Environmental Standards

Environmental Standards

By Arthur B. Weissman, Ph.D., President and CEO, Green Seal

For over fifty years the manufacturing sector has been bombarded by standards to improve it. The development of total quality management practices in the 1950s and 60s led to the ISO 9000 series of standards in the 1980s for quality management and assurance. Then, the advent of environmentally responsible business practices led to the issuance in the 1990s of ISO 14001, the Environmental Management Systems (EMS) standard. Other related standards in the 14000 series cover such manufacturing matters as environmental declarations and life-cycle assessment.

Can a manufacturer feel satisfied that the ISO 9000 and 14000 standards suffice for guiding and verifying its environmental practices? Since so many companies, particularly outside the United States, have embraced these two approaches, particularly certification to 9001 and 14001, should a manufacturer aspire to anything more?

The answers are no and yes, respectively. ISO 9001 and 14001 are good foundations for environmentally responsible manufacturing practices, but they may not be sufficient to ensure that a manufacturer is demonstrating leadership in its industry in using sustainable practices or producing more sustainable products.

Manufacturers should be aware of the higher, more specific levels of sustainability which they can achieve beyond what ISO requires. In essence, as generic standards for all of industry, the ISO 9000 and 14000 standards can only work at the systems level, not at the performance level. They can provide guidelines for what systems a manufacturer can put in place to ensure compliance with environmental laws, consistent reduction in waste and environmental impact, involvement of external stakeholders, etc. But these standards cannot specify what levels of impact, waste, or other environmental or health attribute a manufacturer of a particular type of product should achieve, nor what represents leadership in that manufacturing sector.

This is where product-specific standards come in. An environmental leadership standard for a product category subsumes the requirements of the ISO 9001 and 14001 standards in that it requires consistent production that is legally compliant and that goes beyond compliance in a number of important environmental parameters specific to that product category. Such a standard, whether for paints, windows, cars, chemical products, or paper, specifies the environmental performance that is expected and achievable by a leading manufacturer of that product.

A number of organizations – governments, non-profits, industry trade associations, and standards organizations – develop and issue product-specific standards, and these may include criteria for one or more environmental attributes (e.g., energy efficiency). Generally, however, the product standards issued by industry trade groups or related standards organizations represent accepted good practice levels – what a reputable manufacturer should consistently be able to achieve with every product. If a manufacturer wants to be a true leader in sustainability, it must look to independent programs for product standards and certification. Such programs are provided by third-party environmental certification organizations like Green Seal.

Green Seal is a non-profit organization based in the United States which has set environmental leadership standards for nearly 400 categories of products and services and certifies those that meet the standards. Green Seal is actually one of about three dozen similar programs around the world that engage in life-cycle-based, multi-attribute certification of a number of different categories of products and services (such programs are known as Type I in ISO 14020 parlance). These programs have formed an association known as the Global Ecolabelling Network to strive for harmonization among their standards and promotion of their programs.

One important distinction between Green Seal and Type I programs and the majority of other environmental labels, such as Energy Star, is that the former are based on a variety of environmental and health attributes that are significant in the life-cycle of a product or service. Many other environmental labels are based on single attributes such as energy efficiency, water efficiency, biodegradability, volatile compound content, recycled content or recyclability, absence of a particular toxin, etc. While single-attribute labels can be useful and important, they do not necessarily capture the full environmental and health profile of a product or service as multi-attribute ones do.

More relevant to manufacturers, life-cycle-based product standards consider what happens in the manufacturing process, and criteria for the latter are included if these impacts loom large in the life-cycle of the product. For example, the life-cycle of paper products, whether recycled or virgin, is defined largely by raw material extraction and the manufacturing process; in the latter, energy and water use are big impacts along with effects on air and water quality.

Consequently, the Green Seal standard for tissue and towel paper (GS-1) includes criteria limiting the energy and fresh water that can be used in manufacturing each ton of final product. Reports on air and wastewater monitoring as well as on solid waste from manufacturing are also required. Strict limits or prohibitions are included for bleaching agents (e.g., chlorine is not allowed) and additives (e.g., optical brighteners are restricted to a low level), and additives to the process must generally be biodegradable. Similarly, the Green Seal standard for printing and writing paper (GS-7) requires either that they are made with significant post-consumer recycled content or that they adhere to restrictions on chemicals used in the process of deinking or bleaching.

Many other Green Seal product standards address the ingredients that may be used in manufacturing the product. Primarily, this comes in the form of restrictions or prohibitions on toxic chemicals, such as carcinogens, reproductive toxins, mutagens, heavy metals, known endocrine disruptors, asthmagens, aquatic toxins, ozone-depleting compounds, etc. Such criteria ensure that both the final product and the manufacturing process are not loaded with harmful chemicals.

There are numerous benefits for a manufacturer in following the environmental leadership standards Green Seal sets, and even more for obtaining its third-party certification. First and foremost, the standards represent a highly technical and deliberative effort to identify the key attributes of a more sustainable product in a given category. The standards are developed in an open and transparent process with stakeholders from many different groups represented, typically including manufacturers, trade associations, government, academia, public interest groups, and environmental groups. Hence, the standards are excellent roadmaps for manufacturing more sustainable products.

Secondly, by following the standards and then going the next step of getting certified to them, manufacturers can demonstrate with the credibility of a third-party organization that they are in fact making more sustainable products. Manufacturers must realize that customers generally trust a third-party certification more than its own environmental claims or purported conformity to a standard. A Green Seal certification, for example, carries with it a reputation for credibility built over 26 years and thousands of certified products and services.

Returning to the original point, the certification that ISO provides in ISO 9001 and 14001 does give a good framework for more sustainable manufacturing processes and products. But, like the old joke about a 9001-certified factory producing a concrete life-preserver perfectly to spec every day, a 14001-certified factory may fall short in producing a truly sustainable product or one that would meet a Green Seal standard. In both cases, the emphasis on process and management structure cannot substitute for specific performance goals for production or products. Environmental leadership standards such as Green Seal’s – and those of the three dozen other ecolabeling programs around the world – do provide specific environmental and health targets for products, including the manufacturing process. Manufacturers would be well-advised to consult these standards, consider following them, and apply to have their products certified to them.

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