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A Green Vocabulary Lesson

Terms to Know as the Sustainability Movement Strengthens

Written by Maddie Bass

This article originally appeared in ISFA’s Countertops & Architectural Surfaces Vol. 14, Issue 4 – Q4 2021. Countertops & Architectural Surfaces is the official publication of the International Surface Fabricators Association (ISFA). It contains the latest news and information relevant to the countertop and surfacing industry. Read the full issue here.


The sustainability movement may not be affecting your business right now but it’s just around the corner. Because the building and construction industry accounts for a large portion of waste destined for landfills, environmental concerns have led material manufacturers to take a hard look at their products and processes. What products are made of, how and where they are made and what can be done with any waste produced are important questions to which consumers are demanding answers. But providing those answers is more complex than it seems. The tests, documentation and certifications required to be a verified green, sustainable, eco-friendly, or socially responsible company can be confusing.

While the focus is currently on manufacturers to do better, fabricators should be prepared to field questions as well. Here’s a road map of sustainable terms anyone in this industry should know.

Terms You May Already Know

LEED: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. This is the most widely used green building rating system. Based on the standards set by LEED, buildings or entire neighborhoods can be certified as LEED Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum. This certification verifies that a project is healthier for the planet and for people by reducing strain on natural resources, improving energy efficiency, and much more.

MSDS/SDS: Material Safety Data Sheet or Safety Data Sheet. These documents summarize the health hazards of a material based on its chemical contents and provide best practices for working with them. OSHA requires that all users of chemicals have access to the SDS for that material.

OSHA: Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Under the U.S. Department of Labor, OSHA is the administrative body that sets and regulates health and safety standards in workplaces across industries to protect employees and employers.

A Deeper Dive into Sustainability

BIM: Building Information Modeling (BIM) is the digital future of building and construction. Electronic models that lay out all the features of different building components, down to the material level are assembled to create 3D renderings. BIM models are pulled into different software platforms to render spaces and entire buildings to visualize how different items interact and potentially create conflicts or issues, which can be resolved in the preconstruction phase of a project. The ability to model these materials early can save costly design errors.

Biophilic Design: a design practice that focuses on the natural desires of humans to be attracted to living things and naturally occurring elements. Biophilic design can be as simple as adding plants to a space, as tangible as having dynamic heating and cooling that feels like being outdoors or as abstract as having a countertop with a veined pattern that mimics the flow of a river.

Circularity: According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems. Circularity is the characteristic of products, systems, processes and materials that allows them to fit into this kind of economy. A product is circular when it can be continually used and it generates minimal waste and pollution.

Cradle to Cradle: Also referred to as C2C, this term was trademarked by McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) and is based on the concept of the entire life cycle of the product, from its birth (cradle) to its next reincarnation (cradle). Cradle to Cradle certification, now managed by the C2C Product Innovation Institute, looks at the impact a product has across five categories including material health, product circularity, clean air and climate protection, water and soil stewardship, and social fairness. C2C Certification is achieved at Platinum, Gold, Silver or Certified levels.

Declare: an internationally recognized label that provides a list of ingredients for products, including what they are composed of, where they come from, and how the products are treated at end of life. Declare is a transparency platform and product database for materials and is becoming widely recognized in the architect and design community.

Embodied Carbon: Embodied carbon refers to the greenhouse gases emitted over the entire lifetime of a material. During the lifetime of a building material, say a countertop slab, carbon is released not only during the operations of the building, but also during raw material sourcing, manufacturing, transportation, installation, removal and disposal.

EPD: An Environmental Product Declaration quantifies the environmental impact which a product will have over the course of its life cycle by using a Life Cycle Assessment. EPDs are usually third-party verified and help to build trust between producers and consumers. Products with EPDs will also contribute to a building’s LEED score.

Fitwel: A newer building rating system that awards certifications to buildings that improve and optimize occupant health, safety and equity.

GWP: Global Warming Potential describes a chemical’s contribution to atmospheric warming. CO2 is always used as the reference point. This is an important metric for manufacturers because it helps them to better understand the impact of chemicals used within the manufacturing processes.

HPD: A Health Product Declaration discloses all potentially harmful materials found within a product by using a priority hazard screening by GreenScreen. HPDs can be built in-house and are not required to be third-party verified. Products with EPDs will also contribute to a building’s LEED score.

LCA: A Life Cycle Assessment provides a full analysis of a product from cradle to gate, cradle to grave, or cradle to cradle. This process will start at material extraction and end at consumer purchase, landfill arrival or recycling of the product, depending on the depth of the LCA and the nature of the product. The results of an LCA include calculations of how much carbon is emitted and other environmental and health impacts over the lifetime of a product.

Living Building Challenge: The International Living Building Institute (ILFI) is an organization that certifies products and buildings based on sustainable and healthy criteria, and is a great resource for information regarding this topic. ILFI runs the Living Building Challenge as a program to encourage better building practices for the environment and occupants, much like LEED. ILFI also certifies products through their Living Product Challenge and Declare labels.

Net Zero: Used for energy and carbon assessments, Net Zero essentially means that you create the same amount or more energy than you use, or that you sequester an equal or larger amount of carbon than you emit. So, when your impact on the environment is not negative, it is Net Zero.

VOCs: Volatile Organic Compounds are emitted as gases from some solids or liquids, and many can have adverse effects on human health. VOCs can be emitted by many products and can be dangerous to human health. Common VOCs include formaldehyde, benzene and xylene, and they can be found in many household products including paints and adhesives. Exposure to VOCs should be limited and consumers should look for products that are classified as VOC-free or low VOC.

WELL: A building standard run by the International WELL Building Institute that aims to create more thoughtful and intentional spaces that enhance human health and well-being. The rating system includes 10 concepts consisting of features with distinct health intents. Features are either preconditions or optimizations. WELL has four certification levels: Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum.


As COVID concerns fade from the forefront, sustainability will have a chance to fully step into the spotlight. The surfacing industry should prepare for the questions customers and specifiers are going to ask. Knowing the landscape and understanding the criteria are good places to start, but there are complex and symbiotic relationships among a lot of the documents and certifications that are not covered here. The Living Future Institute, U.S. Green Building Council, and C2C Product Innovation Institute are great resources for further information.


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