In today’s marketplace, product certification has proven to be a very valuable tool in simplifying, streamlining, and facilitating the specification and purchase of the hundreds of thousands of products used daily in the operation and maintenance of our buildings. Consider how our lives have been made easier and safer with the certification work done by Underwriters Laboratories (UL) on the myriad mechanical and electrical devices used throughout our offices and laboratories. Or, NSF Intl.’s certification programs on piping and plumbing products, including drinking water filters.
While we have come a long way in developing the certification systems for product performance and safety, there is still much to be done to document, verify, and identify products with regard to their environmental and sustainable performance characteristics. In this article, we will explore the roles of product certification, labeling, and branding in delivering more sustainable products to your projects.
The Role of Product Certification
Product certification, as generally agreed internationally, is “any activity concerned with determining directly or indirectly that relevant requirements are fulfilled.” (ISO Guide 2)
To understand the value of product certification, consider how today’s businesses operate. In simple terms, success depends on giving customers what they want. But, consistently providing products and/or services that meet or exceed customer requirements is typically not so simple. It requires establishing clear specifications and establishing controls to monitor the system to ensure desired results. One need only consider the recent issue regarding unacceptable quantities of lead in toys to recognize that specifications without controls is likely to lead to market problems. Customers expect these fundamentals to assure service and product integrity in their contracts.
In the context of building operations and maintenance, certification refers to the written assurance that the procured product conforms to the requirements of the particular standard or requirement specified. In commerce today, there are three recognized classes of certification programs, commonly referred to as “first- (1st-)”, “second- (2nd-)”, and “third- (3rd-) party” certification.
First-party certification, also referred to as “self-certification” or “self-declaration,” describes the situation wherein the product manufacturer declares that the product conforms to the specifications. Unfortunately, at this time, this is the most prevalent class of certification within the environmental arena. Just consider how many manufacturer-declared recycled-content claims you have encountered. One need not look beyond the enormous toy recall currently under way, however, to recognize the unhealthy nature of relying upon this type of certification.
Second-party certification represents that situation wherein the certification assessment is performed under the auspices of an interested party, such as a vendor or trade association or membership organization. From a consumer perspective, this option presents an improvement over first-party certification, for no other reason than the fact that there is usually a quantifiable performance standard underpinning the certification program. As the financial success of the certification body is often linked to that of the company being certified (e.g. as in being a dues-paying member), however, one must always approach products certified under this scheme with caution.
Third-party certification constitutes the approach whereby the certification assessment is performed by an independent body with no ties to a manufacturer other than a fee for assessment service. The international rules governing third-party product certification are clearly described in the Intl. Organization for Standardization Guide 65: General requirements for bodies operating product certification systems (ISO Guide 65).
Key operational rules include:
- No financial interest in organizations being certified (i.e. no shares, loans, grants, board members, membership, etc.).
- No conflict of interest by auditors (shares, membership, ownership, etc.).
- No mixing of certification and other services (i.e. training, consulting) for certification clients.
- Transparency of standards and certification process.
- All clients treated equally.
While there are many examples of third-party certified products within the building industry (you don’t need to look much further than the billions of UL-certified products), third-party certification in the environmental arena is just now beginning to gain a foothold over first- and second-party claims. Some notable third-party certification programs to watch in this area include the Forest Stewardship Council’s (FSC’s) Chain-of-Custody certification, Scientific Certification System’s (SCS’) IndoorAdvantage and SustainableChoice programs, and Green Seal’s Recycled Paint and Green Cleaning programs.
Another aspect to consider is whether the certification body has been accredited and, if so, by whom. Accreditation indicates that a certification body has been assessed to international requirements and deemed competent to carry out certification in specified business sectors by a national accreditation body. Accreditation is akin to certification of the certification body and, in some cases, certification bodies hold multiple accreditations typically based on the markets in which they do business.
Accredited certification bodies must meet international standards relating to numerous organization and operational criteria, not the least of which is demonstrating the competence of their auditors. This provides added assurance for the consuming public. Standards and guidelines for conformity assessment activities and the organizations that perform them are developed by ISO’s Committee on Conformity Assessment (CASCO). These requirements represent international consensus on what constitutes good practice. The use of these requirements ensures the consistency and coherence of conformity assessment worldwide and serves to facilitate global trade.
In most countries, accreditation is voluntary. This holds true here in the United States, as well as where accreditation is provided by the private sector through the ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board (ANAB).
The fact that a certification body is not accredited does not in itself mean that it’s not a reputable organization. Most environmentally centered certification organizations have simply been hampered by size and market scope to justify the expense of accreditation. The situation, however, is changing daily, and we should expect to see an increasing number of organizations seeking accreditation for environmental claims certification.