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Avoid the greenwashing cycle

September 1st, 2010 / By: / Feature, Graphics

What environmental certification really means to your business and your customers.

Sustainable. Eco-friendly. Green. Carbon footprint. These words, and the concepts behind them, have become commonplace in business today. Not only are they all over the popular media, but they now have a place in business plans and sales strategies on a global basis. It doesn’t even really matter if you have a personal stake in environmental issues, because it’s a fair bet that many of your customers—or your government—will have. It’s part of the business conversation.

The question for many companies is no longer whether they should become ‘green’ or more committed to sustainability. Once you’ve taken steps to become more environmentally aware, the dilemma is how to demonstrate to your customers that you’ve done so, in a way that is meaningful to them. Unfortunately, just as concern over environmental issues has grown very large very quickly (or at least it may seem so to some manufacturers, even though the first Earth Day was 40 years ago now), so have the ways in which environmental claims are being made.

“There is no universal definition of what green means,” said Dr. Marilyn Black in the April 2009 Upholstery Journal. Black is the founder of the Greenguard Environmental Institute, an industry-independent nonprofit organization that establishes acceptable indoor air standards for indoor products, environments and buildings. “It’s a little like the wild, wild west out there, because anybody can call something green based on their own criteria.”

If sustainability is still the wild frontier, how do you make your own environmental claims without risking a visit from the sheriff? In the United States, for example, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the entity that regulates what kind of environmental statements you may make in marketing your products. In general, you must be prepared to substantiate any environmental claims you make for your product, and be specific as to what you’re claiming. The last thing you want is to ‘greenwash,’ or claim your product is more environmentally friendly than it actually is. Not only will that bring unwelcome attention from the FTC, but consumers are increasingly eco-savvy. You don’t want to offend the very group that you’re trying to impress.

Let’s assume you’ve determined that you need to make some sort of environmental claim for your product—or maybe you’re trying to interpret one made by a vendor. Where do you start?

Types of certifications

Sustainability is a complex concept. You’re probably not going to be able to address all of the related issues with a simple statement; your first step is to determine which aspect of sustainability you wish to highlight. You have plenty to choose from, answering questions such as:

  • Is your product made from ‘green’ fabrics or using ‘green’ processes?
  • Does your product lead to sustainable practices, such as saving energy for the consumer?
  • Is your product recyclable?
  • Is your product free from toxic substances?

A third-party certification sometimes involves having a company or organization testing your product to standards or specifications developed by another group, often an industry group. In other certification frameworks, the organization that has created the certification criteria also performs the testing and certification.

Certification organizations

“Third-party certification is important to customers because certifications verify a company’s internal product stewardship processes and makes them visible to the marketplace, and this creates value on many levels,” states Sam Moore of the Hohenstein Institute America. “Third-party certifications are required within new regulatory standards, and they are a major force in communicating to the public that the products and operations of companies are safe and that operational practices are sound.”

Don’t forget to look higher in the supply chain to see if some of the work has already been done for you. If your product is a fabric, for example, it’s possible that your fiber or yarn supplier has already attained some sort of environmental certification. If your product is an end product, such as a trade show booth, it could be that you’re buying from a vendor that has already achieved some sort of certification on your component materials.

Once you’ve determined which aspects of sustainability you wish to address (along what can be a very complex chain of supply), there are a number of organizations that can offer independent verification of your environmental statement. This gives you tangible, and therefore more credible, support for your environmental claims.

bluesign®. The bluesign certification looks at the complete production chain, and certifies that products contain only components that pass through processes that are harmless to people and the environment.

Cradle to Cradle. McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) is a consulting/certification firm that helps companies assess their products using the Cradle to Cradle® framework, eliminating waste through innovative design. MBDC evaluates materials based on their chemical composition, and also on the ability to be reused or composted. Achievement levels range from Basic to Platinum, depending on performance across five criteria: material health, material reutilization, energy, water and social responsibility.

EU Ecolabel. Ecolabel originates in Europe, a voluntary program that assesses a variety of products, each with its own criteria for certification. For textile products, to obtain an Ecolabel certification, manufacturers must demonstrate that substances with harmful effects on the aquatic environment and air have had limited use during production. Other requirements touch on issues of allergic reaction, shrinkage and color resistance.

Green Advantage. GA certification is for builders and those professionals affiliated with the building industry. In other words, it is designed for practitioners rather than manufacturers, and includes contractors and subcontractors, as well as architects and designers.

Hohenstein Institutes. The Hohenstein Institutes is a group of textile research and testing facilities, with locations around the globe. The Hohenstein Institutes were involved in the creation of Oeko-Tex and remain a third-party certification entity for the textile industry.

International Organization for Standardization. ISO 14001 is an international standard that establishes an organization as having a management system that is environmentally sustainable. In other words, ISO 14001 does not specify levels of environmental performance, but rather, to quote their website, “provides a framework for a holistic, strategic approach to your organization’s environmental policy, plans and actions.”

Oeko-Tex®. The International Association for Research and Testing in the Field of Textile Ecology is a group of organizations responsible for the Oeko-Tex System of product assessment and certification. Oeko-Tex 1000 is an auditing and certification system that assesses the environmental friendliness and sustainability of product production throughout the textile processing chain. It is important to note that to qualify for Oeko-Tex 1000, firms must already have 30 percent of their production certified to Oeko-Tex 100, the group’s better-known certification that tests for the presence of harmful substances.

Scientific Certification Systems. SCS is an entity that provides independent certification of environmental, sustainability, food quality and food purity claims. With regards to life cycle, products can be certified to a Declaration of Reduced Impact or are determined to be an Environmentally Preferable Product (EPP).

Sustainable Green Printing Partnership. The SGP is concerned with responsible environmental practices for the printing and graphics industries. Printers are certified according to specific criteria involving the product, including its design; process, which includes all manufacturing steps; and the envelope, which includes support areas such as the building and its grounds.

The Greenguard Environmental Institute. GRI has a third-party certification program that certifies products with regards to air quality and chemical emissions. They also have best practice guidelines for building products that prevent the growth of mold during design, construction and ongoing operations.

TÜV SÜD AG. TÜV SÜD America Inc. is a third-party testing and certification company that helps companies to be in compliance with worldwide safety, social, legal and environmental standards.

The certification process

The process for getting a product certified varies by the type of certification being sought, but some generalizations can be made.

Application. The process typically starts by submitting a certification application to the chosen organization. On this application, you should be prepared to outline your various processes and products, with emphasis on their environmental impacts. Each application will be looking for different information, so be prepared in advance to meet their instructions.

Assessment. Once the certifying entity receives the application and accompanying documentation, it will be evaluated against their established performance standards. This step may take significant time, so if you plan on using the certification in your marketing plans, be sure to ask about the time frame.

On-site inspection. While not required by all certifying entities, some routinely include a site inspection. Others require it only if verification that you meet their criteria cannot be determined by the documentation you supplied with your application.

Certification. Once it has been determined that you meet the certification criteria, you will be issued a certification. This certification is likely to be for a very specific product or process, so be careful that you’re using it properly. You may also be provided with a logo or hangtag for marketing purposes.

Re-certifying. Many certifications also are for very specific time frames, such as three years. It’s possible that you will be asked to submit documentation at the end of your certification period to verify that you’ve maintained the environmental practices that you originally were certified for. Also, you should be aware that a certification may be pulled prematurely. This happens if the certification entity feels that something has changed in your product or process since the original assessment.

Building credibility

If your business is involved with any aspect of building construction, either new or retrofit, you’re probably aware of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. It’s important to know that an individual product does not receive LEED certification. Rather, the LEED program measures how well a building performs with regards to several environmental areas, such as energy savings and water efficiency. It’s actually a rating system, and aspects of the building are awarded points based on their environmental performance. There are different rating systems for different types of construction as well, such as existing buildings, schools and healthcare facilities.

While your product cannot be LEED certified, it can certainly contribute to the ability of a building to be LEED certified. For example, in 2002, the Bazzani Associate Headquarters in Grand Rapids, Michigan, received LEED-NC Silver certification. IFAI member Coye’s Canvas & Awning, a company established in Grand Rapids in 1855, installed the awnings on the building, contributing to that achievement.

“They were able to prove that the awnings contributed to energy savings for the Bazzani building,” says David Smith of Coye’s Canvas & Awnings. “I’ve told all my corporate customers about the project and, at the very least, that they will reap the benefits from easier cooling.”

Another important rating is the Energy Star®, since it is both well known to American consumers and can lead to tax savings. Energy Star is a symbol that comes out of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Products that have earned an Energy Star rating have been proven to provide energy efficiency, helping consumers save money and protecting the environment through energy-efficient products and practices.

To date, there isn’t a specialty fabrics product category that has achieved an Energy Star rating—but IFAI’s Professional Awning Manufacturers Association (PAMA) is working towards changing that. Currently, PAMA is working with the National Fenestration Rating Council (NFRC) to create an energy rating system for awnings. In the meantime, PAMA has funded an energy study, “Awnings in Residential Buildings: The Impact on Energy Use and Peak Demand,” conducted by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Sustainable Building Research.

“Both the LEED-certified Bazzani building and the University of Minnesota awning energy study are valuable tools for the fabric awning and canopy industry,” says Michelle Sahlin, managing director of PAMA. “They give empirical evidence that awnings and canopies save energy, reduce carbon footprint and subsequently are part of the sustainable, green equation.”

In March 2010, the International Code Council (ICC) issued the International Green Construction Code (IGCC). Preliminary reading of the IGCC does not show specific reference to specialty fabric products such as awnings. However, there do seem to be opportunities in sections pertaining to permanent shading devices for fenestration (606.1.3.3) and automatic daylight controls (section 612.2.3.2). There could be ongoing changes in this area.

Worth the trouble?

There’s no denying that obtaining a sustainability certification for your product can be time-consuming, and achieving it will require the allocation time and money. Whether it’s worth the investment is dependent on your product and how you view the future of your products, your markets and your customers. Even during the current economic crisis, however, consumer concerns about environmental responsibility have continued to mount. Documents such as the International Green Construction Code demonstrate that environmental awareness is here to stay, and product certification is one way to show your customers that you’re in front of the trends.

Juli Case is IFAI’s information and technical services manager, and is currently serving on IFAI’s Building Code Committee and the newly organized IFAI Technical Advisory Committee. She is a member of ASTM, NFPA, ICC and the California State Fire Marshal Flammability Advisory Committee.

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