Dimensions of Green

May 1, 2003
Schools can benefit by establishing sustainable purchasing practices for funiture and furnishings.

Most people recognize the importance of protecting the environment, but too few organizations factor environmental considerations into their purchasing decisions. Identifying and evaluating environmental criteria when buying furniture poses a challenge to purchasing professionals at schools.

There are many dimensions of “green” related to furniture and furnishings. Assessing products for their green attributes — how a product is manufactured, the materials used and the direct effect a product has on its environment — is complicated. Many products and materials are advertised as green; however, it is difficult to distinguish between valid claims and marketing exaggerations. Furthermore, the benefits and costs of choosing green furnishings often are unclear; it is difficult to associate tangible economic benefits with the use of environmentally friendly products.

Schools seeking to make sustainable purchasing decisions usually think first about criteria that broadly affect the environment: use of recyclable materials, environmentally sound manufacturing processes and use of recycled content. All these parameters are important and must be part of a sustainable procurement policy. Schools and universities benefit by advocating environmental and social responsibility to students, parents and staff.

It also is possible to realize significant financial benefits by incorporating sustainable considerations into procurement policies. Simple product quality provides financial and environmental benefits. Applicable procurement questions on product quality may include: How easily can the product be repaired? Will spare parts be available for years to come? Does the product have a long life span compared with similar products? Can the product be cleaned easily with soap and water?

Air quality

How a product affects indoor air quality (IAQ) can have economic consequences for a school or university. Chemicals that off-gas from a piece of furniture can affect the well-being of a building's occupants. Products that off-gas chemicals into the indoor environment for long periods can lead to odor complaints or even more serious problems. Exposure to these volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) can trigger respiratory diseases such as asthma and allergies, as well as minor health problems such as headaches, coughs, nosebleeds and dizziness. More serious health crises, such as cancer and reproductive and developmental problems, also have been associated with long-term exposure to certain VOCs.

The potential consequences of poor IAQ include loss of productivity, increased absences, litigation, building closures and a damaged reputation. All of these consequences translate into financial costs. The large amount of exposed surface area and the use of potentially high-emitting components such as adhesives, resins and composite wood products make furniture and furnishings especially prone to high chemical emissions. Therefore, many agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have included IAQ requirements for furniture in their procurement processes.

Added vigilance

Stricter procurement guidelines will require purchasing agents to be more vigilant. A policy may require manufacturers to provide documented verification of their green claims, preferably through third-party certification. Staff members may have to check compliance with federal, state and local environmental guidelines, and determine whether the manufacturer has established an environmental-management system.

Individual environmental programs created by a manufacturer should address raw materials, such as local origin of materials, and use of certified forest products, and environmentally and socially sound materials. Individual programs also should address a manufacturer's waste policy: Do they sort their waste? Do they use recycled materials? Do they have waste-reduction programs? A school also may consider how products are distributed. Does the manufacturer address this issue through increasing the load per truck, less transports, alternative energy sources or alternative modes of transportation?

Schools and universities can minimize the effort needed to acquire environmentally sound products by insisting on third-party certification of environmental claims, as well as choosing product standards for which information is readily available. For example, GREENGUARD is a certification and labeling program that addresses product-related indoor-air-quality performance. It is based on emissions requirements used by the state of Washington and the EPA. GREENGUARD Certification is one of the requirements for furniture and furnishings in the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership for Energy and Environmental Design for Commercial Interiors (LEED-CI) program. It is not affiliated with industry or trade organizations.

Another certification program is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification for wood from environmentally responsible managed forests. Including certification requirements in procurement specifications simplifies the process. The purchaser has to verify only that the product is certified. The manufacturer does not have to test its products to a variety of different standards in order to bid on a contract.

Establishing a comprehensive green procurement plan does involve some additional effort setting appropriate and manageable procurement standards. Individual schools and their procurement professionals must determine which green measures make sense. But even small, easy procurement steps will move institutions toward a more sustainable procurement policy.

Bloech is director of communications for the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute, a non-profit organization that oversees the GREENGUARD Certification Program, the only independent testing program for low-emitting products and materials. Access to the organization's product guide is available at www.greenguard.org.

Elements of sustainable purchasing

Some factors that schools and universities can include in sustainable purchasing practices:

  • Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

    The furniture can be reconditioned and reused, recycled or resold; arrangements can be made to return the furniture to the supplier for reuse, recycling or recovery; all major components are easily disassembled and replaced; all major components can be reused or recycled.

  • Ingredients/Contents

    The furniture's foams and insulation do not contain chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) or hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs); the wood materials used in the furniture are grown and harvested in a sustainable manner; exotic or tropical woods, such as mahogany, teak, rosewood or white oak, were grown and harvested in a sustainable manner; paint powder coating (or an acceptable alternative) is used as the paint-application method; metal and plastic parts contain recycled content, preferably including maximized post-consumer content; products are manufactured using water-based adhesives, high-solid paints and other low-VOC technologies; recyclable materials are built into the design of a product wherever possible and applicable.

  • Emissions/IAQ

    The finished product has been tested for VOC emissions by a third party to meet proven IAQ standards, and the manufacturer can provide verification documentation.

  • Corporate guidelines

    The manufacturer has established an environmental-management plan that controls overall environmental sensitivity, and corporate environmental and occupational health policies, including pollution control and strategies for energy and resource conservation and worker health and safety; the manufacturer has a waste-reduction policy (recycling, waste sorting, reducing waste amounts); the manufacturer has a transportation-reduction policy (increasing load per truck, less transports, using alternative energy sources or forms of transportation).

Indoor air quality pays off

A product's indoor environmental performance has a direct effect on a building's occupants, and organizations can realize substantial economic benefits through good indoor air quality (IAQ). Cost-benefit analyses have been published in recent years that show how small IAQ improvements can lead to great returns.

Consider the following scenario: If an office worker who earns $30,000 a year loses 20 minutes (4 percent) per day because of headaches, respiratory problems or other irritations caused by poor IAQ, this 20 minutes will cost the organization $1,250 annually ($5 per day times 250 work days) in lost work hours. For 100 employees in a 15,000-square-foot building, this cost will add up to $125,000 per year in lost productivity or $8.33 per square foot per year.

Schools and universities can realize additional benefits by demonstrating commitment to high-quality indoor environments. Good IAQ fosters excellence in academic performance and communicates a school's dedication to its staff and students.

Specifying low-emitting products can be daunting. Understanding VOC-emission test reports seems to require an advanced chemistry degree. Widely accepted third-party certification and labeling programs empower purchasing professionals to write indoor-air-quality requirements into purchasing specifications, provide high-quality indoor environments, and reap the financial and public benefits of good IAQ.

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