A designer’s Guide to Green Product Certifications

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By Caroline Bourque & Haley Chouinard

As we’ve accepted that what’s better for the Earth is often better for humans too, consumers and designers alike increasingly seek out products that meet verified standards for both sustainability and wellness. Much like labels designating organic foods began to crop up in the early 1990s, so too have an array of certifications for materials emerged within the home industry.

From sustainably sourced wood to nontoxic fabrics, there’s a standard for just about everything these days. “The pressure for brands to offer healthier products has definitely risen over the past few years,” says Leila D. Behjat, a senior design researcher at the Healthy Materials Lab at Parsons School of Design. “But with any certification, it’s always important to understand what exactly it looks at, then to evaluate how it fits into your personal standards. Particularly when you’re liable to a client, it’s helpful to know precisely what a label means.” Here, we’ve outlined what common certifications denote, who the organizations behind them are and what designers need to know to specify smartly.

GLOBAL ORGANIC TEXTILE STANDARD (GOTS)What it means: GOTS certifies the organic status of textiles throughout the supply chain, from when raw materials are harvested through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing practices, all the way to labeling. The organization defines “organic” as natural fibers grown without the use of herbicides, synthetic pesticides and GMOs. The standard covers textiles made from at least 70 percent certified organic natural fibers, which means a textile carrying the GOTS stamp of approval must meet the 70 percent organic standard as a baseline. A label designates the precise percentage of organic materials used in the product; to be labeled wholly organic by GOTS, a product must be composed of at least 95 percent organic materials. GOTS even goes as far as to perform on-site inspections and certification of processors, manufacturers and traders, which are executed by independent third-party certification companies (who themselves have to meet a set of criteria in order to work with GOTS).

Who’s behind it: Established in 2002, GOTS was founded by four international organizations: Organic Trade Association (U.S.), Internationaler Verband der Naturtextilwirtschaft (Germany), The Soil Association (U.K.) and Japan Organic Cotton Association (Japan). Two of these (IVN and JOCA) are textile industry organizations, while the other two (OTA and Soil Association) are rooted in organic agriculture and food. Together, these bodies came up with an internationally recognized set of standards for organic fibers, looking at the entire supply chain, not just the finished product. Headquartered in Germany, the organization is made up of representatives from the founding bodies as well as experts from around the world.

The bottom line: GOTS is one of the most stringent standards for organic textiles in the home industry. Because it looks at the entire manufacturing process, it’s hard to achieve and therefore slightly less common than other green textile certifications. GOTS is also very transparent about its process, listing prohibited chemical additives on its site, making it easy to see exactly what a GOTS-certified product is free of—endocrine disruptors like phthalates and BPA are all prohibited, for example.

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FOREST STEWARDSHIP COUNCIL (FSC)What it means: The FSC sets standards to ensure the forests used to source wood and lumber products (used in things like furniture, home building and paper products like wallpaper) are responsibly managed by providing two main types of certifications: FSC forest management certification, related to the forest of origin, and FSC chain of custody certification, which focuses on the supply chain. To achieve either certification, an independent organization dispatched by the FSC audits the forest or supply chain to see if it meets the organization’s 70-point criteria, which centers on 10 key principles: compliances with laws, workers’ rights and employment conditions, Indigenous peoples’ rights, community relations, benefits from the forest, environment values and impact, management planning, monitoring and assessment, high conservation values and implementation of management activities. At the consumer level, products bearing any of the three available FSC labels give more insight into the manufacturer’s practices: FSC 100% means all the materials used in a product have been sourced from certified forests; FSC Recycled indicates the product contains 100-percent recycled content; and FSC Mix means the product contains a combination of recycled materials, FSC-certified wood and FSC-controlled wood (which does not come from an FSC-certified forest, but also does not originate from sources the organization deems unacceptable, such as through deforestation).

Who’s behind it: When the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio failed to produce an agreement to stop deforestation, a group of businesses, environmentalists and community leaders came together to create a voluntary, market-based certification to promote ethical forestry practices worldwide. In 1993, the group officially established the Forest Stewardship Council, which has issued more than 37,000 certificates in the 25 years since its creation.

The bottom line: Among certifications for wood-based products, the Forest Stewardship Council is the most comprehensive. Unlike the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, which only applies to forests in North America, the FSC covers sources from every country in the world and is widely used by manufacturers. Plus, it looks beyond the immediate source of wood and paper products to examine the entire supply chain and labor practices surrounding the harvesting process to ensure best practices. Additionally, sourcing FSC-certified wood to benefit forest preservation is impactful for sustainability efforts, as the world’s forests provide the best route for absorbing the carbon emissions causing global warming. “It covers what we call the triple bottom line of sustainability—it’s about preserving forest health, preserving forest ecosystems and empowering the human communities that depend on those forest systems, building their economies as part of the way that those forest systems are kept healthy and well managed,” says Susan Inglis, executive director of the Sustainable Furnishings Council.

DECLAREWhat it means: Declare refers to itself as “the nutrition label for products.” Manufacturers voluntarily disclose product information on easy-to-read labels, similar to the standard for packaged food. These labels report all product ingredients and use a color-coded system to flag chemicals of concern. Declare labels disclose all intentionally added ingredients and residual traces at or above 0.01 percent present in the final product by weight. Further information is also provided on the product’s final assembly locations, life expectancy, end-of-life options and overall compliance with requirements of the Living Building Challenge (LBC), which is run by Declare’s parent organization, the International Living Future Institute. The Declare process also screens against the LBC Red List, a classification the organization claims represents the “worst in class” materials, chemicals and elements known to pose serious risks to human health and the environment. Products that are “Red List Free” are additionally labeled as such.

Who’s behind it: The International Living Future Institute (ILFI) was established in 2009 by members of the Seattle-based Cascadia Green Building Council, one of three original chapters of the U.S. Green Building Council, and is a non-profit advocating for “a socially just, culturally rich and ecologically restorative society.” In addition to the Declare program, ILFI operates the green building certification program known as the Living Building Challenge, which recognizes buildings that produce more energy than they use and collect and treat all water on site.

The bottom line: The Declare label is a helpful tool that offers product transparency and offers consumers and designers alike a clear list of what exactly is in a piece they’re sourcing without having to hunt for individual standards. Because it isn’t material specific, a wide range of brands across categories use the label, from flooring companies like Armstrong Flooring to countertop manufacturers like Cosentino and Cambria to furniture companies like Humanscale and Bernhardt. The organization is also transparent about how much it charges brands for the certification, with prices ranging from $500 to $1,000 per label for an annual certification, with the cost depending on the number of labels a company is seeking.

GREENGUARDWhat it means: Many products used to manufacture and maintain building materials and home furnishings contain types of airborne chemicals called VOCs, or volatile organic compounds. Though often difficult to detect, these particles can lead to short-term health effects like headaches and eye, nose or throat irritation, as well as long-term effects like chronic disease or cancer. The Greenguard certification process was created to cut down on indoor air pollution caused by VOCs by establishing test methods and emission limits for product groups including building materials, furniture and furnishings; electronic equipment; cleaning and maintenance products; and medical devices for breathing gas pathways. The organization offers two tiers of certification: the standard Greenguard certification, which requires emissions limits suitable for offices and other indoor spaces, and the Greenguard Gold certification, which includes additional health-based criteria and requires lower total VOC emissions levels (limiting more than 360 VOCs) to ensure products are safe for use in environments like schools and healthcare facilities.

Who’s behind it: Indoor air quality scientist Dr. Marilyn Black founded the Greenguard Environmental Institute in 2001 with the goal of creating a third-party product certifier to educate others on indoor air quality conditions. In 2011, the institute was acquired by UL Environment, a business division of Underwriters Laboratories, and has since been referenced by organizations such as the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building rating system.

The bottom line: The Greenguard certification screens only for the presence of VOCs in the final product (rather than the manufacturing process or supply chain) and applies to paints and finishes, in addition to fabrics, wallpaper and furniture. The presence of VOCs is an easy one to identify in the design process—that often headache-inducing “new product smell” is a good indicator of such chemicals, which may stick around after the smell is gone and lead to lasting indoor air pollution.

OEKO-TEXWhat it means: Oeko-tex administers six different labels, each screening for different things—from harmful substances to sustainable production conditions and preventing chemical additives from entering the waterways. The Standard 100 label is now common in the home industry (particularly in soft goods like towels and bedding) which screens for over 420 harmful chemicals. The Oeko-tex Made In Green label is another gaining steam in the home category, designating textiles and leather products manufactured in environmentally friendly facilities under safe and socially responsible working conditions, in addition to meeting the same criteria of the Standard 100 label. The organization screens leather as well as textiles for dangerous chemicals and even offers a dedicated Leather Standard, something that GOTS (which only certifies fibers) does not.

Who’s behind it: Oeko-Tex first began issuing its Standard 100 label in 1992 after being founded by members of the German Hohenstein Institute and the Austrian Textile Research Institute. Currently based in Zurich, the organization consists of 17 independent research and test institutes in Europe and Japan. Together, they develop test methods and limit values forming the basis for the group’s standards.

The bottom line: Oeko-tex offers something of an a la carte approach to sustainability standards, offering certifications for different aspects of the manufacturing process or finished product, but doesn’t look at the entire supply chain. Like GOTS, it provides a detailed list of chemicals the organization screens for. Where GOTS is specific about its prohibition of certain chemical additives, Oeko-tex allows applicants a certain threshold for the chemicals it screens for (which the organization attributes to the fact that, for some chemicals, there is no way to measure presence lower than a specific level), as long as they don’t reach levels that the organization deems harmful.

CRADLE TO CRADLEWhat it means: Cradle to Cradle certification covers the entire lifecycle of a product, ensuring its “circularity” by examining how the materials were produced, processed and manufactured, and confirming that the product will be reusable—either in its current form or reduced to raw materials—at the end of its life. The organization assesses materials and products along five categories of sustainable performance: material health, product circularity, clean air and climate protection, water and soil stewardship and social fairness.

Who’s behind it: The principles behind Cradle to Cradle were developed in the 1990s by professor Dr. Michael Braungart and architect William McDonough with the goal of describing the infinite circulation of materials in environmentally friendly cycles, made possible only through the use of harmless, recyclable materials. In 2010, the pair donated an exclusive license for their certification program and methodology to the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, which now administers certification and product standards as a third-party nonprofit.

The bottom line: Though more prevalent in commercial spaces than residential ones, the Cradle to Cradle certification is commonly applied to items like furniture and fabrics, and guarantees products are not toxic when disposed. When buying a Cradle to Cradle–certified piece of furniture or fabric, the manufacturer includes instructions on how to properly recycle the piece at the end of its life—information designers should pass along to clients when a project is completed. “Recyclable is only a true claim when it’s actually done,” says the Sustainable Furnishings Council’s Inglis.

Homepage photo: ©Mikeosphoto/Adobe Stock

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