Green Certification Labels Combat Greenwash

By Greg Zimmerman, Executive Editor  
OTHER PARTS OF THIS ARTICLEPt. 1: Green Building Products: Avoid the HypePt. 2: The Signs of GreenwashPt. 3: This PagePt. 4: Developing Internal Criteria for Green ProductsPt. 5: Planning Green: LEED Strategies for Existing BuildingsPt. 6: Pharos Project Readies New Environmental Assesment Tool

When manufacturers spend the time and money required to complete the cradle to cradle circle, they often are interested in verifying exactly how much recycled content they are use and making that information publicly available to separate themselves from the soft claims of potentially dubious accuracy.

To do this, they often employ third-party certification companies, such as Scientific Certification Systems, to test their products independently and certify them. Recycled content is only one example of the environmental claims that can be certified. Third-party certifications verify everything from levels of VOC emissions to how reflective a roof is.

“By using these certifications, we know that testing has been done,” says Dean Sanderson, vice president of corporate real estate for Sabre Holdings. “This means the product is truly green in the way it says it is.”

Sanderson hits on an important point — these so-called eco-labels are verifications of specific environmental claims. They’re not a proclamation of a product’s overall greenness. But they’re valuable because they ensure facility executives know what they’re getting when they select products that have been certified by these independent agencies.

But how do facility executives know which green certifications are reputable? Is it possible that some green certifications are themselves versions of greenwash, with standards developed by trade organizations comprised of manufacturers?

“A certification might just be marketing, too,” says Debi Fuller, senior interior designer and sustainable knowledge leader with HOK. “It’s really important to look beneath the surface.” Cooper echoes this assertion: “Look for what’s behind the certification. Some industries have created their own certifications, which aren’t as reliable as independent third-party certifications.”

To qualify the certifications themselves, facility executives should look at the organizations that have developed the standards and find out whether the funding comes from manufacturer sources. Regarding the standards themselves, determine how they were developed. Is the process open and transparent? Is it based on science? Are the certifications multiattribute, meaning they may include performance criteria? Or are they single-attribute certifications, meaning that only one particular characteristic, like VOC emissions, has been verified?

If facility executives use single-attribute certifications, Fuller cautions about the hidden trade-off. A product that has a single-attribute certification can still contain other environmentally harmful materials.

Fuller also says that the LEED rating systems has been a boon to legitimizing many of these green certifications. That’s because LEED credits use the standards of some of these certifications — ENERGY STAR and Green Seal, for example. Additionally, some newer certifications — like MBDC’s Cradle-to-Cradle Certification — can garner Innovation in Design credit for LEED.

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  posted on 9/1/2008   Article Use Policy

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