Signage, LEED, and the Environment

Dillon Cobb
APCO Signs
April 11, 2022

LEED — Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design

I’ll preface all of this by saying I am not an expert on LEED. I have no formal LEED training or certifications and no letters following name on my business card. So why would I write anything about LEED, or more importantly, why would anyone read it?

Having completed LEED forms for hundreds of projects over the past 10-12 years, and having several years of involvement with the US Green Building Council, we’ve been forced to do quite a bit of research on LEED and how it applies to signage.

LEED Credit Categories
Throughout all of that, we have become quite knowledgeable, I think, with all of the requirements, and have been able to more easily spot much of the green-washing and nonsense that’s so common in our industry.

We’ve also seen how much confusion there is regarding LEED, both within the signage and construction industries.

How many times have we seen companies proclaiming their products to be “LEED-certified”?1

Or, claiming MR-5 Regional and Local Materials Credits because the signs are merely assembled within 500 miles of the jobsite, while most of the components are shipped in from Asia or Europe, with raw materials being harvested who knows where!??

Do sign companies really know where the bauxite (for aluminum extrusions) and petroleum (for plastics) used within their signs are harvested from the earth?

Signage and LEED

Are there certain sign products using higher levels of recycled content (MR-4 Credits) than others? Yes.

Are there certain sign products incorporating more eco-friendly coatings and materials than others? Definitely.

Do certain sign products offer more sustainable features than others? Absolutely.

However, at least in terms of the LEED rating system, I would argue that none of this really matters.

Not saying it’s bad to have more eco-friendly signs. Not at all. Just saying that signage, in our opinion, simply does not fit within the LEED system.

Why not?

Generally speaking, both in terms of dollar amount and weight, signs comprise an extremely minuscule percentage of a building project, certainly as compared to steel, concrete, lighting, flooring, glass, etc., so they really have no impact, positive or negative, on LEED figures. Yet, so often sign companies are required to complete and submit what can be time-consuming and complicated LEED forms.

In our opinion, the only way signage can impact LEED credits is when signs or displays are used to actually communicate the LEED attributes of a building, thus helping promote the organization’s commitment to sustainability. (ID Credit)

Should Sign Companies Ignore LEED?

In short, no.

Even if not a fit, we’ll still be required to complete LEED forms for many projects, at least until a separate, more appropriate category for signage is created.

At the end of the day though, we should ask the question, “What’s the overall objective of LEED?”.

I would say its purpose is to drive more sustainable and eco-friendly construction, helping create a healthier environment and extend the life of the planet we all share. Who wouldn’t want to do that, right?

So at least at APCO, the question we ask is, “Can we design and manufacture signs that at least fall within the overall spirit of the LEED rating system?”.

Eco-Friendly Considerations for Signage

Every project is different, and the signage needs can vary greatly. A key question to always ask is, “How long do the signs needs to be used?”. One day, one week, one month, one year, five years, ten years or perhaps more? This will greatly impact the type of product used, and most likely its eco-friendly attributes.

For sign projects requiring a short life-span, i.e. event signage, POP displays, etc., there are many eco-friendly substrate materials options, green inks and coatings, etc. For more permanent signage within built environments however, there has to be a greater consideration of quality and durability when weighing all of the eco-friendly options. If an architectural sign is manufactured using the most eco-friendly materials and processes available but has to be replaced every 2-3 years, it’s really not very eco-friendly at all. Life cycle is the key.


The reality, at least in the US market, is that budget plays a major role when determining what types of signage materials can be used in a project. There are in fact some high-quality and very eco-friendly materials available for signage plaques and substrates such as FSC-certified, resin-infused paper and high recycled-content acrylics and PETG. In our experience however, the high cost of these materials makes them an unrealistic option for the vast majority of signage projects…at least for now.

APCO’s Focus

In our world of architectural signage, we focus our efforts on three main areas:

  1. Modularity (Updatable Sign Systems)
  2. • Signs Can Be Updated Instead of Thrown Away – Extends Life Cycle
    • Paper Inserts Provide On-Site Sign Replacements & Avoid Shipping
  3. Waste Reduction
  4. • with Zero-Waste Processes Like Direct-Print Tactile for ADA Signs
  5. Recyclable Materials
  6. • Aluminum & Paper Components are Readily Recyclable

Wrapping Up…

Do we think LEED is a good thing? Absolutely!

Although it has increased administrative efforts and construction costs in most cases, it has forced eco-friendly innovation within the architectural, design and construction industries. And that’s a good thing!

While there are always the pessimists out there citing all the efforts being made in the West and smaller pockets of the East only represent a tiny fraction of the overall construction, energy consumption and pollution around the world (true), we have to at least strive for positive progress, right?

And while signage may not fit perfectly within the LEED mold, that shouldn’t prevent those of us in the sign industry from developing products that at are at least in line with the overall objectives of LEED.

1HPDs (Health Product Declarations) and EPDs (Environmental Product Declarations)

Unlike LEED, manufacturers can obtain a Health Product Declaration (HPD) and/or and Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) for their products, and we’ve seen this growing in popularity over the past 6-7 years.

While related and linked to some of the overall objectives of LEED, these are completely separate rating systems, providing a standardized way for manufacturers to report the material contents of building products, and the health and/or environmental effects associated with these materials.

An increasing number of larger A&D firms are encouraging manufacturers to provide HPDs and EPDs in order to be considered for project specifications. On the surface, we feel there is a lot of merit and benefit here in terms of trying to create healthier built environments. However, due to the costs, administrative burdens, and highly custom nature of signs, we would argue that signage, and the vast majority of sign manufacturers, are not a great fit. That’s for another article though…