InterfaceFLOR’s new introduction, Raw is composed of 100% recycled yarn. It contains 40% less embodied energy and requires 85% less water to produce than carpet made with only 11% recycled fiber.

By Peter Greene, Vice President of Marketing, InterfaceFLOR*

As we head into Greenbuild this week, looking forward to learning about the industry’s latest “green” products is at the top of everyone’s minds. But how do you sort through all the “green” claims that have proliferated?  How do design professionals (and savvy consumers) know if there are hidden tradeoffs or if their decisions actually lead to a more sustainable world?

At InterfaceFLOR (and our sister residential brand, FLOR) we’ve thought long and hard about the issue.  On October 4-7 we’ll launch a communications campaign that aims to break through the information clutter and suggest a better way to navigate product claims. We’re calling it “The Complete Picture” and it’s based on the use of EPDs (Environmental Product Declarations), an internationally recognized, 3rd party verified way to report a products environmental impact.  Think of it as an environmental “nutrition label.”

We’ve learned a lot from the process of performing the Life Cycle Analyses that are at the heart of EPDs and we’ve found that the key is asking the right questions. What follows are four critical questions that you should ask manufacturers and other product sources at Greenbuild and beyond, so that you too can “Get the Complete Picture” and make your own informed decisions when specifying or purchasing products:

Question #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.

Question #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.

Question #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, including InterfaceFLOR, have followed. Data that historically has been labeled confidential and proprietary are now being made public via tools like EPDs.

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

Identifying the critical components is not always intuitive. In countless presentations, we’ve asked people to tell us which phase of the life cycle of carpet has the largest contribution to global warming. Even among a group of LCA practitioners, 95% 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.

Get the Complete 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 and demand that manufacturers do the same.

*Peter Greene joined InterfaceFLOR as Vice President, Marketing in October 2009. He brings 20 years’ experience marketing within the commercial interiors industry in the US and previously marketed and sold consumer products in the US, Latin America and Europe.  A swimmer, skier, singer and opera lover, Peter is a graduate of Middlebury College and The Wharton School. He lives in New York City.