Feature Article

Behind the Logos: Understanding Green Product Certifications

The number of environmental product standards and certifications is growing rapidly, putting numerous different "green" logos on products. 

CEUs are available for this article. Click here to learn more and take the quiz.

The pyramid skylight in an Elkhart, Indiana, elementary school uses Kalwall composite glazing with insulating Nanogel silica aerogel. Nanogel has been certified for low manufacturing impacts in Cradle to Cradle and evaluated for its performance through the GreenSpec Directory.

Photo: Bill Lempke
The more self-evident a product’s attributes are, the less they need to be verified with certification. Lumber doesn’t need certification of its wood content, for example, but certification is helpful for distinguishing forest products that were sustainably harvested in responsibly managed forests, since their origin isn’t immediately evident. Similarly, a manufacturer of furniture that doesn’t emit formaldehyde benefits when an accredited third party verifies its product’s performance and gives it a seal of approval. When green products are visually indistinguishable from their conventional cousins, “the only way you’re going to peel away the onion is by certification,” says Brandon Tinianov, Ph.D., P.E., of Serious Materials, a manufacturer.

The “UL” symbol of safety from Underwriters Laboratories and the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval have influenced purchasing decisions for decades. But more recently, the environmental movement has created a new market for certifications. The success of major certification programs like Energy Star or the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which are responsible for some of the best-known green building product certifications today, has required growing public awareness of ecological problems, interest from buyers in purchasing environmentally friendly products, and the willingness of manufacturers to comply with a standard, among other things.

This article starts with a bird’s-eye view of the certification world and then provides overviews of many green product certification programs, beginning with single-attribute certifications, those developed to address specific environmental claims such as sustainable forestry and indoor air quality. Later, the article looks at multiple-attribute programs that consider broader factors and at programs that provide even more comprehensive information.

Certification Basics

A standard is a set of guidelines and criteria against which a product can be judged. A certification says that a product meets those criteria. In the green building product arena, numerous certifications follow this general outline, but in widely varying ways.

Standard development


Helping to govern the world of standards and certifications is the International Standards Organization (ISO). This international nongovernmental standard-setting body, founded in 1947, includes representatives of national standard development organizations, such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) in the U.S. ISO defines terms and develops worldwide standards that frequently become law or form the basis of industry norms.

The most robust standards are generally considered to be those developed through a formal voluntary consensus process characterized by openness and due process, such as defined by ISO and ANSI. Consensus standards have built-in buy-in, government support, and international clout. For example, federal agencies are required by law to adopt existing private-sector voluntary consensus standards in lieu of creating proprietary, non-consensus standards. The World Trade Organization has decreed that purchasing criteria developed in accordance with internationally accepted principles of standardization are not considered technical barriers to trade.

Most of the green product standards currently available, however, are proprietary or regulatory standards developed outside this formal consensus process. Depending on the development group, these may be more or less stringent than consensus standards, and they often include some degree of transparency and public comment. Increasingly, manufacturers are recognizing that, with their customers sensitive to “greenwashing,” proprietary industry-developed standards and industry-certified labels are not enough.

Deborah Fuller, an interior designer at HOK, said that she is wary of less robust product certification programs. “When it’s a third party, a separate organization that’s strictly in the business of certifying, I feel more comfort,” she said. Her colleague Sibylle Ruefenacht also said that she is very aware of where a certification comes from. “One of the things I like to consider is how it came about,” she said. “I have found that in some situations a manufacturer may be sponsoring it, and those are more partial.” But, she added, “it’s hard to find that out because they don’t advertise it.”

The consensus process gives standards a measure of protection against conflicts of interest. Despite this move toward consensus processes, the green certifications landscape is also populated with proprietary standards that are nonetheless trusted because they are associated with a group with strong environmental credentials.

First, second, or third party

First-, second-, and third-party levels of certification define the degree of separation between the certifier and the company whose product is being certified. Most marketing claims, product specifications, and material data safety sheets are first-party declarations that have not been independently tested or verified.  Second-party certification can provide more credible information by involving a trade association or outside consulting firm in setting a standard and verifying claims. Second-party certification offers little assurance against conflicts of interest, however. A certification is most robust when an independent third party conducts the product testing and awards the certification. As a further measure of quality control, a certifier can be ANSI-approved, which verifies the certifier’s objectivity.

From certifications to labels


ISO defines different types of labels that can be used for products, depending on what is being claimed. Type I labels provide a seal of approval for meeting a multiple-attribute set of predetermined requirements. Type II labels are verifiable single-attribute environmental claims, for such things as energy consumption, emissions, or recycled content. According to ISO, Type II labels can be first-party self-declared claims of the manufacturer, but manufacturers are increasingly seeking third-party verification of those claims. Type III labels display comprehensive and detailed product information. Certifications available in the U.S. today lead mostly to Type I and Type II labels, although not all meet ISO’s requirements.

Forestry Certifications

Among the most visible single-attribute green certification programs are those covering sustainable forestry. Several such programs operate in the North American market, including FSC, SFI, ATFS, and CSA.

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC): Launched by environmental groups in 1993 to standardize programs that had emerged during the 1980s, FSC is an international nonprofit that manages an international standard for well-managed forests and a process for tracking and certifying products derived from those forests. FSC addresses numerous aspects of sustainable forestry, including ecological functions, old-growth forests, plantations, restoration, native habitat, indigenous people’s rights, and sound management for timber production. FSC has affiliate organizations in individual countries and different standards for different forest types and regions. While its certifications are sometimes criticized by environmental groups as being too lenient, these same groups generally view FSC as the gold standard. FSC has struggled to gain industry acceptance, meaning that FSC-certified products are sometimes hard to find. www.fscus.org

A southwest Washington forest, owned mostly by Weyerhaeuser Company. The Washington Forest Law Center alleges that a spotted owl nesting area in the mid-foreground has been reduced to 22% of its area by clearcutting.

Photo: D. Eric Harlow

Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI): In 1994, the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA), the primary U.S. trade association representing the wood products industry, launched SFI and required that all association members self-certify their compliance with its policies. SFI has gradually distanced itself from AF&PA and become a third-party certification program managed by an independent nonprofit, with accredited auditors carrying out certification. SFI’s current 2005–2009 standard is more rigorous than previous versions and considers most of the issues addressed by its principal competitor, FSC. SFI generally is less prescriptive, however, which has been a source of criticism from the environmental community (see below). www.aboutsfi.org

American Tree Farm System (AFTS): ATFS, founded in 1941, is a program of the American Forest Foundation that certifies forests as small as 10 acres (4 ha) for primarily nonindustrial landowners. ATFS has long promoted responsible forestry but under fairly unrestrictive standards. In recent years it has shifted toward more specific and prescriptive measures. Independent foresters accredited by ATFS carry out certification. Unlike other certifications, the program doesn’t have its own product label, but SFI allows its logo on wood from ATFS-certified forests. ATFS fills a niche on the supply side of the forest certification equation but has not had a major impact on the green building product market. www.treefarmsystem.org

Canadian Standards Association (CSA): In 1993, the Canadian forest-products industry turned to CSA to develop a standard for sustainable forest management. That effort culminated in 1996 with the release of Standard Z809, creating the CSA Sustainable Forest Management certification system. CSA created this system as a process-based standard along the lines of ISO environmental management standards rather than a performance-based standard like FSC and SFI, but it has since evolved to become similar to SFI. CSA is the dominant certification system in Canada, partly due to the large proportion of timberland in Canada that is publicly owned and government requirements to certify forest operations on public land. Like SFI, CSA has become more rigorous in recent years. www.csa.ca


This Minnesota home, a runner-up in the 2007 Designing & Building with FSC competition, uses local, FSC-certified wood throughout.

Photo: Alison Lindburg, Dovetail Partners, Inc.
With its industry origins, SFI has long been seen by environmental groups as less rigorous than FSC, but SFI’s advocates have argued that it leads to equivalent outcomes on the ground. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has been a focal point for this conflict, because it allows projects seeking LEED certification to earn points for using FSC-certified products but does not recognize SFI. In the last year, USGBC turned to the Yale Program on Forestry Policy and Governance to analyze programs other than FSC as part of a proposal to recognize them in LEED (see EBN Vol. 15, No. 6).

The Yale analysis, which has yet to be finalized, compares the programs’ breadth and level of prescription as a basis for judging their rigor. The team’s preliminary findings suggest that SFI and FSC address most of the same issues—except for social considerations, which only FSC addresses—but that FSC is more specific and prescriptive in its guidelines. For example, on the subject of management of old-growth timber stands, FSC mandates several factors that, calculated together, put a premium on the preservation and enhancement of old-growth stands.

Overall, the Yale draft report suggests that FSC rules are the most prescriptive among the certification programs studied, while ATFS guidelines are often the least prescriptive. SFI guidelines usually fall somewhere in between. Either FSC or SFI could make a case for itself from an environmental perspective. Performance-based guidelines leave a lot of power in the hands of logging companies, potentially creating a “fox guarding the henhouse” scenario in which rules could be interpreted to favor short-term resource extraction. On the other hand, a given forester working under this system may have better latitude to pursue exceptional environmental and economic performance. The more prescriptive system sets a higher and more clearly defined bar for foresters but allows less flexibility to adjust to local conditions.

Indoor Air Quality Certifications

The array of existing certifications of a building product’s emissions can be daunting, and the product-emissions certification world is in flux. Key issues include the measurement of emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), a major contributor to poor indoor air quality; how to deal with measurement of both product emissions and product content, which may raise different concerns; and interactive effects of different chemicals. Also, consumers should understand that emissions certifications are just that—they don’t cover other health and environmental concerns. For an in-depth discussion on product emissions, see EBN Vol. 15, No. 6.

California Section 01350: California Section 01350 specification, overseen by the California Department of Health Services (DHS), offers guidance to ensure that pollutant concentrations in a finished space do not exceed California’s chronic reference exposure levels (CRELs). DHS has also codified Section 01350 test methods, set guidelines for applying Section 01350 to a standard classroom space, and published a list of labs accredited to test for this standard. The 01350 test guidelines and thresholds are now incorporated in several other programs listed in this section. The DHS standard also enabled the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS), a California-based consortium, to establish a list of products with pollutant emission rates that meet the standard. www.dhs.ca.gov

Greenguard: Greenguard, introduced in 2000, certifies that a product meets emission thresholds for formaldehyde, total aldehydes, total volatile organic compounds (TVOCs), and one-tenth of the threshold limit value (TLV)—a regulatory standard—for many other compounds. The program also assesses emissions of other chemicals of concern. Greenguard Children and Schools, introduced in 2005, meets California’s more stringent CREL thresholds and has additional restrictions, including phthalate emissions. Greenguard is managed by the nonprofit Greenguard Environmental Institute (GEI), which was spun off from Air Quality Sciences (AQS), the primary, and for a long time the only, testing laboratory for Greenguard certification. While GEI is an ANSI-approved standard developer, the Greenguard standards have not been through the full ANSI process, and GEI’s dependence on AQS has been a source of criticism. Recently Greenguard has begun working with additional laboratories overseas. www.greenguard.org

Green Label and Green Label Plus: In 1992 the Carpet & Rug Institute (CRI), the carpet industry trade association, implemented the voluntary Green Label testing program as a result of pressure on the industry to control emissions thought to be contributing to sick building syndrome. Carpets, carpet pads, and adhesives identified with the Green Label emit no more than allowable levels of TVOCs, formaldehyde, and a few other substances. In 2004, CRI created Green Label Plus, which complies with a modified version of California’s requirements to simplify industry standards (see EBN Vol. 13, No. 7). Both programs are run by CRI, making them second-party certifications, although CRI is seeking ANSI approval as a certifier. Green Label Plus provides the basis for NSF-140’s emissions criteria (see below). www.carpet-rug.org

FloorScore: In 2005 the Resilient Floor Coverings Institute (RFCI) adopted an emissions certification program that Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) had been developing based on California’s test protocols and procedures (see EBN Vol. 14, No. 10). RFCI created FloorScore for hard-surface flooring and flooring adhesives, and contracted with Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) to serve as a third-party certifier. In addition to reviewing and authenticating test results, SCS visits manufacturing sites to verify product content and manufacturing procedures. www.rfci.com

Indoor Advantage: Expanding on its work with FloorScore, SCS announced its own emissions certification programs in 2005. These programs follow testing protocols based on California’s Section 01350 and the associated DHS document. They differ only in their thresholds for performance: Indoor Advantage was designed specifically to meet LEED requirements, so its thresholds are based on Greenguard’s furniture standard and other rules cited in LEED; in contrast, Indoor Advantage Gold meets stronger thresholds for CHPS and other programs following California’s model. www.scscertified.com

Energy Performance Certification

Energy efficiency, a dominant issue in the green building world, tends to be addressed more by building-level certifications such as LEED than by product-level certifications. The major exception—perhaps the best known green product label of all—is Energy Star.

Energy Star: Energy Star covers over 50 different product types, including a variety of appliances, heating and cooling equipment, lighting, home electronics, and office equipment. (Energy Star also offers programs for buildings.) A joint program of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy (DOE), Energy Star was introduced in 1992 as a voluntary labeling program (see EBN Vol. 7, No. 6) and has been widely adopted. Its standards are set to capture a broad slice—often about 25%—of the market in a given product category. Manufacturers supply EPA and DOE with data supporting their use of the Energy Star logo. Although the program is based on this self-declaration, EPA and DOE monitor claims. www.energystar.gov

Verified Directory: The Consortium for Energy Efficiency (CEE) and Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI) use a collaborative process to set tiered energy performance standards beyond Energy Star. The CEE/ARI Verified Directory, launched in 2004, lists residential and small commercial mechanical equipment that, in addition to being Energy Star qualified, meets the higher CEE efficiency standard and has had its efficiency verified through testing by ARI. www.ceehvacdirectory.org and www.aridirectory.org

This WaterSense home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, will use approximately 20% less water than a typical home.

Photo: Kevin Seiffert
WaterSense: Modeled after Energy Star, the EPA's new WaterSense program seeks to educate consumers about water efficiency through an easily identifiable label (see EBN Vol. 15, No. 7). WaterSense differs from Energy Star in that a product's conformance to EPA standards must be independently tested before qualifying for the label. www.epa.gov/watersense

Multiple-Attribute Certifications

Multiple-attribute certifications assess a range of issues around a product, such as material composition, emissions, energy use, manufacturing impacts, and even social responsibility of the manufacturer. At their best, multi-attribute certifications help consumers quickly and easily identify best-of-class products. A danger, however, is that they can imply a positive overall performance while actually allowing poor performance in key areas.

Green Seal: Green Seal, a nonprofit, has certified products since 1992. Green Seal now provides third-party certification for a wide range of products, including paints, adhesives, lamps, chillers, windows, cleaners, and occupancy sensors. Green Seal follows the ISO process for open standard development but is not ANSI-approved. Following ISO requirements, Green Seal considers impacts over the entire life cycle of a product in developing a standard. It then develops criteria relating to the most significant impacts for which roughly 20% of existing products have superior performance. Green Seal reviews its standards every three years and updates them when it sees a shift in the market. Green Seal’s certifications are based on data from accredited laboratories and audits of manufacturing facilities. www.greenseal.org

EcoLogo: The EcoLogo Program, also known as Environmental Choice, is a multi-attribute third-party certification and labeling program established in 1988 by the Canadian government. Since 1995 it has been managed by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, which is now promoting it in the U.S. EcoLogo currently addresses over 250 product types, many of them building-related. EcoLogo has been audited by the Global Ecolabelling Network as meeting the ISO standard for Type I labels, including requirements for a consensus-based standard-development process. Although TerraChoice helps companies market EcoLogo-certified products, it claims to use internal checks to avoid conflicts of interest with its certification decisions. As with Green Seal, EcoLogo standards are life-cycle based and designed to be achievable by the top 20% of existing products in a category. www.ecologo.org

Sustainable Choice and EPP: For years, SCS has been certifying products to its original multi-attribute Environmentally Preferable Products (EPP) certification (see EBN Vol. 12, No. 11). Although still certifying EPP products, SCS is now also certifying to Sustainable Choice, a new transparent multi-attribute certification that includes both social and environmental factors. SCS plans soon to require products seeking certification under either program to complete a comprehensive environmental performance declaration based on the ANSI standard for environmental life-cycle declaration currently in development by SCS. Using data gathered through the declaration process, certification to either standard would require significantly reduced environmental impacts relative to the norm for that product category. SCS is currently transitioning to this system, and recent EPP-certified products have gone through a version of the declaration process. Carpet certified to Sustainable Choice also meets NSF-140 Gold (see page 14). www.scscertified.com

Cradle to Cradle (C2C): C2C is a multi-attribute certification program that uses five categories to evaluate products based on the “cradle to cradle” manufacturing philosophy articulated by the founders of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), which runs the program. The criteria address the materials contained in a product, the amount of energy and water used in manufacturing, and corporate social responsibility. In part because MBDC consults with manufacturers to help them gain certification, C2C is not—nor does it claim to be—a third-party certification. Strong points of the program are its focus on continuous improvement and on chemical composition of products, while weaker points are gaps in comprehensiveness and a lack of transparency (see EBN Vol. 16, No. 2). www.mbdc.com

SMaRT Consensus Sustainable Product Standards: SMaRT (for “Sustainable Materials Rating Technology”) is a series of multi-attribute standards developed by the Institute for Market Transformation to Sustainability (MTS). With one of them, the Sustainable Building Product Standard, MTS claims to offer a single standard that covers 80% of the world’s products—everything “except vehicles and airplanes,” MTS says. The standard covers health and environmental safety, renewable energy and energy use reduction, biobased and recycled content, facilities practices, and end-of-life management. The standard, which refers in places to more specific certifications and processes, is thorough and sets a high bar, while offering accessible entry points for manufacturers. MTS is an ANSI-approved standard developer, but the SMaRT standards have not been through the full ANSI process. MTS certifies products to its standards, using an outside auditor to verify manufacturer claims. As with other new programs, the usefulness of SMaRT will depend on its adoption by manufacturers, which may be slowed by its quirks, including somewhat arbitrary weightings of impact categories. www.mts.sustainableproducts.com

NSF-140-2007 Sustainable Carpet Assessment Standard: Under the auspices of NSF International, a nonprofit behind many health and safety standards, the carpet industry is the first to produce an ANSI-approved, multi-attribute certification for environmentally preferable building materials (see EBN Vol. 16, No. 6). NSF-140, released in November 2007, evaluates products in the areas of public and environmental health, recycled and biobased content, manufacturing process, and end-of-life management. NSF-140 has been in development for several years, with a draft version released in 2005, and unifies several related efforts, including the California Gold Sustainable Carpet Standard, now being phased out. Using a checklist covering numerous areas, NSF-140 is quite thorough, though some have criticized its approach for failing to penalize products that include materials responsible for human health concerns. For example, carpet backed with PVC, which is explicitly banned from C2C-certified products, has an easier time meeting NSF-140’s recycled-content requirement than other carpet. www.nsf.org/info/carpet/ (PDF)

BIFMA Sustainable Furniture Standard: The Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA) has been working with NSF International to develop an ANSI-approved, multi-attribute sustainability standard for furniture products. The draft standard, under development for two years, is in an expert comment period until February 2008 as part of the ANSI consensus process. The standard consists of sections addressing materials, energy use, human and ecosystem health, and social responsibility, with credits addressing company-wide activities, facility-level activities, and product-specific characteristics and activities. BIFMA itself will not provide certification, and, according to ANSI requirements, the standard will be available for first-, second-, or third-party certification. www.bifma.org

Other Certifications and Performance Labels

Key Aspects of Major Green Product Certification Programs

A variety of other certifications address specific attributes of particular products. For instance, the International Dark-Sky Association provides third-party certification for exterior luminaires that avoid polluting the night sky with light (see EBN Vol. 14, No. 5). In addition, some third-party certifiers, notably SCS, certify the validity of specific performance claims, such as a product’s recycled content, without comparing those claims to requirements of particular standards.

Other programs offer labels with key environmental performance information but leave it to the consumer to judge the value of that data. The presence of the label certifies only the test procedures behind the performance data or the validity of the claim. The Cool Roof Rating Council rates roofing products, for example, but does not set a standard for “cool.” It simply provides third-party verification of products’ solar reflectance and thermal emissivity (see EBN Vol. 12, No. 7). Similarly, the National Fenestration Rating Council label ensures that companies have followed standardized procedures for measuring performance parameters but has not set a minimum level of performance.

Some programs mix different characteristics to meet their needs. Master Painters Institute (MPI), the authority on paint coverage and durability in North America, independently tests and verifies performance requirements for its Green Performance Standards (GPS-1 and GPS-2) but relies on manufacturer’s self-declared data for VOCs and composition. In contrast, MPI has partnered with Green Seal to provide certification of recycled paint, for which Green Seal verifies the environmental attributes and MPI verifies performance.

Home Depot’s new EcoOptions label (see EBN Vol. 16, No. 5) isn’t based on a transparent standard and is not an actual certification program, but to carry the EcoOptions label on Home Depot’s shelves, a product must either meet designated third-party standards or have its environmental claims examined by SCS, as a respected third party.

Comprehensive Environmental Information

While multi-attribute certification programs behind Type I labels offer a more comprehensive review of products than single-attribute programs, they are not set up to provide consumers with detailed comparative information on performance on any particular attribute. Type III labels such as environmental product declarations (EPDs) are designed to do just that. EPDs provide standardized environmental information, frequently in the form of brochures that include a product description, life-cycle data, and additional information such as performance characteristics, end-of-life data, and toxicity factors.

EPDs are becoming more common in Europe, but whether this model, lacking a logo or easily understood benchmarks, will take hold in the brand-driven American market remains to be seen. “EPDs serve buyers who want to get into data, but they are not a good branding tool,” notes Scott McDougall, president of Eco-Logo. Jim Fava, managing director of Five Winds International, a life-cycle assessment consulting firm, likes EPDs but agrees that they work best in concert with certifications. “It’s more of an ‘and’ than an ‘or,’” Fava told EBN. Green cleaning expert Stephen Ashkin concurred, saying that consumers first “want to see a seal of approval.” Then, if data is available with an EPD, they have the opportunity to put in “as much effort as they’re willing” to learn more.

Denise Van Valkenburg, senior environmental engineer at Steelcase, which has published EPDs for some of its furniture, said that the methodology needs to develop. “I support the use of EPDs,” she said, but noted “there are a lot of assumptions behind it.” According to Van Valkenburg, ISO rules allow for enough interpretation that ecological impact numbers generated by different companies are comparable only at a very broad scale.

EPDs provide information on a product’s life cycle and thus help make life-cycle thinking part of the green certification picture, something that an increasingly sophisticated user community is demanding. Life-cycle thinking is needed because focusing on any single attribute may worsen the impact of other attributes. For example, environmentalists often smile on biobased products because of their renewable-resource content. However, due to the runoff of fertilizers and associated damage of aquatic ecosystems, among other concerns, biobased products can cause significant environmental damage.

Using current life-cycle assessment (LCA) tools to integrate life-cycle thinking into product standards may be a good goal, but it is beset by difficulties. As with EPDs, LCA comes with disagreements and inconsistencies over how to define the scope of environmental impacts to ensure that data gathered by different companies is comparable. To enable this effort, LCAs make simplifying assumptions at every step, but these can be arbitrary and come at the cost of deeper understanding. Interpreting LCA data can also be hard. LCA produces numerous scores for different impact categories. Some systems add these scores together to create a cumulative score, but critics have likened that practice to adding the sugar, fat, and protein numbers on a nutritional label to get a single score—it may look scientific, but it isn’t. But without a way of comparing scores and establishing goals in different areas, all the data in the world is unlikely to help consumers.

A sample graphic display of life-cycle impact declarations for products and services under development by Scientific Certification Systems. The display shows actual measures of life-cycle impacts from a biomass power plant in various categories, compared with average impacts from other power plants.

Photo: SCS
One initiative to incorporate LCA into certification and labeling, based on ISO rules, are the “life-cycle impact declarations for products and services” from SCS. SCS aims to offer a scientifically rigorous, easily readable label with data for numerous impact categories. The initiative will also tie back into its Sustainable Choice certification. Like other efforts in this area, however, this approach will take time, money, and a lot of data from manufacturers.


Green Information Programs

Although multiple-attribute certifications offer the most comprehensive green product labels now available, a variety of other initiatives help fill the gaps, often offering information not contained in a more straightforward certification. A number of key programs are not certifications at all but serve unique and important screening and informational functions.

GreenSpec: A screened listing service, the GreenSpec Directory, published by BuildingGreen, Inc., which also publishes EBN, contains more than 2,000 product listings that editors at BuildingGreen have determined to be in the top tier for environmental attributes. While the “GreenSpec-listed” symbol brings products trust and respect in the industry for the multifaceted product review process it represents, BuildingGreen does not test products to verify product claims. Rather, manufacturers provide information about their products, and BuildingGreen researches product categories to judge the relevance and accuracy of claims within each category. Products are assessed against different criteria and benchmarks depending on the product category.  GreenSpec has been continuously updated since 1997. (Editor's note: As of 2017, GreenSpec is now BuildingGreen Approved )

GreenFormat: The Construction Specifications Institute’s GreenFormat is designed to allow manufacturers to input comprehensive product information in a format that can be easily searched by specifiers, architects, and others in the industry. Like environmental product declarations and other Type III systems, GreenFormat does not screen products for their environmental friendliness. It simply offers a structure for manufacturers to provide comprehensive information that can then be used for evaluation by others. GreenFormat is currently in development (see EBN Vol. 16, No. 7), with technical support from BuildingGreen. www.greenformat.com

The Pharos Project: The Pharos Project from the nonprofit Healthy Building Network is intended to provide comprehensive product analysis and ratings. Rather than developing a certification based on the best products in a given category, Pharos tries to define what an environmentally sustainable product should be—and compare existing products to that ideal. Pharos evaluates materials across 16 impact categories, such as energy and water use, air quality impact, and toxicity, as well as categories, such as occupational safety, social justice, and habitat impact, that are not typically emphasized. Pharos presents this detailed information in an attractive graphic format intended to be easily readable. The Pharos Project, including the Pharos-Wiki, a forum for sharing product information, is designed to be user-driven. From a user’s standpoint, the strengths of Pharos are its high bar for environmental performance and its accessibility, but its drawback is the level of manufacturer and consumer participation needed to make these tools useful and meaningful. Pharos is in development with some functionality. www.pharosproject.orgIn addition to these programs, a variety of new websites aim to provide consumers with the most valuable information on green products and green building. While each has a unique set of features, none appears to screen out products that fail a set of criteria. These new efforts include:

Green2Green.org, with a dealer locater, detailed side-by-side product comparisons, and product lists that are ordered based on the user's priorities;

EcoScorecard.com, which lets users find products for LEED and other projects based on information submitted by manufacturers;

RateItGreen.com, in which a community of users shares opinions that form the product’s environmental evaluation; and

GreenHomeGuide.com, which is also set up to include reviews and advice from both the public and professionals.

Each of these systems offers intriguing features, but the true test of their usefulness will be how well and how quickly they offer useful product information, whether they can woo a large enough group of active and independent users to make interactive features worthwhile, and how well they are maintained.

What’s Ahead for Certifications

Consumers who are already well-versed in the green products market may have enough background knowledge and faith to be comfortable with the peculiarities of green certifications. As the market grows, however, an axiom attributed to W. Edwards Deming, Ph.D., the industrial quality guru, grows in relevance: “In God we trust; all others, bring data!” Getting various parties talking in the same language, with comparable, verifiable data, will be increasingly important.

Even as the green market has surged ahead, it has been dogged by disharmony and inconsistency in certifications, which have made them hard to understand. “Keeping up on it and being an educated consumer is really difficult,” said Meredith Elbaum, AIA, director of sustainable design at Sasaki, about the certifications market. “There’s too many of them, and they’re too confusing.”

A November 2007 meeting at the Chicago offices of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) typified the state of the industry, with a variety of stakeholders expressing the need to standardize the standards. At the meeting, Steelcase’s Van Valkenburg told EBN that her company was interested in “consistent concepts and methodologies for the different kinds of criteria.” For example, “recycled content is calculated the same way for whatever program you’re in,” she stipulated. Consistency would help Steelcase focus on environmental performance, rather than on juggling the needs of different programs, she said.

“There’s got to be some oversight,” argued Serious Material’s Tinianov. “I don’t care how we get there,” he said, but added, “I really look to consensus organizations. You get these rapid, multiple-stakeholder meetings that drive a standard, that get a lot of visibility, and then they move it out.” Tinianov also noted that the current proliferation of standards doesn’t make sense from the manufacturer’s perspective: “I relish getting a certification; I dread getting 20 certifications,” he said, because costs are added for each certification.

Despite a growing consensus that stronger leadership is needed in green product certification, no obvious authority is stepping in to offer that leadership. USGBC’s success with the LEED Rating System for green buildings has benefited the green products market, with LEED’s references to product certifications in various credits. Because of her use of LEED, Fuller says, “I look at USGBC as the gatekeeper on a lot of these certifications.” USGBC is being pushed to develop criteria for green certification programs so that its judgments on which certifications are recognized in LEED are more transparent. USGBC is unlikely to create its own certification however. “We have enough on our plate,” said Brendan Owens, vice president of LEED technical development.

Another potential source of leadership is EPA. But while EPA may have unique authority and potentially enormous resources to commit to such an effort, it is also uniquely accountable to a variety of stakeholders as well as political agendas and appears reluctant to take on the job. One of the organizers of the Chicago meeting, Alison Kinn Bennett, co-chair of a green building group at EPA, acknowledged that “EPA is uniquely suited to be a convener,” but added, “I don’t think that we’re well positioned to take ownership of a labeling system in the U.S. It really needs to be a coordinated, collaborative effort.” Bennett said that a next step for EPA would be to outline general principles for a potential green product standard, before evaluating whether EPA would take a role in supporting it. Other organizations, such as the Green Building Alliance and the Green Standard, are stepping up to try to clarify the field, but it is not clear yet whether they have the clout or resources to make a dent in the confusion.

“I need to rely on someone else to be an expert rather than to spend the time trying to weed through the nitty-gritty in becoming an expert in forest stewardship,” said Elbaum, expressing the need for a rigorous cohort of green certifications in sustainable forestry and other areas. Noting that the overall design of buildings usually has a greater influence over long-term environmental performance than the selection of individual products, she added, “I would rather spend my time advising my designers on design.” To have architects and designers paying attention to selection of green products is a sign of great progress in the green building world. But further progress will require greater use of certifications by manufacturers; more transparent, rigorous standards that do a better job of helping customers meet environmental goals; and certifications that take less time and attention to comprehend.


Published January 1, 2008

Keep exploring our featured topic:

Behind the Logos: Understanding Green Product Certifications

The number of environmental product standards and certifications is growing rapidly, putting numerous different "green" logos on products. But which ones can you trust?

Read more


January 11, 2008 - 2:25 pm

Thank you for the kudos on the article.

Regarding your 2nd point, we should have noted that Indoor Advantage is just for furniture--thanks for setting that straight.

I don't agree with your first point, however. The thresholds behind Indoor Advantage may not have originated with Greenguard--they were adapted from EPA and the State of Washington--but Greenguard commercialized them. LEED for Commercial Interiors references Greenguard certification, with the thresholds as alternative path. Based on that reference, BIFMA and Indoor Advantage adopted the same thresholds, but Greenguard used them first.

Those thresholds aren't anything to brag about, however--it's high time all these programs abandoned them in favor of the more stringent alternatives behind programs such as Indoor Advantage Gold and Greenguard for Children and Schools.

January 10, 2008 - 9:25 am

We at SCS want to thank you and congratulate you on your article, “Behind the Logos – Understanding Green Product Certifications.” Given the confusion in the marketplace regarding “green” labels and certifications, we feel that you’ve done a service for the industry with this article and we hope it gets wide attention.

Two corrections are needed regarding your description of SCS’s Indoor Advantage and Indoor Advantage Gold certification programs.

Most important, the article incorrectly states that the performance thresholds of Indoor Advantage are based in part on Greenguard's furniture standard. To the contrary, SCS Indoor Advantage certification is based on the ANSI/BIFMA furniture emissions standards discussed in depth in EBN Vol. 15, No. 6. These ANSI-approved standards were developed using an ANSI-accredited, transparent, consensus-based process and have garnered support across a broad range of stakeholders. The performance thresholds were adopted from LEED-CI and were in use years before the Greenguard Environmental Institute was created.

Second, the article also incorrectly states that the Indoor Advantage and Indoor Advantage Gold programs differ only in their thresholds for performance. SCS Indoor Advantage certification is available only for office furniture and is based solely on the ANSI/BIFMA furniture emissions standards as mentioned above. SCS Indoor Advantage Gold is a certification program for a wide range of products in the building and materials sectors, including paints, adhesives, wall coverings, and furniture, and, as you mentioned in your article, is based on California’s Section 01350.

Alexander Winslow
Scientific Certification Systems

January 4, 2008 - 8:20 am

Great article! We have also been tracking the many different ecolabels out there - see www.ecolabelling.org - it seems that the more we look, the more we find.

January 2, 2008 - 11:45 am

The Rainforest Alliance has been a pioneer in certifying responsible forestry, through its SmartWood program. It also offers other certifications that are less related to buildings. We didn't discuss the organization in this article because it uses FSC standards, which we do discuss. From the Rainforest Alliance website:

"Our SmartWood team of forestry professionals scrutinizes the practices of forestry operations and awards certification to those that meet the standards of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) for sustainable forestry. Since its founding in 1989, SmartWood has certified over 1,900 operations and 45 million hectares (104 million acres) in 61 countries to FSC standards."

January 2, 2008 - 6:19 am

You might want to mention The Rainforest Alliance's certification programs.