Sustainable Product Standards: Simplifying the Process of Specifying ‘Green’ Part 1: The Role of Voluntary Consensus Standards

Kirsten Ritchie is an innovative civil engineer with over 25 years of experience in green buildings and materials. As director of sustainable design at Gensler, Ritchie works with leading companies to help improve the environmental and sustainable performance of their buildings and operations. Active in numerous standards development organizations including ASTM, NSF, and the USGBC, she brings a particular passion to developing environmental measurement tools and processes that encourage and reward continuous environmental improvement.

Every year, more and more building owners, tenants, and facilities managers are seeking ways to improve the environmental performance of their buildings and operations; however, one of the major challenges facing this market is the limited availability of consensus-based, science-driven, sustainable product standards that can be relied upon to deliver better, greener products to the marketplace. Fortunately, as you will learn in this two-part article (to be continued in September), the situation is rapidly changing.

All Standards are Not Created Equal
In the universe of global commerce, buyers and suppliers rely upon four different kinds of product standards to facilitate transactions: DeFacto, Regulatory, Proprietary, and Voluntary Consensus.

DeFacto standards are those that are proprietary in nature, but for one or more reasons have gained dominant market position. An example of this kind of standard is Microsoft Windows, a proprietary, patent-protected operating system standard for personal computers that nonetheless forms the primary specification criteria for most personal computer purchases today.

Regulatory standards represent product rules written and adopted by government agencies, which then migrate to broader commercial applications through a variety of means. These rules are typically developed to address a specific perceived public health or safety issue. The South Coast Air Quality Management District's Rule 1113, specifying allowable VOC limits for architectural coatings, is an example of this type of standard. While initially adopted to help reduce smog in the Los Angeles Basin, it has garnered increased use and visibility as one of the low-emitting product criteria in the U.S. Green Building Council's (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system.

Proprietary standards represent that body of product criteria developed outside the formal voluntary consensus process by one or more organizations and/or companies working together to solve perceived market needs. In addition to following development processes (which do not necessarily conform to international rules of due process), these standards typically stipulate a single organization that is responsible for determining product conformance with the standard, significantly limiting the market opportunity for global reach and competitiveness. Examples of proprietary product standards common in the green building environment include ENERGY STAR®, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), GreenSeal, Sustainable Forestry initiative (SFI), Cradle2Cradle, and Environmental Choice.

Voluntary consensus standards, which are viewed as the "gold" standard from the international commerce perspective, are those standards that are developed via a formal process characterized by openness and due process. In the United States, the rules describing the process by which a voluntary consensus standard must be developed, as well as the general principles of what can and cannot be included in these types of standards, are detailed in the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) "Essential Requirements: Due process requirements for American National Standards." These requirements apply to activities related to the development of consensus for approval, revision, reaffirmation, and withdrawal of American National Standards (ANS).

At the core of the 20-plus-page "Essential Requirements" is the role of due process in the standards development process. As described, due process means that any person (organization, company, government agency, individual, etc.) with a direct and material interest has a right to participate by: a) expressing a position and its basis, b) having that position considered, and c) having the right to appeal. Due process allows for equity and fair play. The following constitute the minimum acceptable due process requirements for the development of consensus: Openness, Lack of dominance, Balance, Notification of standards development and coordination, Consideration of views and objections, Consensus vote; Appeals, Written procedures, and Limitations on the use of commercial terms and conditions.

Why Voluntary Consensus Standards
Given all the rules and procedures required to develop voluntary consensus standards, one might ask, why bother? Well, first and foremost, with the adoption of the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act (NTTAA) (P.L. 104-113), federal agencies, as well as state and local governments, have been directed to adopt private-sector voluntary consensus standards wherever possible in lieu of creating proprietary, non-consensus standards. The use of these voluntary consensus standards, whenever practicable and appropriate, is intended to achieve the following goals:

  • Eliminate the cost to the government of developing its own standards and decrease the cost of goods procured and the burden of complying with agency regulation.
  • Provide incentives and opportunities to establish standards that serve national needs.
  • Encourage long-term growth for U.S. enterprises and promote efficiency and economic competition through harmonization of standards.
  • Further the policy of reliance upon the private sector to supply government needs for goods and services.

Considering the considerable quantity of products purchased by our assorted governmental agencies, one can quickly see the market value in having voluntary consensus standards available that address the purchasers' requirements.

A second driver for voluntary consensus standards is that global trade is demanding them. World trade recognizes the importance of product standards, but a plethora of proprietary standards - often with mutually exclusive criteria - can wreak havoc with manufacturers' abilities to deliver high-performing, innovative, and cost-effective goods to the marketplace. As noted in its 2005 Global Citizenship Report, HP's products are expected to demonstrate conformance with ENERGY STAR in the United States, Blue Angel in Germany, Environmental Choice in Canada, IT Eco Declaration in the Nordic Countries, Green Mark in Taiwan, TCO in Sweden, and PC Green Label in Japan, to name just some of the environmental performance standards. It is easy to understand why HP advocates and supports harmonized, international, voluntary, and consensus-based standards.

Another global trade driver for voluntary consensus standards is governmental conformance with the World Trade Organization Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (WTO/TBT). The agreement tries to ensure that regulations, standards, testing, and certification procedures do not create unnecessary trading obstacles for producers and exporters, and, in particular, cannot be used as an excuse for protectionism. Importantly, the TBT rules indicate that purchasing criteria developed in accordance with internationally accepted principles of standardization (transparency, openness, consensus, etc.) are not considered technical barriers to trade.

A third key reason for embracing the voluntary consensus process, in spite of all its challenges, is the awe-inspiring ability to drive amazing market transformation. One does not need to look beyond the phenomenal success of the Web, made possible by diligent efforts of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) members to demonstrate the potential power of open, consensus-based 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:

  • Provide a market-based definition for a path to sustainable carpet.
  • Establish performance requirements for public health and environment.
  • 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 (www.scscertified.com/sustainablechoice).

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 (www.epeat.net).

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 installment: The Role of Certification, Labeling, and Branding.


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