Making Sense of International Certification Schemes

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Wednesday, November 26th, 2014
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Green building rating schemes and third-party certification schemes tend to go hand in hand, since certified products typically help with scoring points under a ratings scheme.

But the process can quickly become confusing when things play out on an international scale. With each country using their own green building ratings scheme (or schemes), combined with the range of different ecolabel programmes around the world, it can be difficult for manufacturers to know how their certified products can be used internationally, or how architects can navigate all the different ratings schemes and their various criteria.

While there may be a variety of different green building schemes around the world, they all have the same general goals in common. Green buildings are designed to be efficient with resource use, provide occupants with a healthy and productive working environment, and reduce the environmental impacts of waste, pollution and environmental degradation. Green building rating schemes exist to measure how well a building achieves these goals across its life cycle, often ranking its performance by assigning it a score.

The Green Building Council of Australia runs Australia’s equivalent through its Green Star ratings system. A Green Star rating ranges from 1 star (minimum practice – 10 points) to 6 stars (world leadership – 75 or more points), but the GBCA only formally certifies and recognises projects that achieve a minimum 4 stars (best practice – 45 points).

The system is essentially based on a framework of nine different categories, each of which include a set of credits that address certain environmental impacts. These credits have designated points values, and to earn points, certain criteria must be met. Depending on the criteria, there are a number of ways these can be met, one of which is using any number of “materials calculators.” This final score is then reported as a four, five, or six Green Star rating to describe how well the building adheres to certain environmental and health benchmarks.

Third-party certification, such as the ecolabel schemes run by Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA) and Global GreenTag, feeds into this ratings system in Australia. Products certified under GBCA recognised standards can contribute towards scoring 100 per cent of the points possible in certain areas of the calculator tools. They can cut down on the need to provide documentation and evidence, making such products an easier option to specify for projects seeking a Green Star rating.

But what about the architect who wants to use furniture that’s made in Sweden and carries the Nordic Swan ecolabel in a Green Star project? Or the Australian carpet manufacturer who wants to have their product used in the latest green building project in Hong Kong?

The Global Ecolabel Network (GEN) is the global peak body for Type-1 ecolabelling organisations based on the ISO 14024 standard. GEN promotes and represents world best practice in ecolabelling. GEN also runs the Global Ecolabelling Network’s Internationally Coordinated Ecolabelling System (GENICES) peer review programme, which affords another level of mutual international recognition between ecolabels that are GEN members.

For example, a chair manufactured in Sweden and certified under the GENICES-recognised Nordic Swan ecolabel could find the process of attaining certification elsewhere easier thanks to the GENICES system. If the manufacturer seeks certification under any other GENICES-recognised scheme (in Australia, this would be with GECA) and that scheme has an equivalent standard, they would most likely only require a “gap analysis” in order to get their product certified in that country, rather than having to go through the full process.

A “gap analysis” compares two equivalent standards from two different ecolabel schemes to find differences in criteria. If the original ecolabel’s standard has identical or stricter criteria compared to the other standard for which the product is seeking certification, there is no need to re-assess the product a second time. From our previous example, the Nordic Swan certified chair would only need assessment where GECA’s standards had different or stricter criteria. GENICES helps to streamline the process by minimising the number of audits required at the manufacturing site, and by reducing the need to re-submit certain documentation.

Of course, it is always up to each individual ecolabel programme – and even each green building ratings scheme – to decide how they will assess products or projects. GENICES serves to make international mutual recognition easier, but is not a cast-iron guarantee that products will be accepted for certification in another country. It also does not guarantee that certified products can count toward points in green building ratings schemes, as not all ecolabels are recognised by the green building councils in other countries.

However, GENICES does help in making international certification a more cost-effective process, and demonstrates that the ecolabels which have undergone its peer review process meet the high benchmarks set by GEN. While each product needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis, GENICES helps to facilitate that process and makes crossing borders a little easier for architects and manufacturers in the green building industry around the world.

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