Green Guide to Green Build - Advancing Use of LCAs: Sustainable Product Standards

Oct. 1, 2007
WHAT THEY AREA Sustainable Product Standard is a Type 1 EcoLabel developed to assist manufacturers in designing or re-designing products to achieve a high level of sustainability. It does so by providing them with a published definition of precise criteria used to address all impacts of a product—economic, environmental and social equity.

As numerous products have been introduced into the marketplace claiming a variety of environmental attributes, having a consensus of attributes within each industry that defines and identifies sustainable products assists both manufacturers and purchasers in communicating environmental and other product performance benefits.

A Product Standard facilitates measurement of product improvements over time by delineating the year against which product improvements are measured and providing metrics to measure percentage improvements within a defined timeframe. It defines how materials are selected; how manufacturing processes are handled; what levels of different chemical emissions are tolerable; what usage of water is allowed; and how wastes are prevented. This information is useful to designers and architects in specifying or purchasing products. 

WHO'S DEVELOPING THEMAn important, recent initiative is the development of American National Product Standards-led by NSF International, an American National Standards Institute (ANSI)-accredited standards development organization. NSF is working with stakeholders in contract textile, carpet and rug, business and institutional furniture, and resilient flooring industrial sectors to initiate separate sustainability standards for these product categories.

By working with multiple industries that affect the indoor environment, NSF International intends to promote sharing of best sustainability practices across standards committees-ensuring that standards are developed in a cohesive and consistent manner. Currently, NSF is working on product standards with the Association of Contract Textiles, the Business & Institutional Furniture Manufacturer's Association, the Carpet & Rug Institute, and the Resilient Floor Covering Institute. Of these, the ANSI draft standard for carpet is in active use today with products from more than 27 manufacturers receiving certification. 

Notably, an industry-inclusive product standard has been developed by the Institute for Market Transformation to Sustainability, an ANSI-accredited standards development organization. Called the Smart© Sustainable Building Product Standard, it can be applied to all types of building products and is currently used by a number of manufacturers.

The essential characteristics of a Product Standard are that it:
  • Features a transparent process for sourcing and analyzing product information.
  • Covers all environmental impacts identified by EPA's Science Advisory Board.
  • Includes the economic impacts of a product; that is, fair employer wages, etc.
  • Encompasses social equity impacts, including contributions to the community.
  • Results in a consensus of all stakeholders in a given field or industry, based on an open discussion of core principles and their application to product types assessed.

The most scientifically robust Product Standards require use of a full product Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) that is in alignment with the relevant guidelines of the International Standards Organization (ISO) for LCA. When this requirement is met, a Product Standard can be considered a Type 3 EcoLabel. ISO considers a Product Standard Type 1 EcoLabel when an LCA is recommended rather than required. 

A Product Standard is designed to be used consistently by manufacturers for achieving sustainability for any product. It defines how materials are selected, how manufacturing processes are handled, what level of chemical emissions is tolerable, what usage of water is allowed, and how wastes are prevented.

Sustainable Product Standards:

  • Set environmental and energy achievement performance levels across the global supply chain and all product stages.
  • Set levels of achievement for social equity across the global supply chain.
  • Communicate how a manufacturer designs, develops and reuses its products.
WHAT THEY CONTRIBUTEThe purpose of creating standards with multiple sustainability attributes is to ensure maximum benefit to the environment across numerous media. Some of the most relevant measures include: toxicity of chemicals and materials; types of energy used; water quality; conservation of natural resources; recovery and recycling of materials along the entire life-cycle; and socially responsible manufacturing practices.

Collaboration of broad and diverse stakeholder groups with relevant expertise and a high level of commitment by industry, end-users, academia, government, and non-governmental organizations will lead to a robust result and a greater likelihood of acceptance of the standard by purchasers.

In the past, elite standards were created for which only the top 10 percent to 15 percent of products would qualify. By offering various levels of certification, these new sustainable product standards add a broad matrix for which credits which may be earned-offering more manufacturers an opportunity to qualify. Used in combination with other tools like product LCAs and Environmental Product Declarations, Product Standards contribute significantly to the Global Product Information System, featuring common language and common metrics.

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