Furniture Trends: On The Level

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By Tom Reardon
Published in the May 2010 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Image: Created by Megan KnightA common issue for many buyers of environmentally preferable or “green” products is defining exactly what that term means. Whether referred to as green, sustainable, or environmentally preferable, the identification and procurement of products that have reduced environmental—and improved social—impact is a topic that seems to grow daily with no apparent sign of abating.

The commercial furniture industry, its customers, and relevant stakeholders have taken a proactive position in developing a common, consensus based set of metrics to help define the sustainable aspects of furniture. The standard and its supporting conformance verification (certification) program, called level™, provide a framework for the furniture industry to use in developing more sustainable products and processes. It also serves as a comparative tool for facility management (FM) customers seeking more sustainable products.

Establishing A Standard

In mid-2009, the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturer’s Association (BIFMA) International introduced the level product certification program. level certification verifies conformance to a fully transparent, multi-attribute furniture sustainability standard (BIFMA e3) that addresses all aspects of sustainability, including material use, energy and atmosphere impacts, human and ecosystem health, and social responsibility. Manufacturers evaluating products to the BIFMA e3 sustainability standard and undergoing an independent, third-party certification process can achieve the level conformance mark.

The commercial furniture industry has long been a leader in the quest for responsible manufacturing processes, facilities, and products. But the industry needed a common language, framework, and approach to help evaluate and improve the sustainability of its enterprises.

level includes a standard developed by a broad and diverse group of stakeholders following the American National Standards Institute consensus process. Modeled after the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED Rating System, the BIFMA e3 standard provides measurable, market based definitions of progressively more sustainable furniture.

Getting Certified

In order to achieve level certification, a manufacturer must contract with a recognized, independent, third-party certification body. That certification body then uses the BIFMA e3 sustainability standard as a framework to conduct an audit, measure all required information, and finally certify the specific product with the level conformance mark.

This mark is an easily identifiable but hard earned symbol of a company’s commitment to sustainability. Manufacturers that evaluate their products against the BIFMA sustainability standard without the third party auditing process are not eligible to use the level conformance mark, and their products are not considered level certified.

level has three conformance thresholds; level 1, level 2, or level 3 certification is based on the combined score achieved in the sustainability evaluation. level 3 is the highest award a product can achieve.

These thresholds are analogous to the silver, gold, and platinum rankings within the LEED rating system. However, they provide the flexibility to add new thresholds to the program in the future as the industry evolves to become even more environmentally and socially responsible.

Breaking Down The Criteria

In the level certification process, a product, as well as the organization and facilities that produce it, are scored according to sustainability criteria in the four areas of Materials, Energy and Atmosphere, Human and Ecosystem Health, and Social Responsibility. In order to be level certified, products must meet certain minimum requirements in each area and then must earn additional optional credits in order to achieve higher levels of conformance.

In a world of information overload and a rising tide of environmental claims, level is important because it provides a single, fully transparent way of understanding and communicating what a sustainable furniture product is. The standard provides a common, but challenging, set of criteria for furniture producers and their supply chain to evaluate the sustainable aspects of products. And level ensures that an independent, third party has conducted the conformance assessment.

BIFMA’s collective research, study, and understanding of sustainability will grow and evolve over time. The organization’s understanding of how to measure and evaluate the inherent tradeoffs associated with making informed environmental choices will gradually improve.

Today, consumers know more about making these choices than they did five years ago; in another five years, they’ll know even more. The proactive step the industry has taken with this standard attempts to put it at the forefront of the sustainability movement and commits the industry to continued leadership as sustainability measurement tools evolve to the benefit of manufacturers, its customers, and society in general.

Reardon is the executive director of the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturer’s Association (BIFMA) International, the North American trade association representing the interests of business furniture manufacturers and their suppliers. BIFMA’s mission is to lead, advocate, inform, and develop standards for the North American office and institutional furniture industry. For more information on the level program, visit the Web.

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