Welcome to the Wild West

As green product claims continue to proliferate in a marketplace largely devoid of rules and guidance, what’s a designer to do?

As an interior designer, the process of identifying and specifying the appropriate products for a given project is hard enough, but wading through the sea of sustainability claims can be enough to drive even the sanest designer mad. Consider this: There are now more than 400 ecolabels in existence, and the number of products making green claims continues to grow by the day.

The problem is intensified by the fact that there is still relatively little structure and guidance that has been agreed upon to help govern the green product marketplace. However, this could be changing. The U.S. government currently has several separate, yet loosely related efforts underway that could significantly alter how green products are purchased, sold and even marketed. And numerous non-government groups are working on defining what makes a product green and how to tell if a product is truly environmentally-friendly.

ftc green guides
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is in the midst of a multi-year update to its Green Guides, which were originally released in 1997. These guides dictate how a manufacturer can communicate the environmental or health-related claims of its products. And while the revisions are not yet finalized, the FTC has already begun to step up the enforcement of the existing guidelines in an attempt to reduce consumer confusion and skepticism of misleading green claims.

The FTC has stipulated that if an advertising, marketing or other communication tactic is likely to be misunderstood or confused by a “reasonable consumer” then that communication is deemed deceptive.

The Green Guides are no exception, and in 2010 the FTC conducted a consumer-oriented survey in an effort to decipher what green claims were (or were not) confusing, and therefore were intentionally or unintentionally deceiving the marketplace.

The findings of this survey revealed (not surprisingly) that most consumers are in fact confused by the myriad of green claims prevalent in the marketplace today. This finding has led the FTC to propose significant changes to the Green Guides, which include (among many others) the disclosure of any material connection to the standard and/or certification being used to validate or rationalize the claim; and requirements that the actual standards and/or test methods used to certify the product be disclosed.

These changes, coupled with increased oversight by the FTC, have significant ramifications on interior designers and architects who are looking to tout the environmental or health-related attributes of a building. To avoid making a sustainability-related claim that confuses the market (and thus runs the risk of being deemed “non-compliant” by the FTC), designers need to make sure that they clearly communicate what the specific attributes are, and have supporting documentation such as a third-party certification or a test report from a certified lab to back up those claims.

executive order 13514
In addition to the work being done by the FTC, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and General Services Administration (GSA) are in the process of devising regulations that will continue the implementation of Executive Order (EO) 13514, which calls for 95 percent of new contract actions to be energy- and water-efficient, biobased, environmentally preferable, generally non-toxic, and/or contain recycled content, among others.

This EO could have far reaching implications for the green building and design movement. The GSA acts as the landlord for the federal government, and is one of the largest purchasers of goods in the world. When it makes a policy decision on what green products to buy, it reverberates throughout the entire marketplace. The regulations developed around EO 13514 could drastically change which environmental attributes are considered high priority, and what standards and/or certifications should be met in order to prove a product is compliant.

Unfortunately, the language in the EO calling for 95 percent of purchases to be green was written in very general terms, so in an effort to provide more guidance, the GSA and EPA formed a committee called the Section 13 Sub-workgroup on Ecolabels to develop guidelines for implementation. This workgroup, which was formed over two years ago, has six co-chairs and roughly 60 members. It has been charged with reviewing existing green standards and certifications, and establishing criteria for how acceptable standards should be developed, maintained and implemented.

Considering the planned public comment period for the EO guidelines has already been pushed back numerous times and the process itself is already over two years old, it remains to be seen when, or even if, these guidelines will actually be finalized. It is also an election year, and the findings reflected in the guidelines are likely to be somewhat controversial, making it very possible that the work done by the workgroup may never be fully implemented as intended.

ngos get involved
Concurrent to the work being done by the federal government, there are numerous other non-governmental organizations working on this issue. In fact, both The Sustainability Consortium (TSC) and the Green Products Roundtable (GPR) have significant activities underway that could help set some parameters around the green product marketplace. For example, the GPR, a coalition of groups representing environmental non-profits, trade associations, certification entities and manufacturers, recently launched a new effort aimed at helping purchasers (including designers, builders and specifiers) identify green products.

Tentatively called the Independent Respected Body (IRB), this group is working to put into place guidelines and tools that will make it easier to identify which environmental and health-related attributes are important for a certain product (given its intended usage). The group also intends to develop tools to help identify stringent and credible green standards, certifications and ecolabels.

It is still too early to tell how effective any of these groups may be; however, they can provide valuable guidance and resources to interior designers looking to use green products.

know what to look for
While there are many efforts currently underway aimed at helping refine the green product marketplace, there still remains plenty to be done. It does not appear that the revisions to the FTC Green Guides, nor the work done by the Section 13 Sub-workgroup will be finalized any time soon. Likewise, the work being done by coalitions such as the GPR is still a long way from being finalized, and once finished, it will likely be some time before adoption in the marketplace is high enough to make a difference.

This leaves interior designers, architects, builders and anyone else who deals with green products on a regular basis in a precarious position. Consumers are demanding greater accountability for the environmental and human health impacts of the products they use and are exposed to; the FTC is increasing their oversight of green claims in the marketplace; the GSA is implementing an EO that calls for a 95 percent increase in green purchasing without publicly available guidelines; and coalitions of interested groups are coming together to try and develop their own definitions for green products.

Given the increased interest and oversight of green claims—and the lack of appropriate guidelines to fit into that structure—it is more important than ever for interior designers to fully understand the environmental and health-related attributes behind a given product. Relying on green products whose claims are based on sound science, rigorous standards and third-party certifications is the only way to ensure compliance. Ultimately, this is the best way for interior designers to continue using green products as their overarching definition continues to evolve, and help does not appear to be coming anytime soon.


Mark Rossolo is the director of public affairs for UL Environment. He works on policy-related sustainability issues for ULE, and has extensive experience and expertise working with green building codes, standards and programs. This article is for general information purposes only and is not intended to convey legal or other professional advice.