The Role of Voluntary Consensus Standards

“As a background to the Copyright Office’s decision to attempt to offer services over the Web without the use of standards, it is important to keep in mind the Web was born and achieved widespread use only because of a commitment to open, vendor-neutral standards. The early Web faced the threat of fragmentation through the actions of competing browser vendors. These actions actually jeopardized the broader adoption of the technology. In response to this threat, we created the World Wide Web Consortium as a global organization, currently over 390 members, for the purpose of enabling the ongoing development of Web standards. Since those early days in 1994, we have witnessed the creation of tremendous opportunities, technical, social, and commercial, the world over, in large part due to the commitments of corporate and not-for-profit entities to the development of technical standards that may be implemented in diverse settings and for diverse purposes. Since then, those content providers, software vendors, and service providers who have adopted a standards-based strategy have seen benefits not possible with a proprietary approach.”
-- Tim Berners-Lee and Daniel J. Weitzner, World Wide Web Consortium, August 22, 2005, submittal to the Office of General Counsel, US Copyright Office.

Voluntary Consensus Sustainable Product Standards that are Leading the Way
For many of the reasons outlined earlier, a few intrepid organizations are leading the way in developing voluntary, consensus-based sustainable product standards. Two standards of particular interest to green facilities are NSF 140 - Sustainable Carpet Assessment Standard from NSF Intl. and IEEE Standard 1680 - Standard for Environmental Assessment of Personal Computer Products from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

While there is much deliberation as to what constitutes a “sustainable” product, there is generally universal acceptance that the products must proactively address the three performance spheres of the triple bottom line. Whether represented by the “Economic-Environmental-Social,” “People-Planet-Profit,” or my preferred “Commercially Productive – Ecologically Intelligent – Socially Beneficial” mantra, any product making claims of sustainability must perform at a certain level of competence within all three realms.

In NSF 140, the purpose of the standard is clearly specified to:

  1. Provide a market-based definition for a path to sustainable carpet.
  2. Establish performance requirements for public health and environment.
  3. Address the triple bottom line, economic-environmental-social, throughout the supply chain.

The 124 sustainable product assessment criteria themselves are organized around six major themes: Safe for Public Health and Environment; Energy and Energy Efficiency; Biobased, Recycled content, or EPP Materials; Manufacturing (including Corporate Responsibility); Reclamation and End of Life; and Innovation. Like the USGBC’s LEED rating systems, NSF 140 provides for recognition of increasing levels of sustainable product performance from “Certified” to Silver, Gold, and Platinum. Like LEED, NSF 140 is a menu-based credit assessment system with select prerequisites that must be complied with.

There are currently a large number of commercial carpet products certified to the trial-use version of this standard, in key part due to the purchasing commitment of the State of California, which had long been seeking a more comprehensive environmental product standard for carpet. A list of certified products from companies, including Bentley Prince Street, Collins & Aikman, Interface, Lees, Mannington, Mohawk, Milliken, and Shaw Contract, can be found at (

IEEE Standard 1680 was developed to help purchasers in the public and private sectors evaluate, compare, and select desktop computers, notebooks, and monitors based on their environmental attributes. The complete set of performance criteria includes 23 required criteria and 28 optional criteria in eight categories: Reduction/elimination of environmentally sensitive materials; Materials selection; Design for end of life; Product longevity/life-cycle extension; Energy conservation; End of life management; Corporate performance; and Packaging. The standard designates three tiers of environmental performance – Bronze, Silver, and Gold. To qualify as a Bronze-level product, it must conform to all the required criteria. Silver must meet all the required criteria plus at least 50 percent of the optional criteria that apply to the product type being assessed. Gold must meet all the required criteria plus 75 percent of the optional criteria.

The Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) Registry, developed by the Green Electronics Council, lists products that have been declared by their manufacturers to be in conformance with IEEE 1680. As of August 2007, over 595 products have been listed in the EPEAT registry. To view the products, from companies such as Dell and HP, visit (

What the Future Holds
In addition to the sustainable carpet assessment standard, NSF is also facilitating the development of sustainable assessment standards for contract textiles, systems furniture and seating, and resilient flooring. The Institute for Market Transformation to Sustainability (MTS) recently received accreditation as a developer of American National Standards (ANS) from ANSI and is in the process of seeking ANS designation for its “SMART” brand of sustainable building product standards.

ASTM, one of the leading developers of voluntary consensus standards for materials and products, is also playing a key role in this area. In particular, numerous ASTM committees are working on specific assessment methodologies that are, in turn, leveraged or referenced in the broader sustainable product standards. Examples of these standards include: Data Collection for Sustainability Assessment of Building Products (E2129); Standard Specification for Compostable Plastics (D6400); and Standard Practice for Evaluating and Reporting Environmental Performance of Biobased Products (D7075). Also in development under the auspices of F40, Committee on Declarable Substances, are standards to aid in the evaluation and reporting of hazardous substances of concern within the packaging, vehicle, electrical, and electronic device markets.

Clearly, the members of these various standard development organizations have recognized the need and market value for voluntary consensus-based sustainable product standards. The work is not easy, with individual members often contributing hundreds (if not thousands) of hours of research, collaboration, and negotiation to deliver practical, reproducible, and innovative standards. All this effort, however, is leading to a growing selection of cost-effective sustainable products for us to choose from for our buildings and operations.

Look for September’s Greener Facilities installment: The Role of Certification, Labeling, and Branding (sent to your In-Boxes on Wed., Sept. 26)

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