When you first decide to dive into the world of sustainable design, the type and number of certifications and systems you need to learn can seem overwhelming. And then there are all those acronyms – LEED, ANSI, FSC, SFI, USGBC, MSDS, VOC, HAP, IAQ, SCS, ICMYC. OK, that last one was mine. It stands for “It Can Make You Crazy”. Anyway, some of these are certifications, and others represent standards or organizations. When it comes to certifications like FSC though, how do you know whether it’s important or not?
Essentially there are three types of certifications. “First party” certifications are the type a manufacturer gives to themselves. I refer to these as window dressing, because they may look nice, but they mean absolutely nothing if you want to know what’s inside. The next level is “second party”. These are where an industry trade group gets together to create a certification for some aspect of their product type, and then self-polices to make sure the standard is met. While some of these are useful for determining the environmental and social ramifications of a purchase, they are only as good or as stringent as the trade group feels like making them.
The final type of certification, and by far the most useful and relevant, is “third party”. This is where the rubber meets the road. Third party certifiers are neither manufacturers, nor trade groups. Instead they are independent entities, with specifically defined standards, and independent testing or procedures. Because they are not associated with the manufacturers or material sources they certify, there is little opportunity for bias or greenwashing.
One of the best examples of a third party certifier is the Forest Stewardship Council. Founded in 1992 in response to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, the FSC has since managed to certify over 105 million hectares (almost 260 million acres) of sustainably managed forest around the world. Becoming certified is a difficult process, requiring a great deal of documentation, inspection and effort. But the result is that once a company becomes certified, they can truly claim to be sustainable. (more…)