Advocates Stand up for the Built Environment’s Material Health

The concept of "healthy" materials is gaining traction in the product and building sector through initiatives like Cradle to Cradle.

This is an important moment for the material health movement. So it’s time to bring together key voices to talk about the harmonization amongst groups leading the healthy products initiatives. In preparation for Greenbuild 2013, I asked William McDonough, designer, thought leader, and co-author of The Upcycle and Cradle to Cradle; Stacy Glass, executive in residence at the Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation Institute; and Eden Brukman, technical director of the Health Product Declaration Collaborative (HPDC), about these topics as the U.S. Green Building Council’s conference and trade show, is about to settle in Philadelphia’s Convention Center, November 20-22, where material health matters will be front and center. For a political point of view on green building, we look forward to the Hillary Rodham Clinton keynote on November 21.

Kira Gould: Bill, you’ve been working on this for more than two decades. Let’s start with a little background and talk about why working together is important now.

William McDonough: What a great moment. Material health is gaining traction in the product and building sector and we are seeing a coalescing of support for detailed transparent material health standards. Part of what I am so excited about right now is that the tools and the organizations are really coming together. The Cradle to Cradle Certified program and the Health Product Declaration (HPD) have a common goal of abundant, beneficial materials and products in the marketplace. These are two complementary approaches to support this evolution.

When MBDC created the Cradle to Cradle approach and then the Cradle to Cradle Certified program in 2005, it was to help our clients improve their products. I led the creation, in 2010, of the Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation Institute to put the certification program into the public realm and bring it to scale. Cooperation between groups was always a part of our original vision for Cradle to Cradle and continuous improvement. We’re pleased to be working with HPD Collaborative in the building sector and happy to see an escalating commitment to quality and transparency. There has been a long history behind where we are today, and an amazing acceleration over the past year or so by many groups in the building sector and across all other sectors. These include MBDC, the Healthy Building Network, and several of the largest architecture and design firms such as HDR and Perkins + Will. These and other efforts are converging—it’s very exciting.

A key recent development has been the U.S. Green Building Council’s leadership on this issue. LEED v4, which has been approved this year, includes several important material health commitments. The USGBC has taken an important position, acknowledging the critical nature of the building industry’s role in human health.

At Greenbuild this year, Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) will be announcing their recommendation that their clients and customers choose Cradle to Cradle Certified products. As we are seeing JLL and other major players, such as Google, stand up for material health, the building industry is changing quickly and recognizing material health as a primary opportunity for principled innovation, value creation, and market differentiation.

KG: Stacy, over the last few months, you have been working on the harmonization effort with HPD Collaborative, HBN, and Clean Production Action, what have you learned?

Stacy Glass:  Well, the time was right to engage in this effort.  The first step was to analyze each tool and methodology.  What we found was that there are logical steps that a manufacturer engages in on their way to designing and manufacturing better products.  And each of these tools offers value at different stages of the process.  The common steps include a detailed inventory of all ingredients, scanning those ingredients for known hazards, conducting an assessment to determine hazard and risk, and then with that knowledge, working to optimize formulations to move away from chemicals of concern.

KG:  Stacy, can you talk about how Cradle to Cradle Certification fits in to this landscape?

SG:  Cradle to Cradle Certification embodies this whole process. It is a multi-attribute assessment and indication of achievement against Cradle to Cradle ideals; the attributes we measure are Material Health, Material Reutilization, Water Stewardship, Renewable Energy, and Social Fairness. In the Material Health attribute, the first step is working with an accredited third-party assessor to create an accurate reporting of ingredients to the 100 parts per million.  In this inventory stage, an accredited assessor helps manufacturers collect formulations and proprietary ingredients throughout their supply chain.

Following the deep inventory, each ingredient is assessed for its toxicity to human and environmental health against 24 end points, assessed for exposure potential, and cycle-ability as a biological or technical nutrient.  All intentional inputs are considered, including recycled content.  The Cradle to Cradle Certified scorecard indicates how optimized a product is from a chemical perspective as well as an indication of achievement on the other four attributes.  The goal of the Cradle to Cradle material health attribute is for a product to have 100 percent positive chemistry and that is indicated at the Gold level of certification and above.

KG: So that we understand how and why these groups are working together at this time, Eden, can you describe the purpose and attributes of the Health Product Declaration? 

Eden Brukman:  The Health Product Declaration (HPD) is an objective tool for the accurate reporting of product contents and how each ingredient relates to the bigger picture for ecological health. It offers a framework—a platform—for manufacturers to share information and gives a context towards a better understanding of the many variables in play for that seemingly simple question, “What is in your product?”

Manufacturers can indicate the level of disclosure based on what is documented and communicate other relevant details that could otherwise be overlooked. It allows for disclosure to 100 ppm, though this level of reporting is not required. Because the HPD is a format, it supports a range of disclosure levels and doesn’t apply a value judgment. Rather, it educates about the language of the inventory process so we can be consistent with our intentions for transparency in the building materials ecosystem. Once a product has a compliant HPD, an assessment tool like Cradle to Cradle can be used to determine how well the product aligns with a particular set of priorities.

KG: HPD is new; are there common misconceptions about the format?

EB:  Some people have yet to explore the many ways that the HPD is flexible; it aims to meet manufacturers where they are on the path of continuous improvement for clarity about the nature of building products. If an ingredient name needs to be masked due to proprietary concerns, it can be listed as “undisclosed” and other characteristics can still be noted, such as health hazards. For some consumers, this information is more meaningful than the ingredient name itself.

The HPD also has dedicated space under each ingredient to explain the role it plays and other notable particulars. These prompts can be used to account for the health hazards associated with the ingredient. Here, it is worth differentiating between hazard and risk: the HPD inventories hazard, or the intrinsic possibility of something causing harm. It does not index risk, which is the chance or probability that there will be harm based on exposure to the hazard—this can be more subjective. Yet, manufacturers are welcome to include data about degree of risk in the ingredient notes, and are encouraged to reference other specific chemicals assessments, too.

KG: There is an undeniable movement from owners, operators, and the design community to address chemicals of concern in the built environment.  How do we create an environment that is welcoming to manufacturers at different places of supply chain knowledge and that supports a cooperative environment for change?

EB: It is heartening to see early support for the HPD by so many industry sectors, and consumers are certainly demonstrating an interest. For example, more than two dozen design firms have already initiated conversations by writing letters to manufacturers in their product libraries. The communications speak to the desire for transparency, a fundamental aspect of the HPD. The letters aim to request participation in a cooperative environment using the HPD because it is neutral ground that acknowledges limits of current market realities.

SG: The collaboration of A&D firms calling for transparency is powerful and is certainly changing the market.  Collectively, what we want are better products but that requires more than transparency. We need to create an environment that encourages continuous improvement and rewards progress.

I would like to see LEED, the Living Building Challenge, owners, operators, and architecture and design firms align language and their requests to encourage companies to disclose ingredients, assess ingredients, make commitments to avoid and eliminate chemicals of concern, and be rewarded for their progress on this continuum. For example, the Cradle to Cradle Certified scorecard is one indicator of how optimized a product is.  At the bronze level, the product contains no Cradle to Cradle-banned list chemicals, at the Silver level there are no carcinogens, mutagens, or reproductive toxins, at the Gold level and above, the product is optimized and poses no human or environmental threat.  The Cradle to Cradle system recognizes there is room to improve and companies make those commitments as part of their reevaluation and recertification every two years.

KG: It’s great to see collaboration. But of course, everyone always wants to know what’s ahead. Bill, what’s next?

WM: This is an exciting moment of unprecedented collaboration and sharing around material health issues in the built environment and beyond. We are committed to helping to foster this important work together to create a system that embodies continuous improvement. There is work to be done with manufacturers, through advocacy, and through policy, but we are all keeping our eye on the highest values and the biggest drivers. It’s not hard, once you focus on human health and kids: more good will always trump less bad. Less bad was never good enough and we are trying to do better together. Instead of asking “How much can I get for how little I give?” we are now asking “How much can we give for all that we get?” And we are asking it together.
For more on Health Products, and how it may change our material world for the better, see our previous Q&A’s with key members of the Health Product Declaration (HPD) initiative architect Robin Guenther, furniture manufacturer Teknion, HPD Chairman Peter C. Syrett, and Healthy Building Founder Bill Walsh.

Categories: Building Products, Sustainability