Kim Freeman wants to go green. So do her customers at EKB Kitchens and Baths in Beacon, N.Y. But those good intentions often wilt once Freeman and her clients enter the green certification jungle.
"My customers are choking on all the acronyms," Freeman complains. "Everyone wants to be responsible, but by the time we explain which certifications are which, the differences between using one material over another, and the resulting premiums some companies charge for being green, they practically throw their hands up and give up."
Visit www.ecolabelling.org and you'll find a list of nearly 475 ecolabels worldwide, including (as of May) 46 dealing specifically with building practices and another 35 covering forest products. The Wall Street Journal reported in April about one businessman who, while talking to a dozen potential certifiers of his company's carpet-cleaning fluid, found one group that "awarded him an instant green diploma, no questions asked." Michael Anschel, a noted green remodeler based in Minnesota, used his blog recently to attack the NAHB for marketing to vendors a mechanism that (for a fee) validates a product as green by NAHB's research center and then links that endorsement to the online form builders use to win certification under the standard that NAHB championed.
Inside the green movement, certification groups often battle each other to be perceived as best, such as when the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) complains about people who think the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) standard is as good as FSC, or when the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) LEED for Homes program squares off against the green homes standard championed by NAHB.
But outside the green movement, the differences between these and other groups often prove too hard for non-experts to parse. As a result, builders, associations, and customers often end up doing one of two things: they conclude all the labels for a category are pretty much alike, or they give up.
Even groups that would have a reason to care about the details–such as an organization that launched its own certification program–have trouble dealing with the minutiae. The Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Associ-ation (KCMA) launched an Environmental Stewardship Program in which it brands cabinets as ecologically sustainable. Companies seeking certification have to use certified hardwoods and softwoods. But KCMA didn't try to pick what it thought was the best wood certifier, as USGBC did when it recognized FSC alone for LEED. Instead, KCMA says it's fine with certification from any ecogroup, including FSC, SFI, PEFC, and the American Tree Farm System.
"Their Eyes Glaze Over." ProSales asked executive vice president Dick Titus why KCMA did that. "There are strong arguments that other programs ? are legitimate credible forestry programs," Titus replied. Then he added: "We feel [accepting them all] is better than picking a winner. When you get into arguments with folks over the merits of various programs, their eyes glaze over."
The major holdout in this trend has been LEED's recognition of FSC and no other group. But that should change this year, as USGBC finishes work on a proposal to create a benchmark for judging wood certifiers that is expected to enable lumber certified by other groups–most notably, SFI–to qualify for LEED points. Again, the issue revolves in part around USGBC's desire to make LEED the premier green standard. Its requirement that wood meet FSC's standards to get LEED points is perceived as one way it attempts to stand out from, if not rise above, the competition.
Too much fighting over too little? "The forest certification debates really are pretty mature," argues Cassie Phillips, vice president of sustainable forests and products for Weyerhaeuser Co. and a veteran of decades of fights over forest management practices. "You wouldn't think of it for all the emotion behind it. If you look at uptake by the market ... you have SFI and [the Canadian standard] if you want the best, widest supply of forest materials. And if you're working in an area where you need [non-governmental] governance, in a country or with an exotic wood, you're going to use FSC. The systems have their niches and neither are in a good position to take market share from the other in terms of supply."
FSC believes a groundswell of builder demand will nudge private timber companies toward its standard rather than the SFI rules they typically prefer. So far that hasn't happened; from all appearances, builders don't bother pursuing the relatively few LEED points that using FSC wood could supply.
As a result, roughly 61 million acres of mostly private U.S. timberland is certified by SFI vs. 31 million mostly public acres with the FSC label. On the other hand, because FSC certification matters for LEED, FSC is way out in front in the chain-of-custody race, with roughly 525 dealers and distributors taking the time and trouble to get certified, often for multiple locations. It appears fewer than a dozen dealers and distributors have done the same for SFI.
Green Star. While the forest fights continue, a few labels to appear to be clearly in command. Probably none is stronger than the federal government's Energy Star program. More than 70% of American households know about it and think favorably of it, studies show. It also dovetails with Americans' No. 1 reason to go green: saving on energy bills.
On the commercial side, LEED is way out in front. As of April 1, the USGBC says references to LEED can be found in legislation, executive orders, ordinances and such in 31 state governments, 12 federal agencies or departments, 122 cities, 34 counties, and 30 towns. And government projects account for only a quarter of all LEED projects; most of the green work going on is done by commercial institutions.
By contrast, the Green Building Institute's Green Globes program has been recognized by just 18 states, one county and one city, and it can claim only a fraction of the 11,600 LEED-registered new construction projects. Its greater value may be in helping persuade lawmakers and others to write rules that recognize the possibility that other groups besides LEED might have a better idea when it comes to green building. For instance, Green Globes has helped advance the idea that green building should consider assessing a product and building technique over its entire life cycle.
On the residential side, certified green is such a small part of the market it's barely worth noticing. Registrations for USGBC's LEED for Homes have yet to top 1% of all housing starts. Meanwhile, the green standard launched by NAHB in January 2008 had, as of early May, just two certified sites.
"LEED for Homes will always be a niche," predicted Jack Mackin of F.D. Sterritt Lumber in Watertown, Mass. While production builders may regard LEED as too expensive, "There will always be a market for somebody who says 'I want the Cadillac of standards,'" he says.