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Get the Complete Picture: Top Questions to Ask Manufacturers

Today it seems that ‘green’ claims are everywhere. In sorting through all of these claims, how is one to know if there are hidden tradeoffs or if the change actually leads to environmental improvement?

Architects and designers have become research investigators.  A proliferation of surveys and questionnaires have emerged, aimed at gathering more product information and attempting to get apples-to-apples comparisons of similar products. Data is hard if not impossible to gather.  Manufacturers report in different ways, making comparisons difficult.  It seems that an advanced degree in chemistry or chemical engineering is needed to sort through all of the detail. So how can specifiers cut through the claims and get a complete picture of the products they choose?

Focus on Quality not Quantity of the Questions You Ask

Asking the right questions is essential to understanding and uncovering environmental impacts.  In my role, I respond to countless questionnaires and surveys from customers and suppliers.  I often find myself frustrated by the end because the really important questions are never asked, yet there are endless questions about issues that have minimal environmental relevance. Yes, it is terrific that our packaging contains 100% post-consumer recycled content, yet from a full life cycle perspective, packaging is inconsequential. It’s a rounding error, and moves the needle very little from a whole-product standpoint.

Understanding the impacts of the whole life of a product is the key to getting the complete picture. Here are some important questions to ask that can help you make an educated choice:

1.    How do you report the environmental impacts across the entire life cycle of your products?

Many environmental claims are single attribute, “contains recycled content” or “low VOC”.   Uncovering the impacts in the other phases of a product life cycle can be accomplished by conducting a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA).  While many manufacturers conduct LCAs, few make their results publicly available.  An Environmental Product Declaration (EPD), based on ISO 14025, discloses LCAs and environmental impacts including global warming potential, smog, ozone depletion, acidification, eutrophication and abiotic depletion.  In addition, EPDs disclose product ingredients.

2.    How do you show customers the amount of energy and water your products use?

Certifications and ratings typically publish a final score or rating, without providing detail on the underlying strategies for earning the certification.  Earning the Platinum rating for NSF 140 Sustainable Carpet Assessment Standard is a great accomplishment, but if a user is specifically concerned about water consumption or resource depletion, there is no way to uncover the detail.

EPDs on the other hand disclose environmental impacts associated with the entire life cycle of a product.  Primary energy and water consumption are reported for not only manufacturing or use phases, but also include impacts during the extraction and processing of raw materials, transportation, and in the generation of electricity.  Capturing the full life cycle impacts gives a more complete picture of the true water and primary energy footprint of a product. By asking questions about full product life cycle, you are creating a stronger business case for manufacturers to pursue EPDs.

3.    How transparent are you about the environmental impact of your products?  Are they verified by a third party according to internationally recognized standards?

Architects, designers, end users and sustainability consultants want access to environmental impact data.  The new competitive landscape centers on transparency.  This trend is evident in consumer cleaning products starting with Seventh Generation voluntarily disclosing their ingredient list and now others in the industry have followed.

Data that historically has been labeled confidential and proprietary are now being made public via tools like EPDs.

EPDs are based on the international standard ISO 14025 guidelines.  In accordance with ISO 14025, EPDs must be verified by an external 3rd party.

4.    Of all the ingredients in your product, which one has the biggest environmental impact?  And what are you doing about it?

As I discussed earlier, surveys and questionnaires capture a lot of information but not always the right information.  Identifying the critical components is not always intuitive.  In countless presentations, I survey my audience and ask them which phase of the life cycle of carpet has the largest contribution to global warming.  Even among a group of LCA practitioners, 95% of my audiences guess that manufacturing or transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.  Audiences are shocked to see that manufacturing and transportation are minor impacts.  So what is the biggest culprit?   Raw material extraction and processing is responsible for a majority of the carbon footprint, with nylon being the single largest contributor.

An EPD discloses the detail for users to independently determine the largest environmental impacts.  An educated and enlightened manufacturer should be focusing on what is really important for reducing total environmental impacts.

Completing the Picture

Environmental Product Declarations are a global standard for product transparency.  With EPDs you know exactly what is in a product and what the full life cycle impacts are.  EPDs give you the information to make better choices based on comprehensive, transparent information. The future of sustainability and green building requires greater collaboration and transparency with customers.

Don’t get distracted by a long list of eco-sexy ‘green’ activities.  Uncover and focus on what really matters. EPDs are leading the way to a more transparent future.

Melissa is the Director of Sustainable Strategy for InterfaceFLOR. She is responsible for maximizing business opportunities for InterfaceFLOR by strategically leveraging Interface’s leadership in sustainable development. She works closely with technical, marketing, and sales to develop strategies, programs, and tools for account executives, which enable them to educate their customers about sustainability. She also researches and addresses trends and opportunities in the green product market. As a liaison between several InterfaceFLOR departments, she ensures that Interface customers receive a more holistic approach in creating commercial interior environments to meet the needs of client, community, and the environment. Melissa also oversees the company’s image, messaging, and presence at key environmental conferences.

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