Review of Green Building Product Certifications: Getting What You Need

REVIEW OF:

Green Building Product Certifications: GETTING WHAT YOU NEED
Published by BUILDINGGREEN, 2011
Principal Author: Jennifer Atlee
Contributors: Nadav Malin and Tristan Roberts
Cost: $79

BY JOE HASKETT

Like the main protagonist in the movie “Six Degrees of Separation” – where making connections is key in order to advance oneself – many product manufacturers today are making claims of greater connectedness to being green than is warranted.  The definition of ‘green’ is constantly changing, and when worded in just the right way, can translate into greater profits for business and big problems for consumers.  Are we to settle for a confusing variety of certifications that subtly offer false shades of green at the expense of our environment?

Luckily the answer is no. Thanks to a new report published by BuildingGreen and titled,  Green Building Product Certifications: Getting What You Need, we now have a resource to evaluate the real story of green product certification. This report offers up detailed explanations of the many certifications available, how they were developed and the criteria they use to evaluate their products.

The report helps to dispel the notion of a wild-west when dealing with Green Certifications. It offers an overview of how to spot ‘green-washing’ (they define it 9 ways), why certifications are important, who to trust and underscores the need to continually focus on what really matters. Its overall objective is to “provide a no-nonsense guide to the world of green building product certifications to help designers, purchasers, manufacturers and others in the industry to focus on what is significant and relevant so that market focus can work and the industry can focus on bigger issues.” In my opinion they have succeeded.

In terms of set up, the report follows a sensible logic: Overview, Product Certifications, Certification by Building Sector (CSI) and an explanation as to what we can expect to see in the future. Most of the report, not surprisingly, is devoted to product certifications. It covers a whole host of standards pertaining to Energy Performance, Water Efficiency, Embodied Carbon, and Forestry Certification – to name a few. For a typical snapshot of the report, take the example of one of the more critical areas for environmental performance: Energy Performance. The report gives a brief synopsis of the issue(s) and delves into each of the standards and/or certifications available. Of these standards – Energy Star, Consortium for Energy Efficiency (CEE), EnerGuide and EnergyGuide, each are given summaries, important data points such as a company website, the managing organization, launch date and the type of products they certify. It is then concluded with what the report refers to as, “BuildingGreen’s Quick Take” – an unadulterated snapshot of information that only the long-standing reputation and collective knowledge of BuildingGreen could provide. It balances the reports tight professional tone with a little water cooler chat. For example, in the ‘Quick Take’ for Energy Star, it offers this: “Energy Star was embarrassed in 2010 by audits showing that it relied on questionable data, but it has been convincingly cleaning up its act. The label is a well-recognized logo and a basic certification for manufacturers seeking to promote the energy efficiency of their products. Energy Star typically aims to cover the top 25% of products in any given sector, so it’s a great start, but buyers interested in the highest-rated products may want to look to more stringent standards like CEE.”

The report goes on to look at certifications through another lens; by building product sector. It is an attempt, as the report states, “to provide an initial overview of the key issues for each building category for which more widely applicable certifications may be helpful.” In the first section, it offers no current comprehensive certifications for Concrete, Masonry and Metals (CSI divisions 03, 04 and 05 respectively). It does, however, offer up potential third-party certifications for the percentage of recycled content or whether something is pre-consumer or post-consumer. It also speaks to the fact that this section – as with many others in the report – is a work in progress and the industry, as a whole, is attempting to provide more robust certifications that move across all sectors. It is not as robust as the Certifications Applicable to Any Building Product section, but it does make an attempt to offer up another way to discern complex certifications and replace it with an already established, well-known system utilized by people in the industry; MasterFormat.

Another credit to the report is the way it weaves ‘big picture’ thinking with detailed explanations of each certification. Among the well-researched product labels, acronyms and certifications, the report reminds us of our individual and collective responsibilities to continuously think holistically and not to focus on “certified products at the expense of cohesive, high-performance building design…as the environmental impact of a building over its lifetime is far greater than the sum of products therein.” It is this type of thinking that makes the report more comprehensive and not just a reference for label chasing.

The report concludes with a prediction that the number of green certifications and green product claims will continue to grow. It calls for more clarification and alignment amongst the certification class to help consumers and stakeholders avoid label confusion – while cautioning against a system that provides too much rigidity that could render itself incapable of improvement and not allow for the environmental-bar to be raised.

As the reader, you will walk away knowing the Who, What, When, Where and Why of Green Product Certifications. To be specific, you will learn the difference between VOC and SVOC, what ‘Thirteen-Fifty’ refers to and that Ecologo was acquired by UL and that UL will most likely be become one of the larger players within the certification world. You’ll also know the importance of understanding how first, second and third party affiliations impact the quality of certifications and how toxicity concerns are addressed by such certifications as Pharos, BASTA and ECCC. You will also learn how product certification can be a stepping stone to introducing Life-Cycle assessments (LCA) and Environmental Product Declarations (EPS’s) into your overall environmental IQ.

How would I rate this? I would give the report an 8 out 10 – with the caveat that there is always room for improvement. Not only would I recommend this report to my design colleagues, but I would – as the report suggests – recommend it to manufacturers and purchasers. I would also add business leaders and company executives to the list; they play a crucial role in the consumerist eco-system this report is trying to affect.

Any suggestions on how it could improve or what role it could play in the future? Sure. At $79 it is not cheap. For a larger company, it may be a bargain. However, for smaller companies and students it is not something easily procured. Furthermore, the graphic flow of the chapters and sub-chapters could use more distinguishing. Overall, it is well conceived and executed, but can often confuse the reader as to where they are within the document. As someone who sees this as a go-to reference guide, having something that makes it more clear to navigate through the 88 pages, would be a another point towards satisfaction. One last suggestion would be for GreenBuilding to announce that the report will be published at a standard interval – say every two years. If the future changes to the certifications world are anything like what the report offers up, it would make sense that the report’s content would need to be updated periodically allowing designers and others to keep a handle on what’s happening.

With this resource, those that are working towards continuing their knowledge base from which to make informed decisions regarding green products, this report will serve you well. We should also keep in mind that this is a passive tool that requires active understanding from the design community. The report mentions the honest confusion that design professionals have when dealing with ‘green’ certifications. It also mentions, inversely, an honest confusion on the manufacturer’s side to try and offer up products that meet our shifting definition of green. So, in the end the ball is moving for all sides and we would all be wise to work across disciplines to achieve our goals of environmental improvement.

KUDOS to BuildingGreen for once again pin-pointing an area of weakness within the environmental community and providing an answer. As we try to lessen our confusion and increase our understanding of the world of green products, we now have the first version of a Green Certifications Report that allows the degrees of separation to become closer and closer.

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