Why Does My Design Library Look Like a NASCAR Helmet?

Why are there so many logos and certifications plastered on binders and catalogs?

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Every day there seems to be a new certification cropping up and they all seem to want to convince us that the product it’s slapped onto is super sustainable. It might seem that a label certifying a product might take some of the guesswork out of making suggestions, but that hasn’t been the case at all.

Ever since we began considering the sustainability of design choices there have been hurdles to understanding what the vendor’s claims mean and how they relate. In the earliest days of the industry trying to figure out the most important issues, there were egregious cases of “green-washing” making manufacturer claims subject to a fair amount of skepticism. Thus the need or some sort of proof of those claims became absolutely necessary. But before anyone could get too comfortable with expertly marketed “green” labels, it became evident that the proliferation of certificates and certifications labels were not all created equal. How is a professional supposed to be able to keep up with all of the relevant issues on each of the products? The task is daunting, to be sure.

If only there was some kind of cheat sheet…

Beginning to understand all of these labels might be streamlined with a causal grouping. Let’s start by sorting the major ones into four buckets: single attribute, multi attribute, transparency tools and certifying labels.

Single Attribute

Single attribute standards are useful in helping identify a single aspect of a product’s sustainability. For example, GreenGuard is a great measure of a product’s indoor air quality, providing a thorough picture of the air in a room with a product installed. It does its job quite well, but doesn’t tell us anything about the chemistry of the product—because it wasn’t designed to do so. By the same token, FSC (Forest Stewardship Council)  is a great label to seek if the desire to know about the forestry practices of the floor or piece of furniture are responsible, but it can’t tell us if the flooring that was made from certified wood uses formaldehyde to turn it into a veneer. Or if the factory workers that create the product are treated fairly.

Multi Attribute

In contrast, multi attribute standards assess the entire lifecycle of a product’s attributes including energy reduction, waste diversion, recyclability, and natural resource conservation. These standards are created by each product’s own industry and best when developed in accordance with ANSI standards. The ANSI standards ensure that those that stand to gain the most from earning a high score do not get to write the standard alone. Joint committees are in place to write and steer the direction of standard side by side with members from both inside and outside of the industry. The evaluated products can generally earn points from any area of the standard, so a product can be making great strides in one area while using older methods in another area and still obtain certification. As a whole though, a product has to be doing a lot of things right to earn these types of certification at any level.

While industry standards offer varying degrees of reliability, USGBC does recognize ANSI/BIFMA e3 (LEVEL) to evaluate furniture, NSF/ANSI 140 to evaluate carpet, NSF/ANSI 332 to evaluate resilient flooring, Green Squared/ANSI A138.1 to evaluate tile, and NSF/ANSI 342 for wallcovering. These are all “approved 3rd party certifications” by USGBC. Keep in mind that there is a little bit of research to do on some of these because they have some specific requirements to meet all of the criteria. It’s definitely worth a look.

Other multi-attribute standards such as Cradle-to-Cradle and Living Product Challenge are likely to push products to innovate farther than ever to meet their strict criteria. They are especially forward thinking in areas such as safer chemistry and net positive manufacturing practices. There aren’t as many options for products carrying these labels as only the most forward-thinking organizations and revolutionary products achieve these certifications. Keep your eyes out for these as products you can count on to be among the most responsible choices you can make for your clients.

Transparency Tools

The next bucket we can lump logos into is regarding transparency. These tell us an awful lot about the product they are affixed to, but don’t always tell us what to do with that information. For example, an HPD (Health Product Declaration) is a request that is becoming more readily available. While it tells us about the chemistry of the product, it doesn’t make us chemists and may not tell us much about what harm may come to a user if that product is used. It only tells us about the ingredients. If the product is shown to have 150 parts per million of a toxic chemical what could happen? The HPD can’t really tell us that. It’s not news that the chemical makeup of products is important to a growing number of decision makers and with good reason. There are fire retardants and plasticizers and antimicrobials that should probably be avoided so it is helpful to have disclosure documents so we can identify them. An HPD tells you what is in a product and lets you decide what to do with the information.

A disclosure label that takes it one step further is a Declare label. It lets you know the chemical makeup of the product and then lets you know if it is free of the most harmful ones. They evaluate on three levels to help you make an informed decisions. Likewise, The Pharos Project is a database that helps identify health and environmental hazards in building products. Both of these tools will take that information and make it a little easier to avoid harmful chemicals.

An EPD (Environmental Product Declaration) also falls into our transparency bucket. As another widely requested document, it offers transparency into the lifecycle of the evaluated product. These documents are designed to allow the building product specifiers to be able to compare products in the same product category by defining rules and requirements of each category. These Product Category Rules (PCR) are the critical component of the EPD that allows for the direct comparison of like products. There is an incredible amount of information that must be obtained to create these documents and compared to some of the other evaluation tools, there are fewer products that have completed the daunting task. Just like with HPDs, these documents provide you with the data for your own comparison.

Certifying Labels

The last bucket we can group labels into are the certifying bodies. You may have seen logos for NSF, SCS, and UL on products and catalogs. These labels validate the claims being made by the manufacturer. Those organizations audit and verify anything from a single attribute, like recycled content or indoor air quality, to auditing all of the details of an entire ANSI standard. They don’t establish any of the criteria; they only tell you that what is claimed is true.

It isn’t expected that these labels and logos are going away any time soon and learning new ones is probably going to be in everyone’s future. As difficult as it may be to keep up, simply knowing to ask what type of label it is might be enough to help you consider its worth to you on your immediate project. Sometimes looking for a single attribute might be exactly what your client needs in the moment, but other times you might be looking for something a little more comprehensive. Good luck as you wade your way through your four buckets.

Check out this infographic to help further understand certifications: 

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