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Buying Green Interior Products
Researching green interior products for facilities in some parts of the world can seem like a wild goose chase, especially in developing countries. Sometimes, as Rico Cedro found out first hand on a project in India, the only way to find out how a product is produced is to visit the manufacturing site. “The reporting system we’re used to just doesn’t exist everywhere,” says Cedro, director of sustainable design at Krueck and Sexton Architects.
Luckily, facility executives don’t have to walk the factory floor to find information on green attributes for every product they’re considering. While it may take some digging, there’s a wealth of information available, from manufacturer-provided data to green certification labels.
But it’s important not to take every green claim at face value. Using the tools and resources available, facility executives can research the green attributes of interior products extensively. Finding the “greenest” product involves looking beyond the oft-touted recycled content and VOC levels and digging deeper into the entire life-cycle of the product.
There are a plethora of third-party product certifications that can help shed light on the environmental aspects of a product. Labels such as Greenguard, EcoLabel, and Green Seal help facility executives and designers identify products with particular green attributes. Some labels apply to many product categories, such as EcoLogo, while others are specific to a material, such as the Forest Stewardship Council’s certification for sustainably harvested wood. If a certification or label is unfamiliar, research it to find more details. (For more on green product certifications, see the Green Product Directory on page 91.)
LEED for Commercial Interiors (LEED-CI) is also a good tool for identifying green interior products because it highlights some of the attributes facility executives or designers should look for in a relatively simple and easy-to-understand format. LEED-CI touches on water conservation, recycled content, renewable materials and certified wood, among others. Those are all important considerations, but there’s more to green products than LEED-CI or green labels can account for. “A lot of people don’t know much beyond LEED,” says Sibylle Ruefenacht, senior interior design technician for HOK. “Looking at the bigger picture often gets overlooked.”
In order to cover all the bases, some facility executives and green advocates do in-depth legwork on green interior and other products. This is called an environmental life-cycle assessment. It analyzes a product’s life span based on its effect on the environment. “It’s a way of really looking at the whole life of a product versus single attributes,” says Elaine Aye, principal at Green Building Services. Looking at a number of product options holistically makes it easier to find the product with the least environmental impact.
Factors that should be researched for an environmental life-cycle analysis include:
- Materials — The raw materials that make up a product should be renewable or sustainably harvested. Recycled content is ideal, preferably from post-consumer sources.
- Manufacturing — At least some aspects of most manufacturing processes cause harm to the environment. The goal is to find a product with the least impact on the environment.
- Location — The proximity of the product’s raw materials origin and production is important. A product that’s produced 100 miles away will take less energy to get to its destination than a product produced 1,000 miles away.
- Installation — Even a product that’s made from 100 percent recycled material will be harmful in a space if it needs to be installed with VOC-laden adhesives. Look for products and contractors that focus on occupant health during installation.
- Maintenance — A product that must be cleaned or repaired frequently with harmful chemicals or energy-intensive practices will defeat the sustainable goals of an organization.
- End-of-Life — At the end of a product’s useful life, it can either be reused, upcycled, downcycled, recycled or dumped in a landfill. Reusing the material is the option with the least environmental impact. (See sidebar, “Up, Down and All Around” on page 48 for more on recycling, upcycling and downcycling.)
Each factor should be researched to the fullest extent possible. Some factors qualify for points in the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system. For example, a total of 20 percent of materials sourced and manufactured within 500 miles will earn 1 point in the LEED-CI rating system.
Questions to Ask
Researching a product’s environmental life-cycle can be daunting, especially when it comes to manufacturing processes. Many manufacturers are acutely aware of the demand for green products and processes, but may not be completely forthcoming with every detail of the manufacturing process.
The best way to get information is to ask the manufacturer directly about its manufacturing processes. Sometimes, however, there can be a little pushback, according to Melissa Mizell, senior associate and interior designer with Gensler. “The companies don’t want to give away their trade secrets, but we need to know enough to make a sound decision.”
Manufacturers that are trying to be green themselves may be more forthcoming with information about their manufacturing processes. “The ones that are well-versed in sustainability are becoming more comfortable with inviting us into their manufacturing process,” says Mizell.
Sometimes, getting good information from a manufacturer is simply a matter of asking the right questions. Does the manufacturer have an environmental mission statement? Are products certified by any green certification labels? What happens to factory waste?
Depending on the responses facility executives get from the manufacturer, it should be apparent how important sustainability is. “Sometimes, you’ll ask about a company’s environmental mission and you’ll get an answer like, ‘All our workers recycle.’ Then you know right away what kinds of answers you’ll get,” says Mizell. Glossing over the tough questions should be a red flag.
Another thing to watch for when asking a manufacturer about its products and production process is greenwashing. Companies may disseminate misinformation that includes claims like, “Our product will get you six LEED points.” Individual products can help achieve LEED points, but no product is LEED-certified or can guarantee points.
One thing manufacturers can do if they’re looking to portray their commitment to sustainability is get ISO 14000 certification. ISO 14000 is a group of environmental management standards intended to ensure an organization is operating as sustainably as possible. According to the ISO Web site (www.iso.org), ISO 14000 is designed to help an organization identify and control the environmental impact of its activities, products or services, improve its environmental performance and set environmental objectives and targets. In other words, it’s an environmental audit for a manufacturing process, says Aye. “ISO finds the company’s baseline, then the company makes incremental improvements. Then it’s audited to make sure it has reached its goals in terms of energy use, water use, waste, etc.” Getting ISO-certified is a rigorous process so the few companies that have it are clearly committed to sustainability.
A number of tools and resources exist for facility executives who are looking for the greenest interior products. Some are free, while others may charge to use their services.
BEES. The Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability is a free downloadable program from the Whole Building Design Guide branch of the National Institute of Building Sciences. According to the BEES Web site (www.bfrl.nist.gov), the environmental performance of the entire life-cycle of a product is measured using the same approach ISO 14000 certification uses. The results are then displayed on a bar graph so products can be compared easily.
eLCie. A suite of tools called eLCie developed by the International Design Center for the Environment includes a manufacturer-updated software platform to collect life-cycle data, an online listing of the product information, and a purchasing wizard for economic comparison of products.
Pharos. The Pharos Project is a free online collection of product data that is still being developed. It is wiki-based, meaning that any registered user can update the information at any time. A graphical tool called the Pharos lens records a product’s performance in categories of health and pollution, environment and resource, and social and community aspects. Go to www.pharoslens.net for status updates on the project. The tool should be up and running by the end of this year.
When it comes to specifying green interior products, it pays to look beyond the obvious benefits and dig into green attributes. “It’s too bad, but human health aspects are sometimes overlooked in favor of a single attribute like recycled content,” says Mizell. Seeking out more information and taking a broader, deeper look at the whole environmental impact of the supply chain will ensure no stone goes unturned.
Up, Down And All Around
There are three ways that a product or material can be repurposed at the end of its useful life: upcycling, downcycling or recycling.
— Lacey Muszynski