Building Operating Management

Buying Green Interior Products

Choosing green interior products takes research and commitment. Here’s how to look beyond the obvious and find truly sustainable products

By Lacey Muszynski, Assistant Editor   Green

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.

Environmental Life-cycle

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 (, 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.

Getting Information

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 (, 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 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.

Tips for Buying Green Interior Products

Once the research into the environmental impact of interior product choices has been done, there are other things to consider before you purchase the “greenest” one. Here are some areas that are often overlooked or not considered when facility executives choose green interior products.

  • Carpeting manufacturers often take back their carpeting at the end of its useful life due to a high demand for post-consumer recycled content carpeting. Some manufacturers are even reclaiming carpeting that wasn’t made by them due to demand, says Sibylle Ruefenacht, senior interior design technician for HOK. Not only will this cut down on disposal costs (some manufacturers reclaim for free), it also ensures more product stays out of a landfill.
  • The metal in green systems furniture often has an amount of recycled content because metal is so abundantly recycled, says Melissa Mizell, senior associate and interior designer with Gensler. But there’s more to look at, she says. Seek out formaldehyde-free materials and certification for any wood, such as work surfaces. Some manufacturers offer tackable surfaces made of rapidly renewable natural fibers that emit minimal VOCs. Refurbished office furniture is another option.
  • Simplicity in materials is sometimes overlooked, says Rico Cedro, director of sustainable design at Krueck and Sexton Architects. “The less altered a material is from its natural state, the more likely it is s have less embodied energy and less hazardous chemicals,” he says. The closer a material or product is to its fundamental properties, the more likely it’s going to be benign from an environmental perspective.
  • Be sure that environmentally friendly adhesives and fastening systems are specified with subcontractors, says Cedro. There is sometimes a weak link in the process when subcontractors use non-VOC compliant stand-by materials because they’re simply on the jobsite and accessible. Make sure everyone on the site is aware of the importance of the environmental goals.
  • Reusing or repurposing products and materials is the greenest practice of all. “One of the best approaches to green design is to try and salvage what you currently have, without having to go to new products,” says Elaine Aye, principal at Green Building Services. “Using no new materials is really the greenest practice of all.”
  • When a company claims that all or part of a product can be recycled, make sure there’s an infrastructure in place that takes that material, says Cedro. “Is there an established network or chain and is there anyone to actually receive this product?” he says. There are established networks for metals and some plastics, but it’s important to research before you purchase to avoid being left with a pile of unexpected landfill material at the end of a product’s life-cycle.
  • An aspect of green design that is now gaining momentum is the social and community aspect of where the products were produced. Finding out where a product comes from should include researching who makes it and the working and living conditions of those workers, especially if it comes from overseas. A product might have 50 percent recycled content, but the other 50 percent might come from a quarry in which child labor is used, for example. Pharos and other tools and resources are beginning to address these social issues in their environmental assessments of products.
  • No matter how green or great a product is, if there isn’t buy-in from the occupants of the space and the facilities team, the product won’t last, says Cedro. If a task chair is chosen purely based on sustainable aspects, for example, occupants who have to use the chairs on a daily basis may not find them comfortable. Eventually, the chairs will have to be replaced long before they need to be, resulting in wasted materials. The same goes for maintenance and facilities staff. If a cork floor is installed but training on how to care for it is not conducted, the floor may wear improperly and become unsafe or unattractive, resulting in a new floor before it is necessary.

— Lacey Muszynski

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.

Upcycling extracts components of the product and turns them back into virgin materials that can be used to make any other product.

Downcycling is the recycling of a product into a product of lesser quality — plastics being recycled into lower grade plastics, for example.

Recycling is reprocessing the product to produce the same end product.

— Lacey Muszynski

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  posted on 6/1/2008   Article Use Policy

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