From Recycled Content to Holistic Life-Cycle Assessments, Here's What to Consider for Product Standards
Most facility managers have a good general idea of what constitutes a green product: It has a lower environmental impact than similar products of the same kind. But it's when delving into the details of that definition that the difficulty arises. The idea of matching organizational priorities — ensuring good indoor air quality, nixing particular chemicals, etc. — with product standards is a no-brainer, but beyond that, facility managers may flounder a bit.
Of course, manufacturers are more than willing to provide guidance. But some of their "warm and fuzzy claims" — as Rick Levin, associate and specifications manager at Kahler Slater and a committee member of the LEED Material and Resources Technical Advisory Group, calls them — may not be quite as credible as they seem on the surface. Indeed, selecting truly green products is often a matter of staying ahead of the marketing rhetoric before the marketing rhetoric gets the best of you. In addition, more and more third-party resources — from EPA's Environmentally Preferable Purchasing guidelines to the 377 eco-labels currently available to the Federal Trade Commission's greenwashing guidelines — make delineating green product criteria challenging. It really is almost too much to digest without hiring full-time product criteria gurus to sort through for you.
Given that no facility manager has the budget for that, what should Plan B be? One strategy is to simplify the process by dividing green product criteria into tiers of increasing stringency. If facility managers are just beginning to develop product criteria, considering simple things first — like recycled content and VOC emissions — is an important step. Then, move on to consider third-party certifications, perhaps single-attribute certifications first, followed by stringent multi-attribute certifications. And finally, consider how sustainable a manufacturer is itself, which could include issuing questionnaires to manufacturers as well as performing a full environmental life-cycle analysis on different products.
Each of these steps requires a few unique considerations. No matter a facility manager's current sophistication in terms of developing green product standards, the strategies at each tier can hold important lessons for all.
The First Step
"The first thing is to do an assessment of where your current product standards are," says Bill Gregory, principal with Gregory & Associates, a sustainability consulting firm. "You have to make your baseline and agree on common standards." Sounds obvious, but just as you would when calculating energy or water use, it's important to look at the range of interior building products purchased and determine the "low-hanging" environmental criteria you want to be sure to include as a starting point.
Levin gives some suggestions for easy criteria to start with: recycled content, regional materials, durability, rapidly renewable materials, low VOC emissions, and certified wood. Standards for many of these criteria can be found in the LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance (LEED-EBOM) or LEED for Commercial Interiors (LEED-CI) rating systems.
"LEED is a great place to start," says Stowe Hartridge-Beam, director of business development for Scientific Certification Systems. "It's a great overview of product standards, and can be a good reference tool for scope."
Another great place to look is The Green Guide For Healthcare, says Beth Eckl, director of the environmental purchasing program for Practice Greenhealth. Because health care organizations often have some of the most stringent requirements in terms of chemicals and other raw materials exclusions, the Green Guide could serve as a great reference for facility managers in any type of organization. Credit 3 of the Operations version of the Green Guide includes an extensive list of toxic chemicals that should be avoided for a wide range of products, from interior adhesives and sealants to electrical wiring. Another example, which is a hot button issue these days, according to Eckl, is avoiding interior products that include flame retardants with halogenated compounds. Especially brominated and chlorinated flame retardants have been shown to be persistent bioaccumulative toxins and should be avoided, says Eckl.
Another huge benefit to using these documents as guides is that they both reference several other resources facility managers can use to create their product standards, including some of the more credible eco-labels.