Product Certifications: Clear As Mud

Oct. 1, 2003
Penny Bonda, FASID

Product Certifications: Clear As Mud

Product certifications have been around for decades providing third party audits and verifications. They ought to make the designer's work easier by establishing standards and guidelines that certify compliance with codes and laws and contribute to making the development, manufacturing and supply of products and services safer and more reliable. A terrific example with which almost everyone is familiar is Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL), an independent, not-for-profit product safety testing and certification organization whose labels can be found on our electrical products. UL describes itself not only as a household name in the United States, but as "one of the most recognized, reputable conformity assessment providers in the world."Few would argue with its success. Seventeen billion UL marks have appeared on products since its founding in 1894. Most of us think we know what the UL mark means; we depend on it to verify product safety and don't question its value. However, not all product certifications are as easy to trust. They haven't been around as long, do not as yet have widespread acceptance and their authenticity may be challenged by others. However, independent, technically expert evaluations by a third party without a financial interest in the product are enormously important, and we should be encouraged by their development. Reviewed below are two of the product certifications that have been developed especially for the fledgling environmental materials and services market. Both come with their share of controversy due, in large part, to conflicting opinions as to their legitimacy or effectiveness. These differing opinions, while helping to shape the questions, do make it difficult for the designer to sort out the issues. Knowing who to trust in this era of greenwash is a huge challenge; sorting out the science is difficult for those of us not schooled in technical matters. Even so, these standards are immensely useful as they assist us in making informed, environmentally sound decisions.Forests, including rainforests, are being destroyed globally at an astounding rate for a number of reasons, most of which involve alternative uses for the land on which they're grown—mining, cattle ranching, oil exploration, farming and especially for commercial logging. As a result, hardwoods such as mahogany that are prized for their beauty are becoming endangered. Clear-cutting practices have increased, stripping mountains of their erosion protections. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has addressed the urgent need to protect our woodlands by writing standards that define "environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable management of the world's forests." Founded in 1995, FSC is a membership organization with nearly 300 members from over 40 countries. Products with the FSC label have come from a forest that has been responsibly managed under strict FSC principles and criteria that include respecting indigenous rights, maintaining community well being, protecting biological diversity and other ecological, social and economic aspects. The need to save our forests is widely acknowledged, and the FSC in the U.S. has been endorsed by major environmental groups such as the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club and others, and by major businesses including Home Depot, Lowes and Anderson Windows. However, its standards have been challenged by other forest certification programs, namely the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) and the Canadian Standards Association (CSA)—and this is where it all becomes either interesting or confusing or both. Each accuses the others of being either too restrictive or too lenient, depending on your point of view. Recently the Rainforest Foundation entered the debate by issuing a critical report charging that "there are serious flaws in certifications being carried out in FSC's name, to the extent that the public cannot be assured that a wood or paper product carrying FSC's logo actually comes from a well-managed forest." Yet, the LEED™ Green Building Rating System has chosen FSC as its referenced standard in its certified wood credit, thereby adding credibility. What's a concerned designer to do while this debate is being sorted out? In an article in Environmental Building News, Nadav Malin and Alex Wilson put it this way: "In a world where radical points of view all too often dominate public debates and polarize issues, something remarkable has been taking place. The Forest Stewardship Council, a dedicated and tenacious group of nongovernmental organizations and progressive companies, has created a climate in which third party certification of forestry practices is accepted as a matter of course. While only a small minority of operations are certified to FSC standards, the alternative certification programs are becoming similar enough to FSC that it might not matter much which system is used." The point is: the bar is being raised and the green design community is becoming aware of the urgency of the issues. "Regardless of how these issues are resolved in terms of publicly accepted certification schemes, enormous gains have already been achieved," say Malin and Wilson.Equally controversial is the Greenguard Certification Program that seeks to establish acceptable standards for indoor products and testing protocols. Again, no one can disagree with the need to rid indoor environments from irritating contaminants that can have serious effects on occupants' health, productivity and quality of life. In addition, debilitating allergies and respiratory disease such as asthma cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars in lost productivity, absenteeism and increased medical costs. Poor indoor air quality is often attributed to volatile chemical emissions from building materials, interior furnishings and cleaning products and processes. Since Americans spend 90 percent of their time indoors and indoor air can be as much as 100 times more polluted than outdoor air, this issue must be taken seriously by designers. It is incumbent upon them to specify paints, coatings, sealants, adhesives, flooring materials, furniture, wallcoverings, textiles—indeed, all interior finishes and furnishings—that are low-emitters of formaldehyde and all the other volatile organic compounds that contribute to poor indoor air. Air Quality Sciences, a leading and very well-respected authority on indoor air quality, has for many years been testing interior products in its technologically advanced chamber labs (over 23,000 products to date) and, in 2001, created Greenguard, an independent, non-profit organization as the world's first voluntary nationally certified labeling program. Using protocols established by the EPA and the State of Washington, products are tested to simulate their use in a typical commercial indoor environment in controlled environmental chambers. Emissions data is then provided to the product manufacturers who can in turn use the test results to market to environmentally conscious designers. In addition, the Greenguard Product Guide identifies these manufacturers with their specific products that have been tested. So what's the problem? Here, seemingly, is a solution to one of the many dilemmas confronting the green designer, and an easy one at that. Simply specify products listed in the Greenguard Product Guide and you've swept away your poor IAQ concerns. However, until very recently there were few products listed in the product guide. Testing is expensive and can be a hassle, one that the commercial furniture industry didn't need to add to its plate in the recent poor economic climate. Thus, designers and specifiers were left without many alternatives. Then, in July of 2002 the USGBC released its pilot version of the LEED Green Building Rating System for Commercial Interiors (LEED-CI), which included a new credit for low-emitting furniture and furnishings and referenced Greenguard as its standard. (In the interest of full disclosure I must divulge that I am the chair of the LEED-CI Steering Committee as well as a member of the Greenguard Advisory Board, a group that was formed after the development of the draft of LEED-CI.) Almost immediately manufacturers began to scramble, recognizing that designers, eager to capture every possible point in their quest for LEED certification for their projects, would begin looking for low-emitting furniture and furnishings that met the Greenguard criteria. Today, as I write this, three major furniture manufacturers—Knoll, Teknion and Herman Miller—have certified up to 90 percent of their product lines and others have begun the testing process. Other product categories have followed suit and it probably is now possible to completely furnish a commercial interior with products from the Greenguard Product Guide.But, happy endings are not that easy to come by in the product certifications business. Almost as quickly as the manufacturers began their scramble, others began to challenge Greenguard's validity and LEED-CI's inclusion of it. BIFMA, the trade association for the commercial furniture industry, and the State of California Department of Health Services have both accused Greenguard of either being too expensive, too cumbersome or not stringent enough to protect human health. Both have also put forth their own alternative standards that are likely to come under the same sort of attacks that have been levied against Greenguard. This subject is receiving a lot of attention from the USGBC and the debate is expected to continue for some time. It is apparent that the controversy surrounding certified wood and low-emitting materials has raised awareness, not only of the complexity of the issues, but also of how difficult it is to define green design. The already overburdened designer is being asked to make decisions based on facts that are being debated by some of the best minds in the industry. My advice: check out the specifics yourself on the Web sites supplied at right or go with LEED, the rating system that has become the generally accepted product certification for green buildings and interiors. It remains a work in progress and as these debates evolve, LEED will as well. That, my friends, is crystal clear.Check the Specifics Forest Stewardship Council (US)

Sustainable Forestry Initiative

Canadian Standards Association

Rainforest Foundation


State of California Department of Health Services



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