Changing Standards: What it Means to Be Green

By Matt Baker

On May 1, 1893, before a bustling crowd in Chicago’s Jackson Park, President Grover Cleveland pressed a button, activating the hundred thousand incandescent lamps strung about on thick cables. They were to illuminate the “White City,” the neoclassical buildings of the World’s Columbian Exposition, and bespoke a new era of technology.

The ceremony represented a victory for George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla, whose alternating current represented one side in the “war of the currents” with Thomas Edison’s direct current. It was also a victory for electricity itself which was justifiably viewed by much of the public as dangerous. The millions of visitors to the fair were awed by the new technology, but perhaps not enough to overlook the ever-present threat of fire.

Responding to this fear, the insurers of Chicago’s World Fair called on a Boston fire inspector, William H. Merrill, to test the electrical installations around the fairground. A year later, he founded Underwriters Laboratories (UL). Over one hundred years later, Northbrook-based UL now certifies hundreds of thousands of products in 18,000 categories every year.

The not-for-profit, independent testing lab cites its independence, science-based approach and technical engineering processes for their success in the safety sector. Now, the organization’s two-year-old effort, UL Environment, is taking the same approach with claims of sustainability. “We’re basically just expanding the definition of safety,” said Scot Case, Market Development Director with UL Environment.

Whereas the omnipresent UL label was previously affixed to products certified to not fall apart, spontaneously combust or otherwise fail in some harmful way, UL Environment hopes to reconsider what is safe. A product sourced from virgin petroleum products, for example, is less safe for the environment than one made of recycled content.

UL Environment has so far certified carpet for clients such as Mohawk and Shaw and electronics for LG and Dell. These standards consider energy and water use, manufacturing and operations, health and environment, performance, stewardship and innovation. Products are scored on a scale of silver, gold or platinum certification.

This past October, UL Environment completed testing on USG Corporation’s gypsum wallboard, which achieved highest impact in the categories of energy use and materials management. These claims include up to 95% recycled content, a 20% reduction in transportation energy use, conservation of raw materials and it qualifies as a low VOC-emitting material.

In August, UL acquired Canadian Firm TerraChoice, whose twenty-two year old EcoLogo has certified over 7,000 products in eighty categories. UL Environment now vouches for those standards, in addition to creating its own. “What you’re going to see over the next three to six months is the first in a wave of new standards, many of them focused on building products,” said Stephen Wenc, UL Environment’s President and Managing Director. In addition to the carpet and gypsum standards, and the preexisting EcoLogo standards, Wenc expects new sustainability certification of doors, ceiling tiles and lighting during 2011.

Energy Star. LEED. WaterSense. Green Globes. GreenGuard. Green Key. GreenCircle. These are some of the better known ecological certification labels. Some have limited scope, certifying only water savings or only schools. Others are of uncertain quality, unable to impart whether the certifying body behind the label has the credentials to back it up. Others can be purchased online to avoid irritating distractions like documentation.

To put it bluntly, the ecological label market is cacophonous, with literally hundreds of marks vying for consumers’ attention. Before entering that space, UL conducted market surveys of private sector labels to determine which were most representative of environmental claims. UL came in first despite not yet certifying environmental claims, a fact that Wenc found “both exciting and frightening all at the same time.”

Wenc feels that the competition is good, though it is inevitable that there will be consolidation and contraction. “I think that the innovation that’s gone on in early stages around a lot of those eco labels has been good for the marketplace in terms of encouraging awareness.”

As the field of green building matures, however, manufacturers, consumers, architects and designers are becoming more sophisticated. The 500+ labels elbowing for attention were less daunting than inviting for UL, as interested parties were hungry for a recognizable and trusted name.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is currently reviewing its Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, commonly referred to as the “green guides.” One proposed revision is to caution companies from using unqualified certifications or seals of approval. Those seals of approval must also be clear, prominent and specific. As Case said, “you need to be transparent. You need to actually have expertise.” If the FTC’s recommendations are heeded, unscrupulous certifications should go away, the pool of labels will shrink and consumers will be able to educate themselves on what those labels mean.

The one thing everyone wants is clarity. “If you talk to most manufacturers,” said Wenc, “one of the things that many of them are looking for are commonly understood definitions and a level playing field. They are all investing an incredible amount of time, energy and money to make their products more sustainable, and they deserve to reap the benefits of it when they do it right.”

UL already has a network of testing labs in thirty countries, and will use those facilities, and some new ones, to verify green claims. The organization has been able to leverage its current connections to grow UL Environment. “For the most part,” said Wenc, “we’re already in those factories.”

And he means that literally. Analogous to the building commissioning process, UL has inspection staff across the globe that go into facilities and provide continuous checks to make sure that those products hitting the marketplace perform as certified in the lab.

“I could make a wonderful green widget, and if I just look at the widget itself, it looks pretty good,” said Case. “But if you’re ignoring the manufacturing process, the supply chains that feed that manufacturing process, you’re missing 95% of the impacts.”

Addressing those impacts, the recently launched UL 880 is a broad-based, organizational sustainable standard for manufacturing organizations. “Today, everybody goes out and promotes their own concept based on their own strategy and their own interpretation of what sustainability means to them,” said Wenc. “It’s not a bad place to start. It’s where we all had to be.”

But a third party, transparent standard will give the power to the consumer. If a company is sustainable across the board—its environmental footprint, supply chain, community impact, etc.—that puts the power into the consumers’ hands. And when a consumer can vote with his or her dollar based on social and environmental impacts, everyone wins.

A possible problem enters the picture when a manufacturer of an unsustainable product—a petroleum company or cement maker, perhaps—wishes to have their operation verified. Like the product safety and sustainability standards, however, UL 880 is performance-based, not design based.

“There’s an incredible amount of innovation going on in those industries,” said Wenc. “I think instinctively I would hate to draw a line that says, ‘Nope, we’re not going to go near these guys because of their historic big-badness.’ Now, that doesn’t mean they may score high, but it does mean you want to give an opportunity for innovation.”

The FTC’s Green Guides are not mandates, they aren’t legislation. They are a guide. While UL Environment embraces the FTC’s leadership and suggestions, they believe strongly in open market alternatives for innovation. “UL standards are voluntary standards,” said Wenc “and the demand drivers for them are often the companies themselves who find an advantage in having a safer product, whether it’s because of risk management, what their customers are looking for or their sense of mission. And the same is true on the sustainability side.”

Case has noticed that different industries and different companies evolve differently and at different speeds. “In some industries, it seems to be easier for them to tackle it first at a corporate level and get it right and then focus on products,” he said. “And in other industry sectors, it seems easier to start at the product level and see if that trickles up to the corporate infrastructure. I think ignoring either half of that equation is doing a bit of disservice to the broader sustainable movement.”

William Merrill’s efforts to make the Chicago World’s Fair safer worked so well that the insurers offered discounted rates to manufacturers who had their products tested. Thus UL was born. “It wasn’t government regulation,” said Wenc, “it really was those voluntary market forces and some people who had an interest in the outcome and saw some benefits from it.”

At the turn of the century, there were no standards for electricity, even as its use began to propagate. Twelve years passed between UL’s founding and the adoption in the U.S. of the first formal safety standard, for fire doors. Standardized sustainability seems to be on the same path, though Wenc adds, “the evolution will probably happen even more quickly.”

“Let us hold fast to the meaning which underlies this ceremony, and let us not lose the impressiveness of this moment,” said President Cleveland, before pressing the button that activated the fair’s lights. His words are prescient now, as we ponder not the coming age of electricity, but the age of sustainability. “As by a touch the machinery that gives life to this vast exposition is now set in motion, so at the same instant let our hopes and aspirations awaken forces which in all time to come shall influence the welfare, the dignity and the freedom of mankind.”

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