Are Your Products Environment-Responsible?

Are your products environment-responsible?
An interview with Arthur Weissman, PhD, President and CEO, Green Seal, Inc.
In recent years, environmental concerns have become more and more important for stakeholders to consider when building new facilities, as well as when maintaining their current ones. Using environmentally sound products and services is significant not only for the long-term health of our planet but for the long-term health of our population-perhaps none more so than long-term care residents, who because of their circumstances generally spend the vast majority of their time inside the facility, and are therefore profoundly affected by their surroundings.

One of the most significant organizations at work in the field today is Green Seal, Inc., a nonprofit group that specializes in promoting the purchase and production of environmentally responsible products and services, many of which are used in the LTC field. Nursing Homes/Long Term Care Management Assistant Editor Todd Hutlock recently spoke with Green Seal President and CEO Arthur Weissman, PhD, about product certification, the importance of being concerned with environmental matters, and the potential effects on human health and wellness.

Can you provide a brief history of and background on Green Seal, Inc.?
Dr. Weissman:
We were founded 15 years ago. I’ve been with the organization since 1993, starting as vice-president of certification, and I became president and CEO at the end of 1996. Our mission is to improve the environment by focusing on the products and services in the economy and trying to make them more environmentally responsible or sustainable. We are one of the first organizations that focused on making the economy more sustainable and thereby helping to improve the environment that way. Our flagship program is to set leadership environmental standards for various product and service categories, and to certify products and services that meet those high leadership-level standards.

We were originally founded with an eye on the consumer market, and we found in the United States that was rather a challenge and it required brand recognition. Our seal is in effect a brand; it is actually a registered certification mark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, but to use it in the consumer context would be like introducing a brand. However, we knew it would require a great deal of resources and effort to get that type of brand recognition in the consumer market. So we switched to a more institutional focus in terms of the products and services that we focus on and the associated manufacturers and service providers. Along with that, we started working with some large institutional purchasers as a way of leveraging the market toward green products and services. We started working with the federal government, as well as state and local governments, and with nongovernmental institutions such as the World Bank and universities.

We also have worked with various industry sectors over the years, targeting specific industries that we want to work with. For instance, we’ve done a lot of work with the lodging industry-hotels, motels, and such-because it is really a microcosm of all types of buildings and facilities and, like nursing homes, they bring all sorts of different products and services into a single location.

What exactly does Green Seal certification mean?
Dr. Weissman:
This is something that is very important to explain clearly because the certification and the seal that represents it go on product labels and advertisements and the like, and by federal law, those things have to be very clear. The Federal Trade Commission has very strict guidelines on what kinds of claims are made about products, particularly in the environmental marketing area.

That said, Green Seal certification means that a product or service meets the applicable environmental standards that we have set. These standards are available either on our Web site or by contacting us directly, and they contain explicit criteria. We are trying to set standards at leadership levels for a product or service in the existing and emerging market, so that the products or services that we certify are those that have the best environmental performance of all similar products or services in the market. That concept of a leadership level is key. Certification is not exclusive-a number of products in the same category can be Green Seal certified, meaning that they all have met the standard. However, not many products will be certified overall because they are leadership standards-meaning only the cream of the crop will qualify. Maybe 15 to 20% of the products might be eligible to be certified. If we started to see a much higher percentage than that being certified, that would mean we didn’t set the standards high enough or they now have to be revised.

What are some basic criteria and standards, and how are they developed?
Dr. Weissman:
Our criteria are set on the basis of extensive technical and scientific evaluation of the product in terms of the life cycle of that product. The life cycle of a product is the entire history, if you will, of a product’s development, manufacturing, use, and end of life. Typically, we’re talking about the raw materials that are extracted from the earth and then processed in manufacturing to make the product. Next, there is the transportation of the product to the user, followed by the actual use of the product and the impact of this on the environment and human health. Finally, there is the end-of-life stage, i.e., what happens when the product can no longer be used: Can it be recycled, reused, or refurbished, or is it simply disposed of? Each of these stages has a different effect on the environment and human health, and each product category essentially has its own life-cycle environmental profile.

To give an example of two very distinct life-cycle profiles, look at a lightbulb. It has some impacts in the raw materials and manufacturing stages, but the use has a very high impact because of all the energy that goes into activating that lightbulb, particularly incandescent bulbs. Contrast the lightbulb with paper products. There is relatively little if any environmental impact at the use stage, but there are significant impacts in the manufacturing and extraction phases-getting the fibers from the forest, manufacturing the pulp and making the paper, etc. The end of life of paper poses serious problems, as well, since most paper is unnecessarily disposed of in landfills and constitutes a significant percentage of their volume.

This contrast illustrates why we try to consider all the different relevant environmental attributes of a particular product or service. We’re not just looking at recycled content or biodegradability or toxicity or whether the packaging is recyclable-we’re looking at all of the things that are significant in the life cycle of the product. This sets us apart from a number of other programs, such as ENERGY STAR or other government programs, which may only focus on one particular attribute. We develop our environmental standards based on this type of evaluation, and we develop criteria for each of these important attributes. It is explicitly stated what level these products must meet in each of these areas to be certifiable.

As for developing the criteria and the standards, we start with research into the life cycle of the product and any significant environmental impact of the product category. We’ll check to see what studies may have already been done and often do our own research into aspects of the product’s life cycle. We also use experts in the field-for example, from universities, public interest groups, and industry-and companies may provide research data, as well. Then we try to put it all together and come out with a proposed standard based on these evaluations, and we publish that as a draft standard for comment from all stakeholders. We will then evaluate comments and make changes to the standard as needed. Then, we will issue a final standard with a response-to-comments document.

Is there any judgment implied as to the quality or efficacy of certified products?
Dr. Weissman:
Only to the extent that there is always some judgment in terms of the scientific and technical understanding of things and where we have set the line for a leadership level. Typically, we survey the market when we are setting standards so we can have a sense of the array of environmental performance of all of the products in the market, but there is always a little bit of judgment involved in setting the lines to ensure that we are capturing the leaders, but not setting standards so high that no products can meet them.

As far as efficacy goes, we always include basic functional performance criteria in our standards because we do not want to promote products that do not work or do not perform the function for which they are intended. That would not give us a good name, nor would it give green products a good name. If it doesn’t work, people will pick it up, use it once, throw it away, and never use a product that claims to be an environmental product again. Hence, it is very important to us that these products perform well. We have spent an inordinate amount of time developing functional performance criteria for various product categories, because it is often the case that the industry may have test methods but not have actual criteria for performance. We sometimes have to develop them ourselves, which is not our primary purpose, but this may be necessary to our process.

How are the product reviews and testing actually conducted?
Dr. Weissman:
We do an extensive and very intense, detailed evaluation of each product that is submitted for certification. We really have to know unambiguously whether the product meets each criterion in any given standard. When there are data that need to be derived from testing, we do not conduct that testing ourselves, but we require that the data come either from a reputable laboratory or from the manufacturer, if its laboratory is ISO 9000’certified.

This brings to mind something that applies to many products that might be used in long-term care facilities, particularly cleaning and janitorial products. Often, the final manufacturer gets ingredients from other manufacturers and, curiously, it doesn’t know everything that is in those ingredients. We have to know those things, and so we have to really track those things down to make sure they meet the criteria of the standards. That sometimes means that we have to go back far into the supply chain to find out what is really in an ingredient, or the ingredients of the ingredient, and so on.

While our standards and criteria are all open and transparent, the actual product reviews are not because of the confidentiality of business information that we have to preserve. Also, we don’t publish information on any products that do not pass certification. We try to promote positive things, products that meet the standards. When we get products that don’t pass, we usually work with the manufacturers and advise them on what changes they have to make to meet our standards. In the rare case that we do find something truly egregious, we tell the manufacturer, “Hey, you’d better change that!” But we’re basically a market-incentive program, and we are trying to promote good behavior in the marketplace as opposed to pointing fingers at people.

How do you get the word out about Green Seal?
Dr. Weissman:
In addition to the actual Green Seal logo that appears on certified products, we have a list of certified products on our Web site [] that is accessible to anyone. Manufacturers of certified products often use the Green Seal logo in their product advertising. In cases of product categories in which we don’t have a standard or certified products, we may still have some criteria that we can share or a technical report we have done-our so-called “Choose Green” reports-that simply recommends products, even if we haven’t officially certified them. We also do a lot of work with large institutional purchasers and in doing so, we steer them toward these certified or recommended products.

There are additional ways that we get information out to the marketplace. For example, a number of states and federal agencies have now specified some of our standards for their purchasing in their formal bids that they put out for manufacturers to respond to. That communicates to the market something about what purchasers are looking for and the environmental standards that they want products to meet.

We also have been involved with the U.S. Green Building Council, whose LEED« program has cited several of our standards within its standards for green buildings.

Are there any recent developments or plans moving forward at Green Seal?
Dr. Weissman:
Product certification is our flagship program; it is finally coming into its own and is now becoming a force in the marketplace. We’re seeing lots of interest from purchasers and from manufacturers wanting to get their products certified. That means we want to develop more and more environmental standards for products and services, and we recently launched the development of a standard for cleaning service providers, both commercial and residential. This will encompass chemical cleaners, paper products like tissue and towels, equipment, procedures, staff training, and more. It will be a comprehensive and complex standard, and there is a lot of interest out there from building service contractors and some residential cleaners, as well as suppliers to these various companies. It will take the rest of this year and perhaps into 2006 to develop the standard. We are going to have lots of stakeholder involvement and hopefully we will have a consensus on the final criteria, and then we will begin certifying actual cleaning services.

We have other standards in the wings, but none that are this far along yet. We have possibilities we are exploring in the paint category, in paper, in disinfectants, and in other categories.

How do you see Green Seal affecting the long-term care industry?
Dr. Weissman:
Green Seal’s general mission is to improve the environment, but we have focused a lot in recent years on building operation and maintenance because it not only has significant environmental impacts, but significant human health impacts, as well. We are all beginning to realize that many chronic diseases can be derived, and not just aggravated, from environmental causes such as the buildings in which we all live and work. Cleaning has a lot to do with whether the sources of these irritants are removed or potentially even increased through the products and equipment that are used. I think a lot of the work that we’re doing with cleaning products and services specifically is going to be very important for healthcare overall, and for long-term care in particular. In long-term care, people are for the most part confined to their buildings, and therefore, they have to breathe that air and live around those products that may be affecting their health around the clock. They don’t have the option to leave, or to have the building cleaned at night when they aren’t there as you or I might go home. There is simply no escape from it for them, and they are also, just like children, a more vulnerable population, making cleanliness and environmental health even more important. For reasons like this, the Green Seal organization feels that it is doing a service to the health of our entire population, particularly the more vulnerable segments such as children and seniors, as well as to the sustainability of the environment.

Arthur Weissman, PhD, is President and CEO of Green Seal, Inc. For more information on Green Seal, phone (202) 872-6400, e-mail, or visit To send your comments to the editors, e-mail To order reprints in quantities of 100 or more, call (866) 377-6454.

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