehensive nature of an EPD make it highly useful to architects and interior designers, as they can go to one Web site rather than multiple sites.

EPDs integrate all types of relevant product performance information into one report, including: economic, environmental, human health, life-cycle cost, mechanical, safety, and sustainability information. For example, in an EPD of a chair, you might find:

  • The product’s carbon footprint (useful in creating a project’s total carbon measurement)
  • The product’s LCA, capturing all environmental impacts including its energy use from diverse sources
  • Energy Star rating
  • Sustainable product standard certification
  • Other type 1 EcoLabels
  • Human health implications (if available)
  • Mechanical performance metrics
  • UL or other safety label

By bringing together EPDs of core products in a building or building space, an architect or interior designer can see the environmental performance of a building—as derived from its many parts and selected products—and, eventually, even begin to create a building LCA. The use of EPDs greatly reduces confusion regarding technical information by simplifying and standardizing the format for communication.

Additionally, you might want to consider using a new tool developed by The Green Standard—the Gaia Product Profile, which was developed in response to thought leaders who emphasized, in interviews and via surveys, that they urgently need a one-page visual summary of all of the relevant performance information on a given product (see sidebar).

As a design professional, you’ll want to learn what these and other tools actually do or don’t do … and how they can be used most effectively—especially as LEED 2009 allows credits for LCA analysis of materials and products. While you can do this on your own, The Green Standard’s Green Purchasing Accredited Professional Training provides an efficient way to learn about best practices in green procurement, including what reliable tools are available and how best to apply them.

While learning about best practices in green product evaluation, certification and procurement, and how to apply them is a major achievement, engaging others in your organization so that they see their value is essential to realizing the full potential of this knowledge and understanding. A key factor to success is obtaining senior management commitment.

It is helpful to draft a purchasing policy that quantifies how green purchasing can help achieve greater economic efficiencies while attaining sustainability objectives; then lead a discussion with executives and peers on the ways it can be used to enhance the productivity of the organization and its brand in the national and global marketplace.

Through this, management will see that organizational commitments to sustainability and “triple bottom line” philosophies must include consistent application of the green purchasing policy as a key component. With this as the ultimate goal, you can employ different strategies that can lead to broad support and buy-in by all involved with purchasing in an organization … from the director of procurement to the chief financial officer to the president and CEO.

A green purchasing program is a continuous process of learning and adapting that will benefit companies and society. The practical and correct application of true green purchasing tools enables organizations to efficiently and effectively navigate today’s environmentally sensitive business landscape while building value, competitive advantage and social responsibility.

Ellen Hall has more than 10 years experience in marketing to the interior design community. At The Green Standard, she develops communication strategies for diverse audiences and stakeholders, including manufacturers and purchasers of interior building products. She assists with developing programs to help purchasers understand the importance of using scientifically-based, third-party verified information when evaluating interior furnishings. Previously, Hall was publications editor and conference manager at the San Francisco Mart, where she developed educational programs for interior designers, including the Live Green, Live Well sustainable home furnishings conference and expo.

The Green Standard™ is a not-for-profit organization founded in 2000 to advance sustainable production and consumption, using life-cycle based resources. In addition to providing manufacturers and purchasers with education, technology and training resources, The Green Standard co-leads with RTI International, the Coalition for a Smart Green Economy. More information on the services provided by TGS can be found at www.TheGreenStandard.org.

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