The Gray in Green Product Labeling: A look at Standards and Certifications
January 2nd, 2009

First Quarter, 2009

Humans feel an innate sense to connect. Where do we fit into life and with whom? What is your identity? Corporations spend an enormous amount of capital on helping us through this dilemma with their own choice question—What products do you associate with and consume? Marketing gurus are masters of this identity artform and skillfully craft the image and characteristics of a product into a single icon that conveys all that perception — the label.

As environmental consumers, the ability to show our green side has become as important as showing our financial success. We use labels to tell us the greenness of a product, and then trust that the product is good for the earth. Very few consumers are educated enough to truly understand the total environmental impact of a product. The ultimate problem with green is that there is a subjective set of qualitative factors that can be used in whole or in part to substantiate a claim.

If you look at the exhaustive list of attributes that fall into the green realm, you’ll quickly discover that it is nearly impossible, without a lot of knowledge, to determine which attributes are really important. Take a look at the following short excerpt and determine which of these is the most important to the overall health of planet earth.

Environmental contamination from the manufacturer

Waste in the product packaging

Off gassing from the product or installation materials

Manufacturer’s carbon footprint

Compliance with industry building codes, product standards and environmental regulations

Use for product after its initial life

Ease of recycling product and diverting from landfills

It is a difficult and scientific dilemma overshadowed by a healthy dose of judgment. When faced with this type of choice, our human inclination is to get buy-in from others and collectively we define a standard answer to our particular question, which in this case is—What is green about this product?

So what happens when a standard is missing to validate the greenness of a product? Initially a manufacturer is left with little other choice than to define their product’s green attributes, and then market based on these criteria. The biggest problem with this method is that the data used to define that particular product’s green features, may or may not be applicable to others of its kind. If each manufacturer is out there creating their own set of green criteria, it causes confusion in the consumer’s mind. This confusion has been labeled as “greenwashing.”

Is there a label out there that can be relied upon to not have false claims? Within the green world of labeling, that’s a path full of pitfalls. One issue is that there is a whole array of Single Attribute Green product labels that certify one particular characteristic of a product as being green. The other attributes of the product could be very ungreen or downright detrimental to the environment. For example, bio-based fuels were long thought to be earth friendly. Then it was discovered that rainforests were being clear-cut, to create more farming land, to produce more crops to be turned into bio-fuels. Net result—bad for the environment. Usually a label based on verified Multiple Attribute criteria is considered to be more reliable because it takes into consideration broader environmental factors.

Another option is to turn to a cumulative decision making body for definitions. The International Standards Organization (ISO) is a non-governmental standard setting body founded in the early 1940s. This group includes representatives from standard setting organizations such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). Within the ISO 14000 standard there are requirements and guidelines for environmental product labeling.

Type I labels define compliance with a multiple attribute set of requirements and offer a stamp based on a pass/ fail rating. The difficulty is that they aren’t designed to provide a consumer with detailed comparative information on performance between products.

Type II labels are self-declared environmental claims based on a single attribute of the product such as energy consumption, recycled content, or emissions.

Type III labels are comprehensive third party certified statements about a product’s environmental performance. They will often include an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) that evaluates the environmental impacts of a product such as raw material usage, air emissions, waste generation and / or the product’s overall Life Cycle Assessment (LCA).

Currently within the Green Labeling world, most are either Type I or Type II labels. This leaves a gray area—how to make sure that the product complies with the claim to green? Non biased certification of a product is a good avenue to follow.

A characteristic of a product needs to be certified, if it isn’t obvious in the product’s makeup. For example, an untrained consumer can look at a tile, and determine if the tile has a textured surface. It takes a person with experience to look at a tile and determine if it is porcelain or stone. Only a lab can determine the amount of recycled material in the body of the tile.

The criteria used to label the product as green, should be based on a standard. Standards can be developed by a manufacturer, an industry organization, government entities or a standard setting body such as ANSI or ISO. The best standards are typically those that have been developed by a voluntary consensus organization such as ANSI or ISO because they have industry support. The consensus process is slow, but ultimately removes conflicts of interest, due to the multiple sources of input into the standard.

Lastly, the product needs to be certified against the standard. This is where labeling and certification go gray together, because the testing can be performed by the manufacturer, an industry association or an independent lab. In the certification of products, the levels between the manufacturer and the standard or certifying entity are there to eliminate conflicts of interest. Let’s look at a scenario using the manufacture of widgets (not a real product, in case you are wondering).

At the first party level of certification, a “widget” manufacturer creates a list of attributes that describe the greenness of their “widgets.” This list may or may not be based on industry defined environmental aspects.

At the second party level of certification, an industry organization, such as the “Widget Distributors of America” create a standard for the greenness of all widget products. They will select green attributes that are beneficial to the sale of most widgets. This consensus standard, however, is still tilted toward the sale of widgets.

At the third party level of certification, an independent lab will be commissioned to certify the widgets against an environmental standard. The lab is in the business of testing products and would lose credibility as a testing facility if they reported a false claim of green attributes.

At the end of the day, this is where the battle rages among flooring products—who has the best standard and most valid claim of a product’s greenness?

The first environmental wave in green flooring labeling was focused on the Single Attribute measurement of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as a contributor to bad indoor air quality. What is a VOC? It’s that new car smell, or the smell of fresh paint. You might enjoy these scents, but it has been determined that VOCs contribute to poor indoor air quality and sick building syndrome. The California Department of Health Services has been at the forefront of developing air quality standards for the entire nation. Entities such as Green Guard will third party certify a product as complying with the California emission standards.

In early 2000, the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) created the Green Label Plus as a second party industry label. This label was based on a modified version of California’s emissions criteria. Shortly after, the Resilient Floor Covering Institute (RFCI) adopted an emissions certification developed by the Scientific Certification Systems (SCS). The resulting third party label, Floor Score, is a measurement for all hard surface flooring and flooring adhesives / mortars. The carpet industry followed up, and was the first to create a standard for green carpet. The NSF 140- 2007 for carpet, is the first ANSI approved multiple attribute certifications in the flooring industry. It evaluates a carpet product on the multi-attribute areas of manufacturing process, recycled content and end of life reuse.

So how does tile measure up in the green arena? For thousands of years, tile has been an environmentally friendly product. It has one of the best life cycles of any product in the flooring industry; it is made of locally sourced materials, and is great for indoor air quality. To give tile an even bigger boost, most tile manufacturers have practiced Economic Environmentalism for decades. To define my own phrase—

Economic Environmentalism means doing good things for the environment that also make good economic sense for the business. A lot of the waste tile created during the manufacturing process is added back into the production line resulting in the diversion of hundreds of millions of pounds of landfill waste. A lot of the US manufacturing plants also use clean burning fuel resulting in negligible CO2 emissions, and some are even taking major steps to reduce their carbon footprint. Millions of gallons of water are reclaimed and reused in tile plants across the US, and some manufacturers are working towards net zero discharge of process water into the public sewer. Sounds like tile is at the top of the green flooring food chain right?

Wrong! If you’ve read this article thus far, you have hopefully picked up on the fact that certification against a standard is important.

Tile has always had a favorable green weight, so there hasn’t been any urgency to create green tile industry standards. This lack of tile industry certification and labeling is putting the industry at a major disadvantage on both the consumer and construction green front. There is a lot of liability for an architect in selecting green products that will comply with the parameters for a LEED certified project. It is much easier for them to select from the vast array of third party certified products based on reputable standards, than to verify a first party claim to being green. Along those same lines, the carpet industry is doing a FANTASTIC job of marketing to consumers about the various green attributes of their products.

So what is the tile industry to do?

The most important challenge will be for the tile industry to band together and approach the mountain of green with a deliberate collaborative plan rather than disjointedly as we have in the past. The good news is that some of our industry groups such as the TCNA and the CTDA have already made a move in this direction. A committee has been formed with joint representatives that will focus on bringing the tile industry further into the green light. Will it be enough or too little to late? The Green Industry is a complex and rapidly changing movement where many core components are still being developed. Leaders in our industry believe that tile can still achieve the recognition it deserves as a truly green product—but it needs to have buy-in at all levels. Are you ready to drink the punch?

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