Sustainable Product Standards: Simplifying the Process of Specifying ‘Green’ Part 2: The Role of Certification, Labeling, and Branding

09/26/2007 |

The roles of product certification, labeling, and branding in sustainable products for your building projects are changing

By Kirsten Ritchie, Director of Sustainable Design, Gensler

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.

Understanding Environmental Product Labeling
Classification of environmental labels and declarations has been established at the international level via the ISO 14020 series of standards. Currently, environmental labels and declarations are divided into three principal types:

  • Type I environmental labeling, including environmental preferability, described in ISO 14024.
  • Type II, self-declared environmental claims described in ISO 14021.
  • Type III environmental declarations described in ISO 14025.

Type I Certified Products (Seal of Approval)
Type I describes environmental labeling programs that award their environmental label to products that meet a set of predetermined requirements. The standard provides a mechanism by which a third party can authorize the use of environmental labels on products indicating overall environmental preferability of a product within a particular product category based on life-cycle considerations. The standard requires the use of multiple criteria in the assessment. The Type I label cannot be awarded on the basis of a single attribute, such as recycled content or energy efficiency.

ISO 14024 establishes the principles and procedures for developing Type I environmental labeling programs, including the selection of product categories, product environmental criteria, and product function characteristics; and for assessing and demonstrating compliance. The standard requires the life-cycle stages to be taken into account when developing the product environmental criteria and should include extraction of resources, manufacturing, distribution, use, and disposal relating to relevant cross-media environmental indicators. Any departure from this comprehensive approach or selective use of restricted environmental issues must be justified. In addition, the development and selection of criteria are to be based on sound scientific and engineering principles.

Scientific Certification Systems' (SCS') SustainableChoice and MBDC's Cradle to Cradle represent two emerging Type I labeling programs in the United States.

Type II Certified Products (Single-Attribute Claims)
Typically, Type II labeling consists of self-declared environmental claims made by manufacturers, importers, distributors, retailers, or anyone else likely to benefit from such claims. Increasingly, however, as conformance with ISO 14021 requires that self-declared environmental claims can only be considered verifiable if such verification can be made without access to confidential business information, companies are turning to second- and third-party product certification bodies to independently verify the claims. In this manner, the buying public can feel confident about the validity of the claim, including the scientifically sound and documented nature of the supporting criteria and data, while the manufacturer can protect any confidential business information that is required to support the claim.

Type II environmental claims made with regard to products may take the form of statements, symbols, or graphics on product or package labels, or in product literature, technical bulletins, advertising, publicity, telemarketing, as well as digital or electronic media (such as the Internet). These environmental claims and any explanatory statements are subject to all requirements as laid out in ISO 14021, which include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Shall be accurate and not misleading.
  • Shall be substantiated and verified.
  • Shall be relevant to that particular product and used only in an appropriate context or setting.
  • Shall be presented in a manner that clearly indicates whether the claim applies to the complete product, only to a product component or packaging, or only to an element of a service.
  • Shall be specific as to the environmental aspect or environmental improvement which is claimed.

There is a large and growing body of Type II environmental labeling programs here in the United States. Some of the most prevalent include the U.S. EPA's ENERGY STAR®, the Carpet and Rug Institute's (CRI's) Green Label and Green Label Plus, FSC's Chain-of-Custody, SCS' recycled content and IndoorAdvantage, GreenGuard's Indoor Air Quality Certified, and the Resilient Floor Covering Institute's (RFCI's) FloorScore program.

Type III Certified Products (EcoProfiles and Environmental Declarations)
The simplest way to envision Type III labeling is to think about a nutritional label, but for a durable good. Rather than total calories and carbohydrates, you see total energy consumed and CO2 equivalents emitted.

In ISO 14025, a Type III environmental declaration is described as quantified environmental life-cycle product information provided by a supplier and based on independent verification (e.g. third party) and systematic data, and presented as a set of categories for a sector group. Type III environmental declarations are to be non-selective, but present the information in a format that facilitates comparison between products. In preparing a Type III certification, the following must be declared:

  • Methods of data collection and assessment, including the role of values and subjectivity, often referred to as "value-choices."
  • Choice of life-cycle inventory analysis (LCI) data categories and life-cycle impact assessment (LCIA) impact categories.
  • Ensuring quality of environmental information in terms of relevance, accuracy, and uncertainty.
  • The means of ensuring that environmental information is relevant and not misleading.
  • How to communicate with purchasers and potential purchasers in an accurate, not-misleading way.
  • Ensuring international compatibility, maximum comparability, and the use of sufficiently specific product information.

After languishing for many years due to implementation challenges, Type III product labeling has taken off rather dramatically in the last 12 months. While the activity has been seen primarily in the European Union, in part as a result of an increasing number of country governments beginning to require this information for products supplied to new construction projects, the United States is becoming a sideline beneficiary. Manufacturers with operations in both continents, such as Steelcase, are starting to apply their European LCA learnings to their American-made products.

It is very important to note that, while Type III labels provide an extensive amount of information, they do not make any claims about a product being better than another. But, by facilitating the transparency of information, they enable us to make the better choices for our environments.

The Power of Branding
Let's face it: America is a brand-driven society. For better or worse, we respond to catchy phases, compelling graphics, and easy-to-remember names. And, the same holds true for environmental causes as well. The organic food industry is now worth billions of dollars, thanks to collaborators and competitors agreeing to focus on the brand "organic." The U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating program is closing in on over 10,000 registered buildings and over 40,000 accredited professionals. This in a space of less than 8 years, when the green building movement had been struggling for almost 40 years prior to get the recognition it deserved. EPA's ENERGY STAR program has been wildly successful, in no small part due to the catchiness of its brand.

Clearly, the developers of environmental product certification programs recognize the value of great branding and are increasingly using it to drive market improvement. Cradle to Cradle, GreenGuard, Green Seal, IndoorAdvantage, SustainableChoice, FloorScore, and GreenLabel Plus are just a few of the growing number of environmental brands we have to avail ourselves of. There are times I become concerned that designers, facilities managers, and purchasers might feel overwhelmed by a plethora of environmental brands in the marketplace; however, as long as those brands are backed up with transparent, voluntary consensus standards and rigorous, independent third-party certification, I think we are all better served by having a feast of options. Besides, just recognizing how many brands of shoes there are on the marketplace makes me confident that we have space available in our intellectual collective to handle a bit more environmental branding.


Related Coverage