Fortunately, as the green building industry expands, so does the availability of sustainable products, as well as resources and tools to assist project teams in making appropriate informed evaluations and selections.
For conventional construction projects, the selection of building materials requires evaluation and consideration of aesthetics, performance, schedule and cost. In sustainable construction, these conventional considerations are expanded to include products that reduce impacts on human health and the environment. Project teams are increasingly seeking sustainable attributes and certifications in building products. Sustainable products are widely recognized as having lower environmental and human health impacts than typical products in the same category.
The growing number of green building standards, such as U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and the International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge, are creating an increased demand for sustainable building products and, as a result, the demand for sustainable attributes and certifications for these products. Evaluating environmental and human health impacts can be complex, further confused by varying product claims, ever-evolving green building standards requirements that relate to sustainable products, as well as a market saturated with third-party certifiers, testers and verifiers. Fortunately, as the green building industry expands, so does the availability of sustainable products, as well as resources and tools to assist project teams in making appropriate informed evaluations and selections.
What makes a sustainable product?
This is a question that many government agencies, architects, designers, contractors and even DIYers are asking. There are a wide range of certifications and attributes manufacturers can use to promote their products as sustainable. Some products are promoted based on their reduced environmental impacts when compared to a baseline environmental performance in a life cycle assessment (LCA). Other manufacturers transparently communicate their products’ ingredients’ impacts on human health. Some identify their social impacts and commitment to all of their stakeholders, including employees, individuals throughout the supply chain, communities, installers and consumers. Some claim their products are developed with careful attention to research and development, the manufacturing processes and packaging choices. Most focus on single attributes, such as recycled content, carbon footprint and VOC content and emissions, while others evaluate impacts on both human health and the environment (multi-attribute).
The sustainable attributes of a product advise project teams that a product has met a standard and offers either environmental or health benefits; they also eliminate greenwashing — misleading or unsubstantiated claims about the environmental and health benefits of a product. Sustainable products with third-party certification are considered the most valuable among green building standards and certification systems. Third-party certification means a product has been independently verified as meeting environmental and/or health standards. They offer assurance to architects, designers, specifiers and consumers that a product’s claims reflect its sustainable attributes. As a result, as the demand for products with sustainable attributes in the building market continues to increase, so do the number of sustainable product certifications.
Consequently, there are an overwhelming number of sustainable product certifications and attributes. Even for an informed person, it can be difficult to absorb all of the information provided. Consumers should not be expected to analyze each of these certifications and attributes. This has not hindered the growth of these sustainable attributes as there is an increasing number of single- or multi-attribute human health and environmental criteria. In addition, the certifications and attributes of sustainable products can vary significantly depending on the product type. All sustainable attributes are important, however, based on the product type, some are more important than others. For instance, the sustainable attributes of concrete mix are different than the sustainable attributes of wood doors, both of which are different from the sustainable attributes of tile and tile-setting materials. It is more important for a concrete mix to have recycled content or inject CO2 into the mix to reduce its carbon footprint than it is to have VOC emissions certification. In comparison, tile-setting materials should have third-party tested and certified VOC emissions; however, both should have an Environmental Product Declaration based on their product types.
Due to these variabilities, assessing sustainable product certifications and attributes requires a deeper understanding of every product’s potential impacts on human health and the environment, third-party standards and certifications for both green buildings and green products, and the availability of products in the building market including aesthetics, performance, cost, and sustainable attributes.
Tile and Tile-Setting Materials’ Sustainable Certifications and Attributes
As suggested above, there is a wide range of sustainable terminology that has been developed for building products. Tile and tile-setting materials may have the following sustainable certifications or attributes.
Embodied Carbon – Embodied carbon refers to greenhouse gas emissions arising from the extraction, manufacturing and installation process, this is different than operational carbon (post-installation/post-occupancy greenhouse gas emissions). While there are practices to reduce operating impacts, many are still learning how to reduce carbon impacts during the manufacturing process. Project teams can take steps to make significant upfront impacts in the design and construction process. For example, evaluate flooring options and choose lower carbon options. Research shows that tile is among the lowest embodied carbon energy producers when compare to other flooring types.
Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) - An EPD is a document that describes the lifecycle environmental impacts of a building product. To create an EPD, a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is first used to calculate a product’s environmental impacts such as global warming potential and ozone depletion throughout the product’s lifecycle, including raw material extraction, transportation, manufacturing, packaging, use and disposal at end of life. There are several types of EPDS available based on various stages of EPD development.
Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) - Reclamation programs that allow consumers to return tiles at the end of their useful life. Some tile manufacturers practice EPR through take back programs -- tile considered damaged, scrap or otherwise waste is returned to participating manufacturers for recycling and reuse. These programs reduce burdens on landfills while minimizing the demand for raw materials.
Green Squared -- The Green Squared certification is the tile industry’s first multi-attribute sustainability certification. This certification was developed by TCNA to recognize tile and tile-setting materials are in conformance with ANSI A138.1 (a sustainability product standard) and third-party certified to that standard. Green Squared certification provides authenticity that manufacturers have met the criteria in all categories, including environmental product characteristics, environmental product manufacturing and raw material extractions, end of product life management, progressive corporate governance and innovation.
Inherently Non-Emitting -- LEED defines products that are inherently non-emitting sources of VOCs (stone, ceramic, powder-coated metals, plated or anodized metal, glass, concrete, clay brick and unfinished or untreated solid wood flooring) are considered fully compliant without VOC emissions testing if they do not include integral organic-based surface coatings, binders or sealants. Ceramic and porcelain tile products have zero VOCs and meet the requirements of inherently non-emitting. (Source: https://www.usgbc.org/credits/new-construction-core-and-shell-schools-new-construction-retail-new-construction-data-38)
Material Ingredient Report -- Material ingredient disclosures focus on the negative effects that building materials have on human health and wellness. Currently, regulations do not require manufacturers or their suppliers to disclose product information beyond their Safety Data Sheets (SDS). However, manufacturers may offer disclosures of their product’s ingredients. There are several reports or declarations that provide chemical ingredient disclosure information, including Manufacturer’s Inventory (MI), Health Product Declarations (HPDs), Cradle to Cradle Material Health Certificate, Declare Label, UL Product Lens and more.
Recycled Content -- Recycled content refers to the percentage of materials in a product diverted from waste streams. Products with recycled content can potentially reduce the environmental impacts resulting from the extraction and processing of virgin materials. Tile and tile-setting materials typically incorporate pre- and post-consumer recycled content.
- Pre-consumer recycled content is a material that was removed during the manufacturing process and reused in an alternative process before consumer use. An example of Pre-Consumer Recycling: a tile manufacturer that purchases rejected porcelain from a plumbing fixture manufacturer and incorporates the material into their tile manufacturing process.
- Post-consumer recycled content is reclaimed product that has already been used by a consumer and would have been otherwise discarded as waste if the material was not recycled. For example, for every 100,000 square feet of MAPEI’s Mapesonic RM that is installed, approximately 1,400 tires are diverted from a landfill.
Regional Materials -- Many products travel significant distances before arriving at the project site. The impacts associated with transportation can be significant, including increased gas emissions. Selecting locally sourced products supports the use of indigenous resources and the local economy. Tile and tile-setting material manufacturers can provide manufacturing locations; this attribute does not require third-party certification.
Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) Content -- Tile-setting materials can contribute to green building standards and certification systems by carefully selecting adhesives and sealants that meet established indoor air quality standards. The South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) Rule #1168 dictates VOC content for tile adhesives and sealants, and manufacturers typically provide this information on technical data sheets.
VOC Emissions -- While tile is exempt from VOC emissions testing, tile-setting materials are not. Third-party VOC emissions testing is required for most green building standards and certification systems, including LEED, Living Building Challenge and WELL. Tile-setting materials must be tested and determined compliant in accordance with California Department of Public Health (CDPH) Standard Method version 1.2-2017. The array of VOC emissions certifications available can be daunting; third-party certifying programs include FloorScore, SCS Indoor Advantage Gold, CRI Green Label Plus, Declare Label, UL GreenGuard Gold and more.
Tools and Resources
A wealth of sustainable information is available (and continues to be developed) pertaining to tile and tile-setting materials. Project teams must familiarize themselves with a number of tools and resources to effectively evaluate and select sustainable products. The key is to start with the green building certification system being pursued, after which the project team should educate themselves on the sustainable attributes that are needed to meet that certification system’s goals, and then find and evaluate products that meet those requirements.
Green Building Standards and Certification Systems
Green Building Standards establish overall environmental performance criteria for entire buildings. Sustainability products have a vital role to pay in meeting these standards requirements. In the U.S., there are several green building standards that set requirements for tile and tile setting materials.
LEED, developed by U.S. Green building Council (USGBC), includes the following criteria for sustainable tile and tile-setting materials: materials with low embodied carbon, materials with verified environmental life-cycle impacts, materials that contribute to an extended product responsibility program, reused materials, recycled content materials, materials that disclose ingredients, low-emitting materials, certified multi-attribute products and materials (including Green Squared certified products) and local/regional materials.
The WELL Building Standard, developed by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), includes the following criteria for sustainable tile and tile-setting materials: materials that disclose ingredients and low-emitting materials.
Living Building Challenge (LBC), developed by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), includes the following criteria for sustainable tile and tile-setting materials: materials that disclose ingredients, regional/local materials, materials free of toxins and harmful chemicals and low-emitting materials.
Green Product Standards
To reliably guarantee the health and environmental claims of sustainable products, including tile and tile-setting materials, several public and private organizations to create voluntary consensus standards for sustainable goods and services. These standards have a specific criteria for numerous product types. Green product standards can range from regulatory agencies responsible for improving air quality and reduce VOCs (i.e. South Coast Air Quality Management District, SCAQMD) to industry guidelines (i.e. Tile Council of North America’s Green Squared certification) to third-party certification standards (i.e. SCS Global Services’ Indoor Advantage Gold program for VOC emissions) or third-party verified standards (i.e. GreenCircle Certified’s verification of material ingredients to promote transparency and eliminate greenwashing). Many of these standards can also provide assistance in the development of project specifications.
Green Product Libraries and Other Online Tools
Typically, required documentation, including certifications, labels, resources, a list of sustainable products and applicable green building standards and certification systems their products contribute to can be found on a manufacturer’s website. Finding the right person to understand the sustainability attributes of green building standards and information for each product can be challenging. However, as more and more project teams advocate for and communicate this information, manufacturers can better address what’s being asked of them. Ultimately, communication and collaboration is key. At MAPEI, we advocate for including manufacturers on sustainability projects as the design and construction team cannot be expected to know every manufacturers’ products’ sustainable attributes or certifications; we pride ourselves on helping project teams select products that make the most sense for each project.
There are also free online product databases such as mindful MATERIALS -- a library for project teams to select products that meet their project’s sustainability goals. Individual third-party certifications, including CRI Green Label Plus, SCS Indoor Advantage Gold and UL Spot, also have databases for the sustainable attributes they certify. Advanced search options to filter by certification, environmental characteristics, product criteria, etc., can help project teams quickly find and compare products that will help them achieve their sustainability goals. There are additional tools available for calculating Embodied Carbon and Life Cycle Assessments. There are no single standards for these, however, there are several organizations that have developed online calculators that include average life cycle data on materials to compare product specific information from manufacturers.
Evaluating and Selecting Sustainable Tile and Tile-Setting Materials
Selecting products with sustainable attributes requires research and critical evaluation. A wealth of sustainable information is available (and continues to be developed) pertaining to tile and tile-setting materials. The key is to start with the green building certification system being pursued, after which the project team should educate themselves on the sustainable attributes that are needed to meet that certification system’s goals, and then find products that meet those requirements.
Project teams should collect as many of the Tile and Tile-Setting Materials’ Sustainable Certifications and Attributes to evaluate products. The most sustainable products are those that have multiple healthy and environmental benefits from the products selected. Unfortunately, not every product will have every sustainable certification or attribute mentioned above.
The process of selecting, specifying and collecting documentation for products pursuing various green building standards and certification systems can be time- and budget-consuming. However, industry-leading manufacturers understand that third-party certification is becoming increasingly important, as sustainable construction becomes the norm rather than the exception. As new and more stringent requirements continue to be introduced in sustainable construction, project teams can expect continued progress in advancing sustainable products.