Monday, 8 April 2013

Muddy green - who certifies sustainable materials?

Once you start looking at one lot of dodgy green data, you start seeing problems everywhere. Either that, or the market for green credentialed products is maturing, and like with a good cheese, there is an inevitable smell associated with that.

In my previous blog post, Next insulation fiasco?, I was mainly concerned with issues related to declared thermal properties of insulating products. I was reporting a view held widely in the industry, that the declared R-values of a number of products were overstated. Within the bounds of normal caution, I was also suggesting that this is not an accident, and that possibly not all is well with how such material properties are certified.

In another product area altogether, the world of architectural textiles, the issues are slightly different. Sustainability is mainly to do with how products are sourced and manufactured. The value of certification comes about from acceptance of particular products under the multi-indicator rating tools such as the Australian Green Star, where you can get significant benefit from the award of points, automatically, for the use of such certified products.

It shouldn't be a great surprise, that this appears to have created an opportunity for commercial entities to provide the certification services. What may surprise many is that the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) gave the monopoly to certify all building products within the Green Star rating tool program to a body called Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA), whose founder and chairman at the time happened to privately own the company, Good Environmental Choice Services P/L (trading as Environmental Assurance) which was also granted by GECA the exclusive right to audit products being certified to GECA standards. This would not have been so bad, had the 'certificates' been one-off charges, as they are for thermal performance of a building assembly (however dodgy that may be). What really rankled with most in the industry was that the monopoly effectively allowed a private individual as owner of a private company, to benefit from a “tax” by way of a licence fee based on the sales turnover of every GECA certified product.

As has become apparent from the outcome of a long running court case when orders were made last November, this arrangement (already smacking of a financial rort), was aggravated by further restrictive practices misleading the market. If I understand the Court's orders correctly, it would seem that GECA was forcing furniture suppliers to use only GECA certified textiles, even though the GECA standard itself did not call for this, and with the clear conflict of interest whereby GECA was to benefit from the arrangement by way of royalties.

While the court case brought by one company (which was seriously disadvantaged by the arrangements) has gone some way to clearing up the matters at issue in the certification, the damage to the promotion of genuine green initiatives goes on. It became well known to specifiers that in regards to textiles, it has been simple to gain certification – the mills did not have to change any processes or chemicals used in production; the supplier had to pay the audit and royalty fees and suddenly they were 'green'.

For those who are genuinely committed to sustainability principles, the biggest problem in their view, has been that the GECA standards fail to drive positive change, and are resulting in business as usual. Their cynicism extends to the Green Building Council of Australia, whom they blame for lack of due diligence. It all has a cumulative effect holding back genuine market transformation, even while it rewards greenwash, or worse.


Robin Mellon said...

Hi Steve

I’d like to correct a few details in your blog post.

It is true that, when the Green Star rating system was launched in 2003, only Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA) certified products were ‘deemed to satisfy’ the best practice requirements of the material calculator credits in Green Star rating tools at that time.

However, the GBCA released its Assessment Framework for Product Certification Schemes in July 2009. This Framework clarified best practice benchmarks and established expectations for manufacturers and suppliers of fitout products, as well as for the certification schemes that are recognised through Green Star.

In the four years since then, the GBCA has recognised a range of product certification schemes and standards that meet the criteria Framework and achieved the required status. You will find a full list of compliant certification schemes on our website:

The GBCA is committed to supporting an open, transparent market, which is confirmed in the fact that all certification schemes can be recognised equally, provided they meet the stringent criteria outlined in the Assessment Framework for Product Certification Schemes.

Robin Mellon
Executive Director - Advocacy and Business Services
Green Building Council of Australia

Steve King said...

thanks for pointing that out.
Your comment made me go back to the Court case and orders that had piqued my interest, and I guess it is no coincidence that the case started in 2009. So even though the Court saw fit as late as December 2012 to order remedies for the effects of the restrictions on certification, at least some of my comments should be regarded as historical, rather than describing the situation today. Hopefully, any indifference of specifiers to the sustainability credentials of some materials will be reversed. It would be the outcome we all strive for.