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Green Basics

Green Product Certifications

Behind the Logos: Understanding Green Product Certifications

About Green Product Certifications

The more self-evident a product’s attributes are, the less they need to be verified with certification. Lumber doesn’t need certification of its wood content, for example, but certification is helpful for distinguishing forest products that were sustainably harvested in responsibly managed forests, since their origin isn’t immediately evident. Similarly, a manufacturer of furniture that doesn’t emit formaldehyde benefits when an accredited third party verifies its product’s performance and gives it a seal of approval. When green products are visually indistinguishable from their conventional cousins, “the only way you’re going to peel away the onion is by certification,” says Brandon Tinianov, Ph.D., P.E., of Serious Materials, a manufacturer.

The “UL” symbol of safety from Underwriters Laboratories and the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval have influenced purchasing decisions for decades. But more recently, the environmental movement has created a new market for certifications. The success of major certification programs like Energy Star or the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which are responsible for some of the best-known green building product certifications today, has required growing public awareness of ecological problems, interest from buyers in purchasing environmentally friendly products, and the willingness of manufacturers to comply with a standard, among other things.

This article starts with a bird’s-eye view of the certification world and then provides overviews of many green product certification programs, beginning with single-attribute certifications, those developed to address specific environmental claims such as sustainable forestry and indoor air quality. Later, the article looks at multiple-attribute programs that consider broader factors and at programs that provide even more comprehensive information.

Certification Basics

A standard is a set of guidelines and criteria against which a product can be judged. A certification says that a product meets those criteria. In the green building product arena, numerous certifications follow this general outline, but in widely varying ways.

Standard development

Helping to govern the world of standards and certifications is the International Standards Organization (ISO). This international nongovernmental standard-setting body, founded in 1947, includes representatives of national standard development organizations, such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) in the U.S. ISO defines terms and develops worldwide standards that frequently become law or form the basis of industry norms.

The most robust standards are generally considered to be those developed through a formal voluntary consensus process characterized by openness and due process, such as defined by ISO and ANSI. Consensus standards have built-in buy-in, government support, and international clout. For example, federal agencies are required by law to adopt existing private-sector voluntary consensus standards in lieu of creating proprietary, non-consensus standards. The World Trade Organization has decreed that purchasing criteria developed in accordance with internationally accepted principles of standardization are not considered technical barriers to trade.

Most of the green product standards currently available, however, are proprietary or regulatory standards developed outside this formal consensus process. Depending on the development group, these may be more or less stringent than consensus standards, and they often include some degree of transparency and public comment. Increasingly, manufacturers are recognizing that, with their customers sensitive to “greenwashing,” proprietary industry-developed standards and industry-certified labels are not enough.

Deborah Fuller, an interior designer at HOK, said that she is wary of less robust product certification programs. “When it’s a third party, a separate organization that’s strictly in the business of certifying, I feel more comfort,” she said. Her colleague Sibylle Ruefenacht also said that she is very aware of where a certification comes from. “One of the things I like to consider is how it came about,” she said. “I have found that in some situations a manufacturer may be sponsoring it, and those are more partial.” But, she added, “it’s hard to find that out because they don’t advertise it.”

The consensus process gives standards a measure of protection against conflicts of interest. Despite this move toward consensus processes, the green certifications landscape is also populated with proprietary standards that are nonetheless trusted because they are associated with a group with strong environmental credentials.

First, second, or third party

First-, second-, and third-party levels of certification define the degree of separation between the certifier and the company whose product is being certified. Most marketing claims, product specifications, and material data safety sheets are first-party declarations that have not been independently tested or verified. Second-party certification can provide more credible information by involving a trade association or outside consulting firm in setting a standard and verifying claims. Second-party certification offers little assurance against conflicts of interest, however. A certification is most robust when an independent third party conducts the product testing and awards the certification. As a further measure of quality control, a certifier can be ANSI-approved, which verifies the certifier’s objectivity.

From certifications to labels

ISO defines different types of labels that can be used for products, depending on what is being claimed. Type I labels provide a seal of approval for meeting a multiple-attribute set of predetermined requirements. Type II labels are verifiable single-attribute environmental claims, for such things as energy consumption, emissions, or recycled content. According to ISO, Type II labels can be first-party self-declared claims of the manufacturer, but manufacturers are increasingly seeking third-party verification of those claims. Type III labels display comprehensive and detailed product information. Certifications available in the U.S. today lead mostly to Type I and Type II labels, although not all meet ISO’s requirements.


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