Furniture Trends: Green Certifications Get More Comprehensive

Photo: Tecno SPA
Photo: Tecno SPA

By Stowe Hartridge-Beam and Nick Kordesch
Published in the May 2011 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Facility managers (fms) are familiar with green labeling programs, but there are key changes on the horizon. Green certifications are expanding from single attribute claims to more comprehensive measures of environmental performance.

For example, the building industry started with ENERGY STAR then developed Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). Now that LEED has found broad recognition, efforts are underway to determine how to integrate life cycle assessment (LCA) into LEED. This shift is being driven by increasingly savvy buyers, suppliers, and consumers.

Single attribute certifications verify a specific claim about a product; for example, they verify it was made from recycled content. They represent one of the most common types of certification in the furniture world, and they are not going to disappear anytime soon. Furthermore, products carrying a single attribute certification like “recycled content” can help fms earn valuable LEED credits.

Indoor Air Quality Certifications

Indoor air quality (IAQ) is one of the major concerns addressed by single attribute certifications. The Indoor Advantage certification assures compliance with rigorous IAQ emission requirements and applies specifically to furnishings. It meets the criteria for the LEED EQ 4.5 credit for systems furniture and seating.

Indoor Advantage Gold can also be applied to furnishings in addition to paints, coatings, adhesives, sealants, insulation, wall coverings, and other interior products. This certification program will adopt a new, lower formaldehyde limit in the coming months. These two certifications are administered by Scientific Certification Systems (SCS). Greenguard Environmental Institute also offers a variety of popular IAQ certifications.

Certifying Wood

Wood is gaining traction as one of the greenest material choices for green buildings, including furnishings. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Chain of Custody certification helps fms select furnishings made from responsibly managed and maintained timber sources. The certification designates responsibly harvested wood, which is commonly found in furnishings and building materials. Knoll, Inc. has been one of the leading furniture companies in sourcing FSC certified wood components.

Composite wood products (such as hardwood plywood, particleboard, and medium density fiberboard) sold into California are required to meet the requirements of California Air Resources Board (CARB) Air Toxic Control Measure (ATCM) 93210. This standard controls formaldehyde emissions.

The U.S. EPA will be implementing a national regulation in 2013 to address this issue. Fms in California should ensure any products they purchase containing these composite wood materials are properly labeled as compliant.

Furniture Programs

level™, the BIFMA sustainability standard, was launched in June 2009 and is rapidly becoming the industry benchmark for sustainable furniture. [For TFM’s more detailed coverage of the level™ rating program, see the May 2010 article entitled, “Furniture Trends: On The Level” by Tom Readon.]

This certification covers multiple attributes. In addition to supporting healthy indoor air, the furniture company must adhere to responsible corporate and manufacturing practices.

As the number one certifier for level, SCS has seen the standard gain traction with furniture companies such as HON, Steelcase, and Knoll achieving the certification. The U.S. General Services Administration is considering requiring level certification for the furniture it sources.

BIFMA’s level standard is now (ANSI) approved, signifying an added level of credibility for the standard. Fms can look for a new version of the standard in 2011.

Complete Operations Options

LCAs represent the most complete way to measure the environmental impact of a product. Fms can look forward to using LCA-based certifications as a decision making tool when selecting products.

LCA works by evaluating a product’s environmental impacts from cradle to grave. In other words, it looks at everything from the extraction of raw materials, through manufacturing, to the end of a product’s useful life when materials are disposed of or recycled. This work can be used to create Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) for individual products.

SCS recently issued its first Environmental Building Declaration (EBD), which measures the environmental impacts of entire building systems. Building declarations not only measure the impacts at the point of commissioning but throughout the life of the building.

Inland Empire Transportation Management Center (owned by California’s Department of General Services) was the first building to go through the SCS EBD process. While LCA and EBDs are still on the leading edge, they will more than likely become widely used in the not so distant future. Both LEED and level are starting to incorporate LCA methodology into their rating systems.

Consolidating Certifications

Consolidation among eco-labels is a double edged sword. On one hand, fewer labels mean consumers don’t have to sort out what each one means—much like the European Union’s universal EcoFlower label. On the other hand, a single label that is not dynamic, or that merely certifies the status quo is of little value.

But in the long run, competition among numerous labels can drive advancement. And there has been some recent consolidation in the field of green labels in the U.S. as well. For instance, longtime IAQ certifier Greenguard was purchased by Underwriters Laboratories’ new UL Environment division.

Green product certifications can be a valuable tool for fms focused on reducing their environmental impact and resource use. Sustainably minded customers in search of options can anticipate more improvements in the way products will be labeled green.

Hartridge-Beam is the director of business development/environmental certification services and former manager of indoor air quality for SCS, and Kordesch is a communications associate at SCS.