When contractors come to Ridgefield Supply for green building products, they often get more than they bargained for–and thankfully so. That's because Margaret Sims, vice president of the single-location dealer serving the New York City suburbs, has made herself and several of her sales staff experts on building science, sustainable practices, and products that promote that goal. "Our customer base is very confused about the green movement," says Sims. "They're getting tired of hearing conflicting information."

Margaret Sims of Ridgefield (Conn.) Supply Co. has worked hard to make herself and her staff experts on green construction. But she has stopped short of creating a formal list of recommended products.
Ridgefield Supply Margaret Sims of Ridgefield (Conn.) Supply Co. has worked hard to make herself and her staff experts on green construction. But she has stopped short of creating a formal list of recommended products.

To help them, Sims recently became a certified Sustainable Building Advisor. The program's sponsor works with the U.S. Green Building Council, the group that established the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system often referenced as the gold standard of green building certification programs. "I often meet with our contractors one-on-one to teach them the basics of green building," she says. Besides her formal training, outreach efforts, and counseling, Sims blogs about green on the dealer's website and maintains a section of that site to promote sustainable building practices.

But she stops short of providing a list of products that fit that bill. "We promote some (green) products on our website, but we recommend contractors go to SCS [Scientific Certification Systems, an established and accredited certifier], among others, to research 'green products,'" says Sims, who prefers to use terms such as "sustainable" or "life-cycle analysis" to describe and determine what's green. "We steer contractors in various directions to find information."

Sims' actions are similar those at lots of dealers nationwide that are ramping up their green construction activities. More than 90% of the dealers responding to a ProSales survey last fall reported collecting and sharing green product and building practices information with their customers. Buffalo Grove, Ill.-based Edward Hines Lumber has established a green team of employees committed to establishing a green program. Haywood Builders Supply in Waynesville, N.C., is going so far as to voluntarily submit its practices and processes to a local third-party organization to become a Certified Green Operating Business.

When it comes to recommending green products, however, only 25% of those dealers have a formal program in place. And of those that do, a ProSales spot check (see enclosed chart) shows stark differences between dealers on how they decide what gets on their list of recommended products.

The vast majority of those that responded rely on and require independent, third-party verification–usually from more than one certified provider–of a product's green claims before they'll list or promote a product as such. Some take the certifier's stamp of approval at face value; others vet the verifiers. Some refer to local green building program checklists and energy codes to identify and source products. Others use their own judgment in deciding what qualifies.

Shiloh Kelly, national sustainability leader for BlueLinx, says her group relies on outside certifiers. "We don't have the manpower" to judge the 60-plus green certification programs, she says.
Bluelinx Shiloh Kelly, national sustainability leader for BlueLinx, says her group relies on outside certifiers. "We don't have the manpower" to judge the 60-plus green certification programs, she says.

"In the beginning we took manufacturers claims of green to be true at face value," says Augie Venezia, president of Fairfax Lumber in Marin County, Calif., just north of San Francisco. Fairfax is widely regarded as one of the nation's leading green LBM operations, and it has its own product recommendation program called Fairfax Green.

"We later wised up and started studying [material safety data sheets] looking for harmful or toxic individual ingredients," Venezia adds. "We are ever fearful about being greenwashed." (How can you certify a certifier? See "Third-Party Rules".)

But most operations–even the big ones–tend to rely on the certifiers' judgments. "We don't have the manpower to judge the 60-plus green product and building certification programs out there," says Shiloh Kelly, the national sustainability lead for BlueLinx, the Atlanta-based wholesaler of more than 10,000 building products to a nationwide network of LBM dealers and others, which launched its PureBlue program for green products earlier this year.

In part, other dealers and distributors rely more heavily on the certifiers because they regard themselves as more of a service provider than a control station. "We prefer to let the end users [pros] choose what they want to support and need to meet their own [green building] standards," Kelly says. "We're the conduit." Even so, Kelly and her growing team of PureBlue ambassadors (an in-house legion of sustainable building experts), don't blindly accept any certification of a green claim. "If it's a program we've never heard of, we'll investigate it until we're comfortable," she says. "We do that with any product's performance claim, green or not."

Getting comfortable, of course, is a relative term, and a responsibility of a dealer to establish for its customers. "It's so hard for anyone to agree on what the right standard is," says Nadav Malin, editor of Environmental Building News, a pioneering publication on the topic whose publisher created and maintains GreenSpec, a print and online directory of more than 2,000 green building products vetted by the editorial staff to be a reliable and unbiased resource. "Dealers need to find a balance between high environmental standards and practicality."

Most dealers, he says, lack the resources to originate and create an independent green product evaluation program. As such, he says, "It's best to identify a small number of outside resources and commit to them."

Sorting It Out. But that advice still begs the question, "Which one (or ones)?" The increasing number of product certification programs and companion labels–from the familiar Energy Star, NFRC, and SCS to those more recently on the scene, including the new "Green Approved" program launched by the NAHB Research Center–vary in their verification processes, financial models, and focus. "I don't envy dealers right now," says Malin. "It's a tough choice with several critical factors to consider."

In the meantime and for the most part, dealers that have taken the initiative to help shepherd their pro customers through the green haze are limiting their work. They'll check to see if a product is certified and will even investigate claims, but they take care to say their recommendations reflect that diligence and nothing beyond.

"There are so many shades of green, and one thing that makes our program work is that we don't assume what green means to our customers," says Jennifer Swick, director of marketing for Parr Lumber, a 38-location, $300 million dealer headquartered in the Portland suburb of Hillsboro, Ore., a bastion of eco-sophisticated builders and consumers. "We simply provide information so our customers can make informed decisions based on what's important to them."

Parr does that through its GET REAL! program and companion High Performance System (a comprehensive turnkey green building template for builders), in which more than 200 in-store products and hundreds more lumber, millwork, door, and window items are currently qualified and labeled under the program, promoted at every location and online and backed with documentation to support their inclusion.

Parr and many other dealer/distributors surveyed typically don't pick between certification systems that cover the same product. For instance, Parr's GET REAL! cites products certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) as well as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). "It doesn't serve our customers who need options to meet local [green building] standards or demands," says BlueLinx's Kelly, who points to local, regional, and national green building programs that differ in what and how they award points toward certification. "We have to remain flexible for customers trying to interpret those programs and credits."

Seeking New Norms. Rather than taking sides with competing certifying groups, Sims, Malin, and others are pushing for a broader analysis to determine a product's value in high-performance, resource-efficient, and sustainable building practices. "I don't believe 'green' is the way we should be looking at sustainability," says Sims. "Contractors need to look at the life cycle of the homes they build and the carbon footprint they create and base their sustainability standards on that analysis."

Life-cycle analysis or assessments (LCA) are a holistic, sum-of-their-parts way to evaluate products and buildings for their true environmental impact, beyond greenhouse gas emissions, recycled or certified content, or energy savings.

"When looking at green products, there are usually trade-offs of one kind or another," says Joshua Kaye of American Lumber, a wholesaler in Walden, N.Y., and one of the first wholesale lumber distributors to be certified by the FSC. "You can't simply apply a 'plastic is bad, wood is good' analysis."

Or a pass-fail grade, either. "Green is relative, not absolute," says Aaron Maizlish, director of the chain of custody program at SCS in Emeryville, Calif., which has been vetting product claims across industries and categories since the late 1980s. "The future of green products and their claims is to apply life-cycle analysis to identify and determine environmental trade-offs, not just one claim or benefit."

That evolution of the green product certification industry may ultimately lead to an eco-labeling system that provides everyone along the supply chain with a recognizable standard. "Compare it to a nutrition label for building products," says Linda Brown, executive vice president of SCS, referring to the USDA's ubiquitous stamp on every package of food. Similarly, she says, an eco-label will determine the components of a product and their environmental impact and, more important, demonstrate a better or lesser impact than a baseline product and others along the green spectrum.

Education First. In the meantime, a growing number of distributors and dealers, like Sims at Ridgefield Supply, have educated themselves on the finer points of how building products apply to programs such as LEED for Homes or the National Green Building Standard, among others.

"We'll have a portion of our associates go through LEED AP (accredited professional) training and certification," says Scott Thomas, marketing director at Parksite, a $100 million-plus wholesale distributor in Batavia, Ill., which launched its Green Awareness program in 2006 for eight brands of products.

LBM dealers that take their role in the sustainable building movement seriously generally agree it will evolve into the standard of how homes and buildings are built and remodeled. "We have a way right now of resurging a down [construction] market," says Kelly, echoing others. "It's not about being a tree-hugger or not. It's about smart business."

Third-Party Rules
If you or your pro customers are confused about the authenticity of independent, third-party green product certification programs, you're not alone. There are more of them popping up all the time, begging you and others to cite or list them as legitimate standards for what's green. Short of opening an accredited testing lab of your own to verify their results, consider the following tactics to vet their validity:

  • Ask building science and environmental building groups or trained individuals for their opinions of the verifier/certification program.
  • Similarly, ask building product suppliers, especially those not certified by the program you're investigating, for their opinions on and experiences with the program.
  • Research editorial articles and other resources about the program.
  • See if the program is cited in green building certification programs, such as LEED or the NGBS, among other local and regional standards.
  • Find out how the organization generates revenue; be suspicious of those requiring on-going licensing fees to carry their certification label, which may cause a conflict of interest or compromise their objectivity.
  • Look for independent accreditation of the organization's testing facility, capacity, and processes, such as the ISO-65 standard and groups such as Accreditation Services International.