Founded in 1894 by William Henry Merrill, UL (formerly known as Underwriters Laboratories) has a long history of promoting product safety. Beginning with laboratory testing of fire and shock hazards at the time of the public adoption of electricity, the company’s focus has long been to promote safe living and working environments. In the past 20 years, however, as the US Green Building Council (USGBC) and its LEED rating system have driven interest in green building products and the desire for greater transparency regarding the environmental performance of materials, UL’s focus on safety testing has expanded to include environmental product assessments and certifications.
“More than a decade ago, UL realized to best promote its commitment to safety, it needed to incorporate the environment and health within that definition. Safety is meant to encompass not only physical safety—you won’t find electrical devices shocking you anymore—it’s meant to capture something that has actual merit today,” says Paul Firth, UL Environment product manager, sustainability services. “When you put an environmental standard out there and a manufacturer sees recognition from the industry—look UL published statistics on that—they say, ‘What do I need to do to achieve that standard?’”
UL is now the exclusive provider of GREENGUARD Certification for products that meet stringent chemical emissions requirements, and ECOLOGO Certification for products that meet multi-attribute, life cycle-based sustainability standards. UL also offers single-attribute environmental claims validations, including waste to landfill validation, organizational sustainability certifications, and transparency documents such as Environmental Product Declarations. UL’s GREENGUARD and ECOLOGO are recognized and referenced in more than 900 sustainable product specifications and purchasing guidelines that cover tens of thousands of products ranging from building materials, office furniture, and paints to baby cribs, electronics, and mobile phones.
Led by Carlos Correia, president of UL supply chain and sustainability, and a team of research scientists, UL Environment, a division of the parent company that was launched in 2009, is enabling manufacturers to capture value for their sustainability efforts, helping bring lower polluting products to market, and lending transparency to a crowded and often misleading green marketplace. “Demand for these certifications and transparency documents has led to manufacturing changes that have resulted in a reduction of cancer causing chemicals on product surfaces and have given companies a platform to communicate what they’ve done,” Firth says.
The GREENGUARD Certification requires that products meet some of the world’s most rigorous and comprehensive limits for low emissions of volatile organic compounds into indoor environments. GREENGUARD Certification emissions limits were first used as purchasing specifications for the US Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Washington for furniture and commercial building products. Since 2002, they have been the basis for the LEED credit for low-emitting furniture. Product testing is conducted by scientists in steel chambers at UL Environment facilities in Marietta, Georgia; Cologne, Germany; Kyoto, Japan; and Nansha, China. The test results are analyzed and a report is generated based on that analysis, which shows the various chemical emissions from that specific tested product. If the emissions are lower than the limits outlined in the GREENGUARD standard, then the product can be certified. Testing may take anywhere from one to three months and the cost to certify a product family varies depending on the number and nature of the products being tested.
UL Environment acquired the GREENGUARD brand as part of its purchase of Air Quality Sciences (AQS) and the Greenguard Environmental Institute (GEI) in 2011. In the early days, despite GREENGUARD’s inclusion in EPA purchasing specifications, only a handful of manufacturers were signing on for testing. “At first it was tough sledding. When we started to call and tell people about the program we got hung up on a lot,” says Scott Steady, product manager, indoor air quality at UL Environment.
Over time, however, as big box suppliers like Home Depot began carrying GREENGUARD Certified products, and contractors started ordering them for large scale builds, manufacturers caught on. In many ways, recognition and use of GREENGUARD Certification paralleled the rise of the broader green building movement. As architects and engineers designed higher performance building envelopes to heat and cool buildings more efficiently, there was a corresponding loss in ventilation; chemicals and organic compounds such as benzene, formaldehyde, and styrene that used to seep out of buildings with the hot and cold were now trapped inside. There was a greater need to protect against emissions from printers, pressed wood furniture, paints, carpet adhesives, and other home and office building products. The industry term “source control” cropped up in codes, ratings, and procurement policies: a nicer way of saying indoor air pollution control. “You either achieve that through ventilation or low-emitting sources,” Steady says.
Across the building industry, the practice of greenwashing, which ranges from vague, unqualified marketing claims that describe a product as “green” or “eco-friendly,” to outright fabrication about a product’s environmental impact, has been widely reported. The issue came to a head in 2012 when the Federal Trade Commission filed suit against two of the nation’s leading paint companies, Sherwin-Williams and PPG Architectural Finishes, alleging that the companies made deceptive claims that their interior paints contained “zero” volatile organic compounds. The FTC claimed this was not true for tinted paint, which typically has much higher levels of the compounds, and which consumers usually buy. Following a settlement with the two companies, the FTC issued revised Green Guides that included specific language on the use of carbon offsets, “green” certifications and seals, and renewable energy and renewable materials claims. These revised rules were a major boon to the GREENGUARD Certification program and have drawn attention to the need for more honest and objective disclosure tools.
Today, some 600 companies offer products with a GREENGUARD Certification, including insulation by Owens Corning and BASF, paint by Sherwin-Williams and BEHR, furniture by Herman Miller and Haworth, and flooring by Shaw and Mohawk. Since 2011, the number of products to achieve GREENGUARD Certification has increased by at least 20% every year, and UL Environment has recently expanded their certification program into cleaning products and the baby product market, certifying cleaning supplies, low-emitting cribs, crib mattresses, and baby clothes. Electronics are another industry in which the GREENGUARD certification is gaining a foothold. In January, UL Environment and LG Electronics announced that LG’s new 55-, 65- and 77-inch class OLED TVs have earned GREENGUARD Certification, which sets a new precedent for television manufacturers to reduce substances in TV products that can contribute to high chemical and formaldehyde exposures.
Furniture manufacturers have already taken great strides to reduce their chemical emissions. Larry Dykhuis, senior sustainability manager at Herman Miller, Inc., reports that 85% of the company’s furniture designer’s global sales and more than 90% of its North American sales come from 60 GREENGUARD-certified product lines, including Mira 2, Action Office, and Canvas Office Landscape. He said the entire furniture industry has veered away from veneered products with wood as substrate—particleboards, plywood, and fiberboard—in favor of lower-emitting products with UV-cured topcoats and sealers. “Some type of indoor air quality certification is de facto, or almost, requirement,” Dykhuis says. “There is a growing awareness about health and wellness in the office spaces. It is our customers and ourselves that are concerned about healthy environment and indoor air quality—aside from building certification.”
Steady predicts the use and recognition of GREENGUARD will continue to grow with the ongoing adaptation of LEED version 4 standards, which will provide LEED points for using GREENGUARD-certificatied materials for building, wall, floor, paint, and adhesive sealants. Among manufacturers, what was once the voluntary practice of a few early adopters will become the new normal. “As we move from the voluntary leadership of a few builders to a climate in which certifications become more integrated into code, it will be difficult to sell products that aren’t certified for low emissions; a builder might lose 30 to 40% of their bids if they can’t offer certified products, so they become the norm,” Steady says.
ECOLOGO Certification testifies to a product’s reduced environmental impact across its lifecycle, from the point of extraction, to production, use, and end-of-life recycling. An ECOLOGO mark signifies that the product has undergone testing against the relevant standard, while functioning as a stamp of legitimacy in an industry rife with misleading green marketing claims. Some 30,000 products are ECOLOGO Certified, including building materials, flooring, chemicals and plastics, cleaning and personal care products, office products, and electronics. These standards set metrics for a wide variety of criteria in categories such as recycled content, renewable energy, hazardous waste, and indoor air quality.
One of the first companies to earn ECOLOGO Certification for a product was Sprint, in an effort to demonstrate that the glass, heavy metal, and plastic components of their phones were properly recycled. In the building construction materials category, 86 product families, including dozens of gypsum boards and adhesive sealants, have been certified.
According to William F. Hoffman III, senior scientist and corporate fellow at UL Environment, the standards used for the ECOLOGO certification program are multi-attribute and vary depending on the product or service covered by the standard. Restrictions on certain hazardous substances, for example, may require emissions testing or content testing using wet chemistry techniques. Testing using sweat or saliva simulants to extract substances from a product may be used to assess the availability of substances of concern. Energy-use tests may require lab bench measurement of electricity used by the product, sometimes under multiple use modes. Some standards have an end of life recyclability requirement, which is assessed by disassembly and determination of the recyclability of the parts of the product. Other products require functionality testing such as puncture testing for drywall or cleaning ability for soaps. In other words, the certification process can get quite complicated.
Testing takes a few hours to a few days in most cases, although some tests, such as those for biodegradability, may take months. The broad range of test methods employed for ECOLOGO certification,
and UL Environment’s effort to ensure consensus with standards developed by other authoritative bodies such as the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), International Organization for Standardization (ISO), International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and the US EPA, make the scientific credentials of UL Environment’s staff particularly important. “As we develop standards and when new test methods are proposed, our scientific background is essential to understanding if the proposed method will provide useful results. Criteria typically have a limit that can’t be exceeded, and the test method has to be sensitive enough to detect the substance of interest below that limit. In some cases, there may be several methods that could be used, but because of interferences from other substances in the product, only one method will provide valid results. Without a deep technical background it would be difficult to answer these questions and assure quality results in the testing,” Hoffman says.
WHERE DOES UL CONDUCT ITS PRODUCT TESTING?
Marietta, Georgia U.S.A
BY THE NUMBERS
Number of sustainable product specifications and purchasing guidelines in which GREENGUARD and ECOLOGO are referenced
The rough number of companies that offer products with GREENGUARD Certification
Rough number of products that are ECOLOGO certified
Percentage increase in products obtaining GREENGUARD certification since 2011
Number of Environmental Product Declarations that UL Environment has certified
ENVIRONMENTAL PRODUCT DECLARATIONS
Environmental Product Declarations Environmental Product Declarations are the rough environmental equivalent of the nutritional information found on the back of a cereal box: they tell the complete story of a product in a single written report, including information about a product’s environmental impact, such as global warming, ozone depletion, water pollution, and ozone creation. An EPD can also include other impacts that are of particular interest to the discloser, such as indoor air quality, carbon offsets, and corporate social responsibility. UL Environment has certified more than 300 EPDs, representing thousands of products.
EPDs do not rank products, and the existence of an EPD for a product does not indicate that any environmental performance criteria have been met. Rather EPDs are a disclosure tool that helps purchasers better understand a product’s environmental qualities and repercussions so they can make more informed product selections. About 90% of EPDS are used in the B2B sense. “Many architects, builders, and designers are picking up EPDS for one or two of the most important points that will help them better build in the most responsible way possible,” Steady says.
Sign up now to receive your one-year subscription (6 issues) to the print edition of Green Building & Design (gb&d), the magazine for today’s leading green professional.