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Searching for Clarity Amid Green Certifications

A single leader has failed to emerge among green certifications, but the federal government could change all that


By Tristan Roberts

“Everyone is finally getting sick and tired of the label proliferation issue,” says Scot Case, executive director of the EcoLogo Program, one of the oldest North American environmental product-labeling programs, or “eco-labels.” “There are more than 400 environmental labels floating around,” he says, and “some are completely meaningless.” As Case and many who look for these labels to guide them toward environmentally friendly products observe, the meaningless labels are drowning out the more credible ones, leaving a reliability gap in the entire field.

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In the design and construction industry, the LEED rating system from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has contributed to awareness of the environmental impacts of building products. And as the advertising in this magazine can attest, a signal feature of the building-products industry has been the wide variety of environmental claims made by manufacturers as they have looked to capitalize on this newfound awareness.

Understanding the scope of any certification program is crucial. If youíre looking for a product that has low-indoor emissions of harmful chemicals, for example, then one of the certification programs dedicated to that topic will be useful. However, youíre in danger of making a one-dimensional choice if you only rely on that programís logo and donít also consider, for example, whether any wood components were sustainably harvested, whether the product uses recycled content, or whether the product is energy-efficient. Some multiple-attribute programs are more comprehensive, but they all have limits.

Also keep in mind that most certifications compare apples to apples. For example, the Green Label certification identifies the greenest carpets, while FloorScore rates non-textile flooring. Choosing between carpeting and resilient flooring on an environmental basis will therefore require looking beyond the scope of either of these programs.

One way to gain credibility for a claim is to back it up with a certification of some kind. Despite the general confusion in the marketplace, there is a well-established formula for what constitutes a rigorous certification of a green product: third-party certification to an objective standard. What does that mean?

>> Standards establish a uniform benchmark against which a product can be judged. Anyone can produce a standard, but the most rigorous of these are completely objective, transparent, and written under consensus with a variety of stakeholders. Organizations developing standards at this level of rigor are accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

>> A certification means that an organization has determined that a product meets a given standard. Many organizations that perform certifications offer their own labels to demonstrate that a product has earned a certification. The most rigorous type, third-party certification, means that the certification agency has no financial interest or other bias (other than collecting a fee for its work) in giving a product a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

>> Product manufacturers have a direct financial interest in earning a certification for a product, so any environmental claim made by a company, also known as a self-declaration, or first-party claim, should be treated with skepticism.

>> A second-party claim, meaning certification provided by a party with some stake in the outcome, such as a paid consultant or a trade association, is usually trusted somewhat more than a self-declaration, but not as much as a third-party certification.

Many have focused on untrustworthy self-declarations as the center of the problem of “greenwashing” in the product certification arena. But second-party claims have also proved to be a knotty issue. For example, the ongoing debate over recognizing the wood-certification label of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) in LEED can be traced to that program’s roots in an industry-biased trade association.

Among these well-known issues, a hidden problem has emerged: the failure of any one valid certification program to distinguish itself from the rest. There are numerous valid certifications that have some degree of manufacturer participation (see chart for a guide to some). None has emerged as a “power brand,” however, in the words of Marcello Manca of Underwriters Laboratories (UL), one that can forge a path in the tangle of confusion.

Speaking for EcoLogo, Case says that consolidation of the market is needed—and is on the way. One model that has been discussed in recent years among industry leaders is establishment of a central organization, informally dubbed the “U.S. Green Products Council,” to build consensus around a single set of green product labels.

At least some of the attraction of this idea is the hope that the wild success of the similarly named USGBC would rub off on such a group. But the emergence of a U.S. Green Products Council would face a different—and more challenging—landscape. In business since 1993, USGBC did not have any established competition when it launched LEED at the start of this decade, and it has had years to refine its approach while building market acceptance. Comparatively speaking, a products organization starting in 2009 would have a jungle to fight through, without the benefit of time.
The one group that could subdue that chaos by fiat, the federal government, has so far seemed reluctant to do so. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has internally explored the idea, but as one EPA official told GreenSource, no one office there owns the issue: it lacks a “management champion.”

Despite the challenges, there are reasons for optimism about the possibility that 2009 will bring progress. EPA has been consulting on the issue with the new Obama administration, and there are also signs that Congress may ask the agency to step into the fray. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California hasn’t formally proposed legislation, but her office is crafting the “Eco-Labeling Act,” and soliciting comments from industry leaders.

As currently drafted, the bill would “establish a voluntary eco-label award program intended to promote products with a reduced environmental impact during the entire lifecycle of the products and to provide to consumers accurate, non-deceptive, and scientificallybased information on the environmental impact of products.” The bill would appoint the EPA as the program administrator, and would establish a 13-member Eco-Labeling Board, including representatives from the EPA and the Department of Energy as well as those from labor unions, large and small manufacturers, and environmental and consumer groups. The board would in turn accredit “product certification centers,” which would establish eco-label criteria and verification requirements and evaluate products.

The bill leaves open the exact environmental requirements of the eco-label, but specifies benchmarks high enough such that no more than 35 percent of the products in a given category meet the standards when instituted. Benchmarks would have to be revised if 80 percent of the products in a given category grow to meet them. (There is a similar type of expectation around the Energy Star program and numerous other federal standards, but federal agencies often lag in meeting these mandates.) The eco-label itself (a logo with similar stature to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic foods label) would be standardized for all eligible products, including a reference number corresponding to specific information on a given product group.

The proposed federal legislation would effectively consolidate the focus of the market around a handful of standards addressing product life cycles. The voluntary program would not necessarily eliminate less rigorous labels, but they would likely wither on the vine as manufacturers focused their investments on the single, more recognized label. Single-attribute programs—those addressing focused areas such as sustainable forestry and product emissions—would likely remain in their niches, providing meaningful standards for special needs such as LEED compliance.

Whether the legislative solution takes hold, or even if the possibility of such a solution encourages the industry to preemptively consolidate, major new players in the industry favor the move. UL, one of the most recognizable brands in product-safety certification with a 115-year history, launched an environmental certification program at the start of 2009. It will use industry-accepted standards for various product areas and will offer an environmental version of the classic UL label to products meeting those standards. With its program, UL joins another building industry heavyweight, the International Code Council Evaluation Service (ICC-ES), which announced a similar program at the 2008 Greenbuild conference. Groups like these, as well as longstanding environmental certification companies like EcoLogo and Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), would likely be tapped as certifiers either under a federal mandate or an industry-led solution.

Once a label is identified with enough heft, the industry will need to choose standards around which they can coalesce. Several multiple-attribute standards could contribute to this process, but the most intriguing development might be work by ASTM International. ASTM has drafted a standard classification that would apply to many types of environmental preferable products (EPP), and is currently pilot-testing it with organizations including UL and ICC-ES.

Dru Meadows, AIA, an environmental advisor with The Green Team and chair of the ASTM committee on sustainability, says, “We have a range of labels, but most of them are not coming from the mainstream, and consequently most of them are not embraced by the mainstream.” The ASTM standard, Meadows says, comes from a mainstream, well-recognized organization and is also environmentally progressive—although like any program in the certification jungle, it is not without its detractors. As drafted, the standard evaluates products in five areas: energy efficiency and renewable energy, carbon emissions, water efficiency and quality, material optimization,and public and ecosystem health protection. It will classify qualifying products into three performance tiers.

“We are still trying to find the better mousetrap,” said Meadows, in a statement that describes the striving of the entire green standards and certifications industry. Designers seeking guidance on green products would do well to remember that although there are dozens of groups scrambling to meet their needs and the needs of the environment, all of the current approaches come with downsides, omissions, and worse. Keep up the search for green products, but understand that labels, at least the current crop, are only part of the search, not the final answer.


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This article appeared in the March 2009 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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