Don't Get Overwhelmed by Eco-Labels

By Greg Zimmerman, Executive Editor  
OTHER PARTS OF THIS ARTICLEPt. 1: From Recycled Content to Holistic Life-Cycle Assessments, Here's What to Consider for Product StandardsPt. 2: This PagePt. 3: Standards for Suppliers Help Ensure Green Product Selection

The notion of using eco-labels as a part of product selection is nothing new. What is relatively new, however, is the sheer volume of them. There are now as many as 377 eco-labels, according to the website Ecolabel Index. And Gregory says that only a small percentage of those are actually valuable for facility managers. Some eco-labels have themselves become a form of greenwashing. They're put out by trade associations, and are not transparent in terms of how the standard was developed and of the science behind the standard itself. Beware of such standards, says Gregory.

That's not to say facility managers should totally disregard eco-labels, however. Far from it says, Hartridge-Beam.

"The critique of third-party certifications is that there are lots of them," he says. "That's true, but using them is still less effort than trying to tease out all manufacturers' claims."

Just as facility managers must determine their preferred environmental criteria as first step, as a second they should determine their preferred eco-labels. Phil Berman, executive director for building services at Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), says that his organization has a list of eco-labels it has identified in its environmentally preferable purchasing guidelines. Berman says the organization selected its preferred eco-labels based on prevailing trends in K-12 schools, as well as research by team members responsible for different products. Green Seal, EcoLogo, SMART certification by MTS, MBDC Cradle to Cradle, Greenguard and Energy Star are some of the main eco-labels CMS considers in its product selection, according to "Ways To Go Green," the organization's environmental stewardship guide.

"Becoming familiar with some of the certifications you trust will always help winnow the product choices," says Hartridge-Beam. "It'll expedite the process of product selection because you don't have time to try to understand each and every claim."

One important distinction facility managers should consider is specifying a standard as opposed to specifying products that are actually certified by a particular eco-label. For instance, many third-party organizations, including SMART by MTS, the Carpet and Rug Institute, Scientific Certification Systems, and the Collaborative for High Performance Schools reference California's 01350 indoor air quality standard in their own eco-labels. So one option for facility managers is, instead of trying to identify every eco-label that references this standard, just reference the standard itself in their own product selection criteria.

Full-building green rating systems like LEED already do this to some degree. For instance, Material & Resources credit 3 — Sustainable Purchasing, Facility Alterations and Additions in LEED-EBOM, gives one point for attaining sustainable purchasing in at least 50 percent of products that meet a long list of criteria, including paint that meets Green Seal's GS-11 standard. The products don't have to be certified, but they must be shown to meet the standard that third-party organization has developed.

Another eco-label recommendation is to give priority to multi-attribute labels that also include performance criteria. Performance standards ensure that products will perform at least as well and last at least as long as similar non-green products.

These standards are much more environmentally rigorous than a standard that only certifies, for example, a product's percentage of recycled content, say experts. "Single-item certifications are important for what they are," says Gregory. "But they have to roll into those full-criteria certifications. I've always been in favor of performance standards as a part of these green certifications."

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  posted on 6/5/2011   Article Use Policy

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