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(Mis)Understanding Green Products

A dizzying array of green product certification protocols are overwhelming the building industry

Stan Rhodes, the president and C.E.O. of Scientific Certification Systems, or SCS, certifies building products. He's been doing it since 1984. You bring him carpet you think is sustainable and he'll certify it against the new NSF 140 Sustainable Carpet Assessment Standard. Bring him anything and he'll likely find a standard, somewhere, to use for certification. There are thousands of standards, most of which are accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), so Rhodes is in no danger of running out of work.

But today, Rhodes doesn't want to talk about standards or certification. If you're talking sustainability, Rhodes says, so-called green building products don't much matter in the scheme of things. "Building envelopes are only 15 percent of the total life-cycle impacts of any building," he says, sitting in his office in Emeryville, California. For Rhodes, life-cycle impacts mean energy use, or the carbon footprint. He says the real question is how you reduce the energy impact of the work function—that other 85 percent consisting of the people who spend a minimum of 8 hours of their day sitting in your building, when not commuting—on the natural environment of your building and the larger region.