When it comes to green product, deciding which way is up can be tricky. What makes a shoe “organic”? What does it mean for a store or headquarters to be LEED-certified? If a brand talks about a cradle-to-cradle product cycle, what are they saying? To separate the authentically sustainable from the greenwashed, you need to know the language. Here are some key phrases.
The Leather Working Group, or LWG, is a coalition of footwear brands (including New Balance, Nike, Pentland, The North Face and Timberland) and tanneries (including Asiatan and PrimeAsia). Facilitated by British leather experts BLC Leather Technologies Centre, the LWG established in 2005 an extensive audit protocol that ranks tanneries by 15 categories, including energy consumption, air emissions, hazardous waste management, water consumption and chrome management.
According to Adam Hughes, commercial director for North Hampton, England-based BLC, the brands fund the semi-annual meetings, where they review the protocol, forums and management of the group. The tanneries contract with BLC, or another independent auditing group, to conduct an audit, with results valid for 18 months. Hughes said that of the 70 or so tanneries worldwide that have undergone the audit, only a small number achieve the highest standards, which are awarded medal status: Six have achieved the highest level, gold; 18 have ranked silver; and 12 have earned bronze.
Hughes said the group, which most recently revised the audit criteria in October 2008, is adding more brands (some outside the footwear industry), and developing a way to rate individual leathers, or ranges of leathers, rather than just the tannery as a whole.
Want to know what tanneries have been scored? Get a list at Leatherworkinggroup.com of the tanneries that medaled on the 70-page, two-day audit. Want to go deeper? Hughes said membership is always open: The price to join is based on organization size and ranges from $1,500 to $10,000.
≥ Cradle to Cradle
The phrase “cradle to cradle” (or C2C) describes a holistic way of looking at product creation. It examines the impact of an item as it is created, used and then disposed of or reused (as opposed to looking at a product from “cradle to grave,” or creation to disposal). It’s been a part of the sustainability lexicon since the late 1970s, but the concept got its manifesto in 2002, when American architect William McDonough and German chemist and process engineer Michael Braungart released the book “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.”
The book — an outgrowth of the work they pursue at their design firm, MBDC — explored the idea that minimizing the harmful effects of a given item was not enough. Instead, they said companies should form efficient, closed-loop systems that create products that not only minimize the impact in creation but also can be reused, recycled or biodegraded at the end of their lives. “A lot of what we see is companies trying to minimize their footprint,” said Jay Bolus, VP of technical operations for MBDC. “Cradle to cradle is about maximizing the good things you’re doing.”
Need more examples of C2C? The “Cradle to Cradle” book (printed on polypropylene film, which the authors maintain can be more recyclable than paper) is available in bookstores and online. Have a product you want investigated? In addition to its consulting work, MBDC offers cradle-to-cradle product certification, evaluating submitted products on their material use, manufacturing process and whether the product can, in Bolus’ words, be “cycled perpetually.” The process takes two to nine months, with items rated as basic, silver, gold or platinum. While shoes have yet to be evaluated, earlier this year MBDC began an individual-ingredient approval process.
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, is a program sponsored by the U.S. Green Building Council. It assesses and certifies buildings and interiors that conform to certain standards of energy use, indoor air quality and sustainability — with a major focus on energy. According to a USGBC spokeswoman, “If you see a building that is LEED-certified, you know it’s producing less energy, recycling and even creating energy, and saving money on energy.”
Launched in pilot form in 1998, the program allows registered projects to be independently inspected and awarded points for energy and water use, materials used and carbon dioxide emissions, among other considerations. If it earns enough points, the project is given a ranking — LEED-certified, silver, gold or platinum — and given a plaque attesting to its ranking. The LEED program has standards (either established or in pilot form) to evaluate new constructions, existing buildings, retail spaces, core and commercial and retail interiors, among other things.
Participation in the LEED program has grown substantially: There are 2,122 LEED-certified projects in the U.S. (with the silver level of certification the most common, although there are almost as many gold and certified projects), with 17,450 more projects registered for future certification. Next week, LEED Version 3, an update to the current standards, will launch. According to the spokeswoman, the USGBC will continue to reevaluate and edit the criteria, with updates planned every two years.
Interested in pursuing LEED certification? Timetables and costs vary, but an average project takes around a year to certify and costs about $2,000. Learn more at Usgbc.org.
As with foodstuffs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture governs which textiles can be called organic and which can’t. But what does being “organic” mean? According to the USDA’s National Organic Program, organic crops are “raised without using most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage-sludge-based fertilizers.” In addition, regulations prohibit genetically engineered products, ionizing radiation and sewage sludge. Or, in brief: “As a general rule, all natural (non-synthetic) substances are allowed in organic production, and all synthetic substances are prohibited.”
To be legally called “organic” in the U.S., a given fabric must follow all the NOP’s guidelines, and all steps in the production, handling, processing and manufacturing of that fabric need to have been certified by an independent third party. A material certified to be made from only organic fibers and created with only organic processing aids can be labeled “100 percent organic.” A fabric can be labeled “organic” if it has a minimum of 95 percent organic fiber content with 5 percent non-organic substances (but no non-organic fibers — so using 5 percent conventionally grown cotton, for example, wouldn’t fly). Both kinds of product can attest to their bona fides by applying for the USDA’s organic seal.
Fabrics labeled with the more enigmatic “made with organic” tagline have no minimums for what percentage of the contents have to meet NOP standards, nor must they be manufactured in facilities that are certified. However, any fiber (cotton, hemp, etc.) that is called organic must be produced and certified to NOP standards.
Need to know what to ask? While “100 percent organic” (and even “organic”) is pretty straightforward, there’s a lot of wiggle room with the “made with organic” label. If pesticide- and sewage-sludge-free ingredients are important to you, ask for more details about how “organic” the product is.
≥Green Up: More Terms to Know
Carbon footprint: A measure of a given person/process/product’s impact on the environment through the amount of greenhouse gases it produces. Normally expressed in kilograms or tons of carbon dioxide.
Chrome tanning: A popular method of tanning that creates a supple, durable product, but the waste produced, if not properly treated, can introduce toxins into the water supply.
CSR: Corporate social responsibility. Many companies now have a position or a division that oversees the way the business impacts the people, places and partners with which it deals — and often includes its sustainability initiatives.
GHG: Greenhouse gases, which include carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, among others, are so named because they trap and retain heat in the atmosphere. The gases are pumped into the atmosphere by natural and man-made processes, including production and manufacturing, as well as through travel and transportation of people and goods. The increase in GHG in the atmosphere is, according to the EPA, “likely contributing to an increase in global average temperature and related climate changes.”
PET: Chemists know it as polyethylene terephthalate, but most civilians know PET better in textile form as polyester, or as the material that makes up their plastic soda bottles. In its recycled form, it’s often used in footwear for webbings, meshes and interior linings.
Vegetable tanned: Leathers that aren’t tanned using chrome are often treated with tannins created from vegetables, barks, insect shells and other organic matter, and are referred to as vegetable tanned or veg tanned. While there is no chrome disposal to worry about, the leather can be more pervious to water and comes in a more limited range of colors.
VOC: Volatile organic chemicals are gases emitted by many substances, including interior paints in office buildings, and glues, adhesives and solvents used in manufacturing. They are implicated in such short-term health issues as eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches and nausea, as well as longer-term problems including damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system, and cancer for workers who are exposed to them.