Cutting Through the Clutter of Ecolabels

April 22, 2022

An explosion of ecolabels has the industry racing to keep up. Here’s a little advice on how to keep them (and your head) straight when specifying responsibly.

“It’s very busy out there,” said Karen Righthand, vice president of corporate sales and marketing for SCS Global, third-party certifiers of a full suite of green product standards such as BIFMA’s LEVEL and FloorScore.  

They are also an Eligible Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) Program Operator under the ANSI National Accreditation Board (ANAB) and offer a variety of life cycle assessment (LCA) services, for which they also contract with external verifiers. They provide preparation and verification of Health Product Declarations (HPD), International Living Future Institute’s Declare label, and much more.  

So…busy, indeed. And mind-numbing. There are dozens upon dozens of ecolabels, some that seem to do the same thing as the next guy, and others that have a very specific focus and layers.  

“We’re talking about a big data problem here,” said JoAnna Abrams, CEO of MindClick, questioning how designers can possibly attempt to get their arms around all of them. MindClick is a service that attempts to dial down that pressure cooker many find themselves in when trying to specify the least impactful products, with a clear and simple rating and comparison system for green furniture, fixtures and equipment that measures chemicals, circularity and raw materials, just to name a few. They also provide a library of all studied products called Design for Health at mindclick.com. 

The Differences Between Ecolabels 

Some ecolabels are considered “single attribute,” such as FloorScore, which only measures indoor air quality (IAQ) for hard surface flooring materials, adhesives and underlayments. Others are “multi-attribute,” meaning they will certify to a number of different elements within and related to the product.  

LEVEL, for commercial-grade furniture, is a good example of a multi-attribute label, as it measures not just material and recycled percentage composition, but also provides a published chemicals of concern list, lifecycle analysis and studies human health impacts. An EPD is also considered multi-attribute as the accompanying LCA will study all the environmental impacts of a product from cradle (raw material extraction) to grave (end of life phase) or gate (leaving the manufacturer’s facility). 

“The LCA has to follow product category rules (PCR) and a verifier has to make sure they are followed and the right boundaries are used. It’s put into a market-facing document and that final EPD has to go back and be third-party, externally verified to make sure the results were transferred properly and the write up doesn’t do any greenwashing,” Righthand explained. “That’s why EPDs are so revered and transparent.” By comparison, a HPD is an inventory of all the chemicals within a product, which can be third-party certified as well. “There are a lot of self-prepared [inventories] out there to be wary of,” she said. 

Many ecolabels have different levels that can be achieved, such as with one of the originals on the market, the also multi-attribute Cradle to Cradle Certification. Companies must work with one of the accredited assessment bodies listed on their site and products are scored at Basic, Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum under the five different “quality categories” of Material Health, Material Reutilization, Renewable Energy & Carbon Management, Water Stewardship and Social Fairness. The lowest achievement level represents the product’s overall mark. They also offer a Material Health Certificate and house a product registry of both certifications on their website. Version 4.0 was released early last year. 

So, while there’s no question that the boom in ecolabels was ignited from a good place (the need for more transparency in building materials and products) it still has resulted in a market congestion of not just certifications but also the certifying bodies that legitimize them, leaving many designers not knowing where to start. 

[Related: Biomimicry: Taking Cues from Nature to Create More Sustainable Products and Interiors]

Where to Start with Ecolabels 

Righthand suggests focusing in on “the big four,” when it comes to material ingredients: 

  1. A wood product should have some kind of sustainable forestry certification—chain of custody for Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) or Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC). 
  2. Interior products should have an indoor air quality certification such as SCS’ Indoor Advantage Gold, which includes furniture, carpeting, window, wallcoverings, paint and flooring. 
  3. Products with verified EPDs. 
  4. Products with material ingredient disclosures such as an HPD, the Declare label or Cradle to Cradle reports. 

Another obvious jumping off point could be the green building certification your client is aiming for, as each offers varying opportunities to gain points through the use of more responsible products. “We’re seeing an incredible increase in the uptake of those material related credits,” said Wes Sullens, a U.S. Green Building Council Director, LEED, who leads Materials & Resources activities there. “They are some of the most exponentially growing credits being used in LEED.” 

Depending on which building certification your client wants to achieve, you could start with any of these material ingredient credits. 

1. LEED BD+C: New Construction v4.1’s Material Ingredient Reporting credit states the project must have “At least 20 different permanently installed products from at least five different manufacturers that use any of the following programs to demonstrate the chemical inventory of the product to at least 0.1% (1000 ppm),” which include but are not limited to the following, with varying requirements for each: ANSI/BIFMA e3 Furniture Sustainability Standard; Global Green TAG Product Health Declaration labels; or published Health Product Declarations in compliance with the Health Product Declaration Open Standard. 

2. WELL v2, Materials Transparency feature has three parts, the first of which states “for at least 50% by count or 25 distinct, permanently installed products (including flooring, insulation, wet-applied products, ceiling and wall assemblies and systems) and furniture, ingredients are disclosed by the manufacturer, a disclosure organization or a third party through one of the following,” which include but are not limited to: an ILFI Declare label; a Cradle-to-Cradle Certified product, or a product with a Material Health Certificate from the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute; or a Product Lens Certification, operated by UL. 

3. The Living Building Challenge 4.0 (also owned by the ILFI) requires that a project include “at least one Declare-labeled product per 500 square meters of its gross building area and advocate to a minimum of 10 other manufacturers to join the program.”  

But even that route can still leave a lot to sift through and can lead down a questionable money trail. The Sustainability Check from Denvir Enterprises (a collaborative of approximately 15 small producers of sustainable, commercial products) is trying to keep the spotlight where it belongs: transparency and honesty, not expensive certificates that not everyone can afford (and can block them from larger projects that might require them).  

“It’s important to differentiate between materials and products,” said Holland Denvir, founder of both Denvir Enterprises and The Sustainability Check. “If a brand is selling a material, I think it’s more important for them to commit to investing in the disclosure that a certificate can offer as it’s not as hard for them to do financially. A manufacturer making products where they’re putting together all these different materials could have 100 SKUs and have to get all of those tested. That’s probably $100,000. If it’s one material, it’s a bit more important and more achievable to rely on the certificates and understand what they mean.” 

They cite the example of Fyrn, a responsible furniture company and one of the Denvir Enterprises brands. Their lumber is not FSC-certified but is purchased off the same lot as the FSC-certified trees. “The lot is just divided in two and one side is double the price. So, it’s the same trees. They’re being farmed the same. And they need to sell this furniture. It can be so tricky with the certificates sounding really great, but what are the implications for the actual manufacturer and the consumer?” they asked. 

Their site, sustainability-check.club, provides many easy-to-read, side-by-side comparisons of their participating brands in varying categories such as how they might contribute to LEED credits, waste re-use and carbon footprint. 

And speaking of—many of the professionals quoted in this piece say that next up for ecolabels in their quest to help the built environment make even less of an impact on our earth and our health is by tackling embodied carbon. According to Building Transparency’s—developers of the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3)—website, “Architecture 2030 reports that embodied carbon will be responsible for almost half of total new construction emissions between now and 2050. Unlike operational carbon emissions, which can be reduced over time with building energy efficiency renovations and the use of renewable energy, embodied carbon emissions are locked in place as soon as a building is built.” 

The EC3 tool is free to use and can spit out a project’s overall embodied carbon emissions by taking EPDs and building material quantities from construction estimates or BIM models into consideration. This enables project teams to decide on the lowest carbon options during the specification process. 

“The carbon numbers of every EPD we publish go into the EC3 calculator,” Righthand said. “Architects and designers can use it to choose the lowest carbon footprint products by comparing them in categories. Now we’re at the point where the built environment is still very impactful in terms of CO2 contributions and the only place left to really remove and do better is in the embodied carbon in the materials we use to build with.” 

EPDs are quite literally helping to build a more carbon neutral (or better) future. 

Read next: Passive House Design Is Creating a Pathway to Highly Efficient Buildings

About the Author

AnnMarie Martin

AnnMarie has been covering the commercial design space since 2005 and has been on the editorial staff at i+s since 2011. Her style and vision has helped the brand evolve into a thought leader in purpose-driven design and cultural movements shaping the way we live and work. She returned to the role of editor in chief at the start of 2023 and her journalism and fiction writing background have helped to craft bi-monthly issues that don’t just report the latest industry news, but tell a cohesive tale of some of the biggest topics facing designers today. She can always be reached at [email protected].

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