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Green products: Giving products the green light

With the influx of eco product certification schemes in recent years, Laura Mark takes a look at some of the more
common and lesser-known alternatives

Ensuring the green products you specify really are green can be a difficult task. Manufacturers all make claims about how ‘eco’ and ‘green’ their products are and seeing through the initial greenwash can be tricky.

How can architects and specifiers confidently select materials and products with certainty that their environmental performance is really as specified?

There are myriad certification schemes out there which can help. Here we take a look at a few of the well-known and not so well-known ones.

Life Cycle Assessments

A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is used to measure the impact of a product over its life cycle from ‘cradle to grave’. It measures the impact of the product through a range of issues including material extraction, manufacturing, transport, packaging, construction and how the products are used within the building.

The LCA requires the manufacturer to provide full disclosure about how a product is made and what goes into it. They are defined by a global standard: ISO 14040.

Environmental Product Declarations

An Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) communicates the outcome of the Life Cycle Assessment. These have been standardised through ISO 14025, so theoretically they should be comparable between products. But there are a large number of different EPD schemes available, so in practice it can be similar to comparing apples with oranges.

EPDs are similar to nutrition labels on food packaging, but for construction materials. They provide verifiable and accurate environmental information for products. Information covered includes raw material extraction, energy use, emissions, water use and waste generation.

We are seeing the importance of EPDs grow. France has recently implemented a requirement to make it compulsory for manufacturers to provide EPDs, and it is expected that other European countries will soon follow suit. LEED also encourages the use of EPDs through extra credits.

BREEAM ratings

The first Green Guide to Specification was launched in 1996, and was aimed at providing a ‘simple green guide to the environmental impacts of building materials’. The Green Guide has been updated a number of times since then and is now available online through the BRE website.

The Green Guide consists of more than 1,500 typical specifications most commonly used in buildings. It assesses composite construction rather than individual materials, which can lead to problems if your desired specification isn’t currently included in the ratings.

Like EPDs, the ratings are based upon Life Cycle Assessments, however these are carried out based on BRE’s own Environmental Profiles Methodology.

The ratings are given in an A+ to E ranking system, with products that have an A+ rating having the best environmental performance. These take into account the following issues: climate change, water extraction, mineral resource extraction, ozone depletion, toxicity, disposal, and fossil fuel depletion.

The BREEAM Green Guide ratings have attracted criticism in the past. The Good Homes Alliance criticised its ‘lack of transparency and flawed methodology’.

It is the way it deals with carbon sequestration that causes those specifying materials for their eco-properties the most problems. In a report on the Green Guide, the Alliance for Sustainable Building Products, states: ‘In short the BRE environmental profiles methodology allocates no benefit to carbon storage and no benefit to end of life energy recovery and is thus extremely unfavourable to biogenic products and materials.’

Passivhaus certified products

As an independent authority, the Passive House Institute tests and certifies products based on their suitability for use in Passivhaus buildings. These products are tested in accordance with uniform criteria, relevant to achieving the Passivhaus standard.

Products and components which have been Passivhaus certified will most commonly only be used on Passivhaus projects as they often attract a premium pricetag.

When specifying for Passivhaus, it is important that products are not substituted or inferior alternatives used when it comes to construction, as this can jeopardise the final Passivhaus certification.

natureplus

natureplus is a certification standard which originated in Germany, and is still not widely adopted by UK product manufacturers, but it is beginning to gain traction with ‘deep green’ products.

Products which carry the natureplus standard have been tested for ‘health, environment-friendliness and functionality’. Generally, certified products are made from renewable and sustainably sourced materials.

Cradle to Cradle certification

Cradle to Cradle certification was created by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, after the publication of their seminal text Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. This scheme is administered by the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.

The Cradle to Cradle certification scheme rates products through a four-tiered approach: basic, silver, gold and platinum. It can apply to materials, assemblies, and finished products, and is based upon the following five categories: renewable energy, clean water, material health, social responsibility and material reutilisation.

Looking for at least one of these schemes can help to decipher the eco-claims. But take a look at what makes up the green product. Ask the manufacturer about where it comes from. Delve deeper into what the product is made from. Manufacturers of truly sustainable products will always be happy to answer.

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