USGBC wants to increase product transparency through certifications, but will its members buy the idea that approved standards are not being endorsed? By Nadav Malin
Product content eligible for Pilot Credit 43 has to comply with one or more of these attributes, and may receive weighted credit.
In its newly released Pilot Credit 43, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has created a new incentive for product manufacturers to obtain third-party certification of their environmental claims, and to release environmental footprint data. The new credit is available for use immediately and applies to all the Building Design & Construction and Interiors Design & Construction LEED rating systems, such as LEED-NC and LEED-CI. The credit includes two parallel tracks: products can either be certified to approved standards or manufacturers can offer product data in approved formats.
Existing LEED credits, most famously the certified wood credit, have focused on the environmental attributes behind certifications, leading USGBC and its members and stakeholders to choose favored programs, notably the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). In contrast, “This credit is about identifying certification types, nothing about our preferences about them,” Whit Faulconer, director of LEED, explained to EBN, noting that as long as the information is public or certified even products with poor environmental footprints can qualify. That’s why, according to Faulconer, there is only one point associated with the credit: product performance is rewarded elsewhere in LEED.
There is already confusion on the difference between performance and transparency, though. According to Chris Nelson, director of commercial development for UL Environment, which has been watching the credit, Pilot Credit 43 “works to underpin USGBC’s focus on both performance and transparency,” with the certifications supporting performance and the product declarations providing transparency.
The difference in interpretation is not just academic: in releasing this credit, USGBC also published a preliminary list of approved product standards and programs that can be used in claiming this credit. The list is evolving rapidly, according to Faulconer. For example, product emissions certifications such as Greenguard are not included in the initial version because of how the credit evolved, but will be added very shortly. The list includes forest certification programs such as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, that have been highly controversial in relation to LEED’s certified wood credit—something that is likely to provoke environmental advocates.
The credit language also refers to a forthcoming (and long-awaited) “LEED Standard for Standards” document that will provie criteria that certification programs have to meet to be approved.
As with all LEED pilot credits, a project team can earn an innovation point just for documenting an earnest attempt to earn the credit and filling out a survey about their experience (the number of innovation points a project can earn is limited). If this pilot credit were to become adopted as a regular credit in LEED, however, it would require that at least 10% of products and materials, by dollar value, are certified or supported by a conforming life-cycle assessment (LCA) or environmental product declaration (EPD).
Different types of certifications and declarations are rewarded differently (see table). In the certifications pathway single-attribute claims such as recycled content earn 50 cents on the dollar, while multi-attribute certifications are worth the full dollar, and those based on standards supported by LCAs and full EPDs get double value. No such standards meeting this last requirement exist today, according to both Faulconer and Nelson, because there is not yet enough consistent LCA data to create the benchmark for those standards; this option is included as a indicator of where USGBC wants the market to go.
In the EPD pathway, an LCA that meets specific requirements but is not third-party validated is valued at half, an LCA-based EPD that applies to an entire industry gets full value, and a product-specific LCA-based EPD earns double credit. There are not many product-specific EPDs available right now, but this credit may help change that. “We’re looking to go to market quickly with our EPD program, so those in the industry can see what’s going on with LCA and data,” said Nelson of UL Environment. In the meantime Melissa Vernon, director of sustainable strategies at InterfaceFLOR confirmed that their EPDs will already qualify at the 200% level. Also, the credit allows for double-counting across the two pathways, and most InterfaceFLOR products are also certified under a multi-attribute standard (NSF-140), so they’ll actually count at 300%.
With this pilot credit USGBC is attempting to release an incentive tied to process (independent validation and transparency), not results, but it’s hard to keep those separate. It won’t be easy to keep people from looking at the certifications as establishing LEED’s position on desirable performance.