When designers and other building professionals page through materials for project specifications, there’s a lot of information to sort through. In particular, information about a product’s sustainability and health effects can be easily misinterpreted amongst a wide agglomeration of labels, certifications, and declarations. How should designers parse through this information in order to evaluate whether a material has toxic ingredients or if it was harvested responsibly? The information that follows will focus on setting the record straight when it comes to one particular source of confusion: the difference between declarations and certifications. Declarations and certifications are often used interchangeably, but the information they provide is actually quite different.
A declaration is a verified document that provides transparent information about a product’s environmental or health performance and its material ingredients. It might be based on information about a product’s life cycle assessment (LCA) data, or any relevant information about its impact on the environment and health. Unlike a certification, a declaration isn’t an endorsement—it doesn’t indicate that a product has performed particularly well, or that it complies with environmental standards. In fact, it might even reveal harmful chemical ingredients. Instead, declarations provide qualifiable, transparent information that can be used to facilitate comparisons between similar products.
Declarations are managed by accredited operators, which could be a company, an industrial sector or trade association, a public agency, or an independent scientific organization. Each of these operators establishes their own standards and their declarations provide different kinds of product information.
Some of the best-known declarations include:
- Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) provide information about the environmental impact of a product across its life cycle, according to standards established by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). In order to publish an EPD in the international EPD database, manufacturers must perform a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and verify their findings with an accredited certification body or verifier.
- Health Product Declarations (HPDs) are standardized reports used to disclose the ingredients in building materials, as well as any potential health effects or hazards. They include findings based on scientific, toxicological, and epidemiological research, but this information isn’t presented in terms of the risk of exposure to a given product. HPDs are managed by the nonprofit Health Product Declaration Collaborative (HPDC).
- The Declare Label is a transparency initiative developed and administered by the environmental NGO International Future Living Institute (ILFI). It is based on disclosure of product ingredients, sourcing, and end of life options. Unlike EPDs and HPDs, Declare labels include a designation about whether the product is in compliance with the Red List (ILFI’s list of hazardous substances).
Declarations can also help manufacturers qualify for transparency credits in certifications and green building rating systems. For example, an EPD can be applied to frameworks like LEED or BREEAM, Declare labels can contribute to the Living Building Challenge or LEED, and HPDs can be used in tandem with various green building programs and standards, including LEED, BIFMA, WELL, and Clean Production Action.
Declarations can be published as labels on a product and can also appear in product literature, technical bulletins, online databases, or advertising. The documents themselves tend to be technical, and often require interpretation and evaluation. For designers and building professionals who aren’t familiar with all of the specialized information in a declaration, this can present a bit of a hurdle. Material specification is made much more efficient with an expert’s interpretation – and that’s something that certifications provide.
A certification is a third-party endorsement of a product, project, process, or system that is in compliance with a given standard. While declarations provide information that needs to be assessed, certifications are the assessment. Of course, assessments can vary significantly in method and philosophy – some are more rigorous and hold products to higher standards, and some focus on a single factor, like water use or social equity, or a single material, like wood or textiles.
Like declarations, the most rigorous certification systems are objective and delegate evaluation, testing, and awarding of certifications to an independent third-party organization with no connections to product manufacturers, contractors, designers, or other involved parties. Evaluators are experts in their fields, from chemical engineers to toxicologists, so they’re well qualified to make these kinds of determinations.
Certifications that assess many factors are called multi-attribute programs. They typically use life-cycle parameters to examine factors like energy use, emissions, toxicity, and end of life options. Green building rating systems are a kind of multi-attribute certification that evaluate entire projects, using a holistic approach to evaluate a building’s whole life cycle, from sourcing and design to construction, operation, maintenance, renovation, and end of life. They can be applied to building projects of any scale, from products to buildings and even entire neighborhoods.
There are many certifications and building rating certification systems, but some of the most well-known include:
- Cradle to Cradle is a product standard that incentivizes environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing practices that take into account the whole life cycle.
- LEED is the world’s most widely used certification system and standard for green buildings and communities.
- The Living Building Challenge and the Living Product Challenge are certification programs administered by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) that advance sustainability in the built environment.
- SCS Global FloorScore Certification assesses the indoor air emissions of resilient and hard surface flooring materials.
- Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Certification evaluates wood products, paper, and packaging items according to social, environmental, and economic standards.
- WELL is a building standard that assesses the impact of the built environment on human health.
Just as declarations can give products a boost to qualify for certain credits in certifications and green building rating systems, some certifications can work in tandem with other, larger scale certifications. For example, product certifications like Cradle to Cradle, FSC, and FloorScore qualify for credits in building rating systems like LEED, WELL, and the Living Building Challenge.
Certifications and declarations are great ways to determine whether a product, building, or process meets certain standards, but they aren’t accessible to all manufacturers and project managers. The cost of acquiring certifications and declarations can be inhibitive for smaller businesses and projects with budget restrictions. They also need to be renewed regularly – sometimes as frequently as once per year—a process that incurs significant fees. It’s important to keep in mind that even if a product doesn’t display the industry’s best-known labels, it still might be worth looking into, and could be adhering to high standards despite not bearing the pricey logo.