What's in a green product label?

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The term green has become ubiquitous in marketing for almost every industry, and home building is certainly no exception. So what’s the best way to navigate the murky sea of supposedly “green” products and practices? Green product labels are one tool, but not all labels are created equal. The NAHB Research Center provides an overview of the major green product certification programs for the home building industry.

February 14, 2011

The term green has become ubiquitous in marketing for almost every industry, and home building is certainly no exception. So what’s the best way to navigate the murky sea of supposedly “green” products and practices? Green product labels are one tool, but not all labels are created equal.

After a hiatus on the prosecution of “greenwashing” violations during the previous White House administration, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is now reinvigorated on the topic and considers the crackdown on misleading green marketing one of its consumer protection division’s top priorities. In recently released proposed changes to its Green Guides (see sidebar on page 48), the commission is looking at how green is applied in the marketing of homes and home building products, among other topics.

What’s in a name?

There’s been an explosion of green product labels in recent years, prompting the FTC’s heightened focus on protecting consumer interests in this area. One of the leading factors in the value and meaningfulness of a green product label, as far as the FTC and the general public are concerned, is that the certification is provided by an independent third party. In fact, in its proposed changes to the Green Guides, the FTC noted that 80 percent of respondents in a recent consumer survey by Cone LLC said that certification by independent, third-party organizations provides extra credibility and assurance.
In the home building industry, third parties test, certify, or verify that a product meets the criteria of an established industry standard or code. For green product labeling specifically, third parties provide scientific expertise in testing, assessing, and auditing a wide range of environmental attributes.

While there are multiple legitimate third parties providing green product certifications within the construction industry, it would be impossible to be comprehensive in a brief article. What follows is a summary of some of the third-party product certifications that currently touch the broadest array or volume of building products, including who offers them and what they mean when you see them on products and materials.

ICC Evaluation Service (ICC-ES) Sustainable Attributes Verification and Evaluation (SAVE)

What it is: The ICC-ES SAVE Program provides independent verification of manufacturers’ claims about the sustainable attributes of their products. Successful evaluation under this program results in a Verification of Attributes Report (VAR). A VAR confirms a product’s compliance with relevant green rating systems (e.g., National Green Building Standard or LEED) or green building codes (e.g., CALGreen or IGCC). VARs are only issued to products that are verified by ICC-ES to have one or more sustainable attributes.

Who runs it: The ICC Evaluation Service (ICC-ES) is a subsidiary of the International Code Council (ICC), which has been in existence for nearly 80 years. ICC-ES is a non-profit company that evaluates building products, components, methods, and materials for compliance with code. ICC-ES Evaluation Reports (ESRs) provide evidence that building products meet code requirements. SAVE VARs are essentially ESRs for green products.

How it works: ICC-ES provides product verification in accordance with one or more of nine ICC-ES SAVE program guidelines. The process for a manufacturer to attain a VAR involves product testing (where required), review of the manufacturer’s quality control documentation, and inspection of the manufacturing process. ICC-ES also requires annual inspections for products receiving a VAR. Once a VAR is issued it is posted on www.icc-es.org/save. Products with both ESRs and VARs are linked on the website to provide a single source for checking the code compliance and sustainability attributes for products that have been evaluated by ICC-ES.

NAHB Research Center Green Approved Products for the National Green Building Standard

What it is: Green Approved Products have been pre-approved by the NAHB Research Center as being eligible for specific points in the ICC-700 National Green Building Standard (NGBS). The NGBS is the first green rating system to be approved as an ANSI consensus standard. There are over 300 green practices within the NGBS available to earn points toward home certification, and many of those practices are product dependent. Green Approved Products are intended to provide builders with a simple, seamless product selection option for meeting criteria within the NGBS with the end goal of having a home Green Certified by the NAHB Research Center.

Who runs it: The NAHB Research Center is an independent subsidiary of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). It was founded in 1964 as a product-testing laboratory and is now a full-service consulting organization with a stated mission of improving the quality, durability, and environmental performance of housing by removing barriers to innovation. The Research Center is an accredited test laboratory and inspection agency and is the certifying body for the National Green Building Certification Program, based on the ANSI-approved NGBS.

How it works: Manufacturers apply to have products pre-approved and labeled Green Approved for specific points in the NGBS. Each manufacturer identifies the practices within the standard for which they believe their product is eligible for points and provides third-party verification to the Research Center of any non-obvious features (i.e., a paint manufacturer would need to provide third-party verification of its product’s VOC level, but a rain barrel manufacturer doesn’t need to prove that its product helps to manage stormwater). The Research Center reviews the application and supporting materials, issues the Green Approved certificate and mark, and lists manufacturers and their products in a database on www.GreenApprovedProducts.com. The listings are searchable by product name, type, and manufacturer, as well as by NGBS practice. Green Approved products are also listed in relevant sections in the green scoring tool on www.NAHBGreen.org.

Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) Certified Forest Content & Certified Fiber Sourcing

What they are: The SFI labeling programs are designed to help buyers understand more about the origin of wood and wood-based products. An SFI Certified Content label indicates that some or all of the product’s fiber content comes from forests that are certified to one or more specific forest management standards — primarily standards from SFI, the Canadian Standards Association, and American Tree Farm System. Companies that use this label must also obtain SFI’s Chain-of-Custody certification. An SFI Fiber Sourcing label indicates that the manufacturer’s procurement process is third-party certified to objectives 8-20 in the SFI 2010-2014 Standard or certified to SFI Requirements: Section 4 - Rules for Use of SFI On-Product Labels; the Fiber Sourcing certification does not attach any claims about Certified Forest Content.

Who runs them: SFI is an independent, charitable organization dedicated to promoting sustainable forest management. They work collaboratively with conservation groups, local communities, resource professionals, landowners, and other organizations and individuals with common goals. SFI’s board of directors represents environmental, social, and economic interests equally, and its grassroots network of SFI Implementation Committees helps address local needs. Its forest certification standard is based on principles that promote sustainable forest management, including measures to protect water quality, biodiversity, wildlife habitat, species at risk, and Forests with Exceptional Conservation Value. The standard is used widely across North America and has even broader recognition.

How they work: All aspects of SFI are based on written criteria and standards, namely the SFI Forest Management Standard, SFI Responsibly Sourcing Standard, and SFI Chain of Custody Standard. Independent certification bodies ensure participating forestry operations conform to the SFI guidelines for the various labeling programs. These certifiers must complete accreditation programs through independent, international accreditation bodies. SFI requires annual surveillance audits for all certified operations and full recertification every three years. The principal of continual improvement underlies all of SFI’s certification entity monitoring. All SFI certified products are listed in a database accessed through its website (www.sfiprogram.org).

UL Environmental Claims Validation & Sustainable Products Certification

What they are: UL’s Environmental Claims Validation (ECV) confirms a specific environmental attribute or performance element of a product (e.g., product X contains 75 percent post-consumer recycled content and meets CA 01350 indoor air quality requirements). UL’s Sustainable Products Certification (SPC) means that a product has been tested and certified based on its overall sustainability characteristics as compared to a standard of reference (e.g., product Y is certified platinum to the ULE standard for gypsum wallboard).

Who runs them: UL Environment is an environmental evaluation company that provides independent testing, confirmation of claims, certification to standards, and development of standards across numerous industries. It is part of the UL (Underwriters Laboratories) family of companies, which has a 115-year legacy of product testing and labeling expertise and a high level of consumer recognition. UL Environment has developed standards to establish environmental requirements for several product categories related to home building: doors and related hardware; glazing materials and windows; mineral board, fiberboard, and wallboard; thermal insulation; stone, ceramic, clay, and glass building materials; roofing systems and materials; suspended ceiling materials and systems; lighting; and plastics.

How they work: Manufacturers submit products to UL Environment for independent testing to validate their environmental claims. Once the product claims have been validated, details are posted on UL Environment’s online Database of Validated and Certified Products (www.ulenvironment.com), a tool that allows users to identify labeled products by product category, company name, product name, or type of claim. Only products listed in the database can carry the UL Environmental Claims Validated logo on marketing materials and packaging.


Summary of Proposed Revisions to the FTC Green Guides

In October, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) proposed revisions to the guidance that it gives marketers to help them avoid making misleading environmental claims. The proposed changes (http://bit.ly/f9ityd, PDF download) are designed to update its Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims (“Green Guides”) and make them easier to understand and use. The changes include new guidance on use of product certifications and seals of approval. The FTC is seeking public comments on the proposed changes until December 10, 2010, after which time it will decide which changes to make final. In the interim, the existing Green Guides prevail for marketers. Some of the guidance, summarized below, is particularly relevant to home builders and building product manufacturers.

This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered professional legal advice or a substitute for professional legal advice. The ultimate responsibility for complying with any FTC guidance belongs with the organization using a green claim for marketing purposes.

Certifications convey general environmental benefit claims — The FTC states that third-party certifications and seals constitute endorsements covered by the FTC’s Endorsement Guides. Further, the FTC determined that certification claims often convey to consumers broad general environmental benefits that go beyond the actual criteria for which the certification has been awarded. To prevent deception, marketers should qualify any environmental claims. For green home certifications, a company must be able to substantiate the broad claim that its home is environmentally superior to others. Qualifying language should be clear and prominent and should convey that the certification applies only to a specific and limited benefit.

What constitutes an independent third party — The FTC’s decision that certifications must meet the criteria set for endorsements led to proposed guidance that addresses when a certifying party is truly independent from the advertiser. The FTC states that it is “deceptive to misrepresent, directly or by implication, that a product, package, or service has been endorsed or certified by an independent, third party.” Key to the discussion of this guidance is the FTC’s determination that a trade association is not an independent, third party when issuing a certification to a member. If a certification is issued by a trade association, the marketer must disclose the connection with the association (i.e., that it is a dues-paying member). If the marketer does not, the FTC has ruled that as being deceptive.

Qualification and substantiation of all claims are required — The FTC determined that third-party certification does not eliminate a marketer’s obligation to ensure that it has substantiation for all claims reasonably communicated by the certification. Marketers should not use an “unqualified environmental certification or seal of approval” that does not state the basis for the certification because it likely implies a claim of general environmental benefit and the marketer is unlikely to be able to substantiate such a claim. Therefore, to avoid deception, language qualifying a certification or seal of approval should be clear and prominent and “clearly convey that the certification refers only to specific or limited benefits.”

Use of broader program seals and membership seals — Seals that indicate membership of an “environmental” organization should not be used in marketing materials without qualification that the organization may not have evaluated the product or service.

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