In In his book Ecological Intelligence, Dan Goleman argues for “radical transparency” in the next wave of EcoLabels in order to “introduce an openness about the consequences of the things we make, sell, buy and discard that goes beyond the current comfort zones of most businesses.” The interior design industry is already on this path, having been inundated with a wave of EcoLabels like Cradle to Cradle, Sustainable Carpet Assessment Standard, and SCS Indoor Advantage. I see this as great development for the industry as a whole—we’ve reached a green tipping point which can help increase the quality and safety of products for consumers while giving manufacturers an opportunity to create innovative, greener-than-ever product offerings.
Navigating the large number of EcoLabels requires attention and strategy. Choosing which labels to align your company with can be a confusing process—and making the right choice is crucial to marketing your green product and reducing your impact on the environment.
We’ve already seen EcoLabels in other industries follow a familiar trajectory. They begin with single-criteria labels, progress to multi-criteria labels, and then shift to a more comprehensive Life Cycle Assessment- (LCA) based labeling. For example, the green building industry started out with Energy Star and then developed Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®). Now that LEED has found broad recognition, efforts are underway to determine how to integrate LCA into LEED.
The furniture industry has effective single-criteria EcoLabels like SCS Indoor Advantage and GREENGUARD. While these certifications ensure low emissions, neither requires furniture to be made with safe manufacturing processes or to be made from sustainably harvested wood. Single-criteria labels do not guarantee an overall “green” product because they don’t address environmental trade-offs.
As increasingly savvy customers ask about additional environmental impacts, the industry has begun adopting multi-criteria certifications. level™ is an example of a multi-criteria sustainability standard that incorporates a range of impacts. Based on the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA) e3-2008 sustainability standard, it certifies products as level 1, 2, or 3 (3 is currently the highest level rating) based on a combination of social and environmental performance metrics.
level addresses each product’s impact on indoor air quality, just like SCS Indoor Advantage, but expands its criteria through the supply chain and awards credits for downstream actions like extended producer responsibility. By requiring manufacturers to have a design for the environment program, an energy policy, as well as environmental management systems and social responsibility practices, the level certification strives to be part of a company-wide sustainability effort.
While multi-criteria EcoLabels like level represent significant progress toward an overall greener product, they still allow for some trade-offs.
I see LCA as a logical future step in product labels for the furniture industry. LCA addresses a comprehensive set of environmental impacts and helps address trade-offs by evaluating a product’s consequences from “cradle-to-grave”—from the extraction of raw materials, through manufacturing, to the end of a product’s useful life, when materials are disposed of or recycled. level certification already awards points to products that have had a Life Cycle Assessment performed, signifying the momentum of LCA in the furnishings industry.
Why LCA now? After nearly 40 years of working toward a common framework, scientists produced ISO-14044 in the late 1990s which provided an internationally standardized method for LCA. Years of research are finally coming to fruition as there is more publicly available data to feed into this standardized LCA methodology.
The concept of LCA is becoming widely accepted in business. Walmart helped initiate the Sustainability Consortium, which is creating a framework to establish a global LCA database on products. This effort may set a common ground for LCA product labeling. These labels are aimed at communicating environmental impacts of products in a standardized format across all product lines. And while individual LCAs can be expensive, supplier rating systems that incorporate LCA data can help manufacturers share the right information without the cost.
The emerging carbon economy is also likely to make a big impact on EcoLabeling. Businesses will likely be required to report their emissions, so there is a demand for suppliers that have measured and reported their own climate impacts. To address this need, we will probably see increasing numbers of EcoLabels related to climate change in the near future. Labels like “carbon neutral” already exist in the marketplace, but there are some upcoming standards like ISO-14067 for the carbon footprint of products that will give some transparency to these claims.
Looking at the trends driving the latest developments in EcoLabeling can tell us a lot about their future. First, many of today’s consumers are increasingly knowledgeable and can see right through greenwashing claims. Independently verified claims are likely to be the basis for future environmental labeling as a way to sort out which labels are meaningful and which ones are greenwash.
Government agencies are also driving significant action around EcoLabels. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has begun regulating environmental claims based on its “green guides,” which were developed in the 1990s but remained unenforced until recently. The FTC recently initiated a crackdown on manufacturers of bamboo-based rayon products who were touting their green aspects even though they had processed the bamboo so much that it was identical to plastic. Now more than ever, companies need to be able to back up their green claims.
Supply chain requirements are another key trend that will influence future labels. Walmart is in the process of creating its own label that expresses the “greenness” of products on the shelves, which it will in turn use to select suppliers and communicate to consumers. In the contract furnishings industry, facility managers could require that all products and suppliers meet certain environmental criteria. Rather than re-invent their own EcoLabel, they may adopt existing labels, such as level, the Sustainable Carpet Assessment Standard and the Forest Stewardship Council’s labels for wood products.
So where do you go from here? It would be nearly impossible to predict which EcoLabel will end up being the gold standard because the science behind them will continue to evolve. Instead of betting on a single label, business leaders should keep paying attention to the driving forces behind the EcoLabels, stay aware of key developments in the industry, and adjust accordingly.
The convergence of consumer demand for credible green claims, increased transparency, and institutional requirements are pushing EcoLabels toward more specific and comprehensive environmental claims. It is essential that interior design professionals pay attention to the latest developments in EcoLabeling or risk being left out of a significant opportunity to stand out to consumers and companies that want to purchase or lease green products. EcoLabels are an important marketing asset and they can help educate and engage your customers and employees about sustainability.
And remember, EcoLabels alone won’t get your company, or the industry, to where it needs to be. EcoLabels are a key component of big-picture sustainability efforts; and just as they are evolving to become more comprehensive, corporate sustainability initiatives need a broad aim to be truly successful.
Stowe Hartridge-Beam is the program manager of indoor air quality and level™ certification at Scientific Certification Systems (scscertified.com), including SCS Indoor Advantage™, SCS Indoor Advantage Gold™, and FloorScore®. He also represents Scientific Certification Systems for The Sustainability Consortium, initiated by Walmart. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.