Achieving level 1-3
A new certification for sustainable furniture from the Business & Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA), called “level,” is taking off fast. Two companies, Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) and NSF International, are currently authorized to test and certify products to the standard, with more certifiers expected soon.
Level is a comprehensive, multi-attribute, third-party certification with a wide range of credits in four main categories: materials; energy and atmosphere; human and ecosystem health; and social responsibility. The credits cover management and policy, measurement and reporting, and specific requirements for the product, manufacturing process, and facility. Each credit provides one or more points toward certification. After six prerequisites, products must achieve specific numbers of points to be certified at level 1, 2, or 3. Each level also requires that a certain number of those points be product-related; in all, 35 out of 90 available points count towards this requirement.
Steelcase’s lightweight Think chair (with select fabrics) has achieved the only BIFMA level 3 certification to date.
It is worth remembering that levels 1, 2, and 3 are designed as stepping stones to sustainability—not the end goal. BIFMA wants to get the whole industry to start down the path, so the level 1 bar isn’t high, but it isn’t giving away many credits either. “[Level] requires a lot of documentation and walk-the-talk type information,” enthused Petie Davis of NSF. “You can’t just have a policy in place—you have to have it documented and implemented.” Still, at level 1, don’t expect to see achievement of the hard credits with the most real-world environmental impact. “It’s fair to say the chemical credits are pretty challenging and are not being pursued for level 1,” explained Stowe Hartridge-Beam of SCS. Hartridge-Beam continued, “At level 2, manufacturers are looking at some of the harder credits. What is chosen is fairly dependent on the manufacturer—have they sourced [Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) wood] enough to get the credit? Have they done the chemical analysis?“
Only one product, the Think chair from Steelcase, has met level 3, and only for certain fabrics. “A lot of that has to do with the chemical content of fabrics and whether the assessment of chemicals has been done yet,” said Hartridge-Beam. A level 3 product still isn’t the end of the road. “I can envision a level 4 someday,” said Tom Reardon, executive director of BIFMA.
Currently, the only public disclosure from the certification is the level 1-3 designation itself. However, Reardon said that the organization was discussing providing additional detail—either a simplified display of the number of points by category or publishing the level scorecard point-by-point breakdown. SCS is working on a way to report how a product’s achievement of specific level credits can contribute to a building’s achievement of LEED credits.
Points in the Level System
While level is in use already, the standard-setting process is not 100% complete. The underlying e3-2008 BIFMA/ANSI standard, which has been in development for two years, is back in discussion over forest industry concerns. The e3 Credit 5.6, which opens the playing field by providing recognition for use of certified wood from a variety of forestry certification systems, requires a higher bar for certifications other than the FSC. The Sustainable Forestry Initiative and others are seeking parity treatment with FSC, while committee members are inclined to keep it as-is. According to Reardon, the industry has made it clear that it is focusing efforts on this fight because, representatives say, an ANSI-approved standard would be precedent-setting beyond LEED. Companies will continue to certify to level under the BIFMA standard as BIFMA works toward full ANSI approval.
As a third-party certification backed by a consensus (almost) ANSI standard, level does an admirable job of creating a robust high bar for achievement from within an inclusive process, in a way that provides a path forward for manufacturers at all levels of engagement. Whether level lives up to its marketing will depend on the level of transparency and continuous improvement going forward. Will consumers have the opportunity to see credit details? Will BIFMA continue to revise the standard to make it better reflect the environmental impact of credits and the effort required to achieve them? The answers depend not only on the industry but also on what the market demands.
For more information:
level (BIFMA International)
July 1, 2009
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