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The LEVEL Playing Field

Maria Melrose

My mother, the teacher, used to ask her class what they thought the biggest problem their generation would have to face. The replies were often, "Poverty, war, disease." My mother's favorite answer was "Garbage!" which left the students laughing hysterically and wondering how they got stuck with such a strange teacher. But we had a farm we visited each summer and trips to the dump were part of country living. Seeing mounds of garbage and abandoned products has a strong impact, and when pollutants from those mounds starting seeping into the water tables, we all understood what my mother already knew. Products can be beautiful but how do we balance our desire for good things with our needs for a good planet? And who should become the gate keepers for how we make things, how we use our resources and what we can recycle? 

LEED, Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design was the first answer, a solution put into place by US Green Buildings Council. The idea was to measure building efficiency and environmental impact and award buildings for reaching certain benchmarks. It has evolved beyond new building construction into building operations and management, interiors, and even neighborhood development. But furniture points, while they can affect the overall ratings, are not specifically indicative of how green that furniture is or even if the furniture supplier is following green production practices.

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And thus BIFMA introduced level, a third party certification program for the furniture industry. Level attempts to go beyond LEED which considers the impact on the environment of the built space and embrace the entire concept of sustainability. LEED did not give credit to product that was designed to last longer, to be upgradable and easily maintained - LEVEL does. LEVEL also looks at the manufacturer and rewards the manufacturer on several levels - not just wise use of materials, but how a manufacturer's social actions, energy usage, and human and ecosystem health impacts the planet. Forget green scrubbing, where manufacturers can buy cheap components from dirty sources but get points because their factory is green, LEVEL goes down the supplier chain as well. There are also no rewards for flip flop products, products that break quickly and end up at the dump, discarded easily because they are cheap. Sustainable also means quality, product that will be well loved for years, product we do not WANT to part with. If we design with that idea in mind, everything changes. AH, the old Shaker rocker that only got better as it aged, you will never see that chair at the dump!