Sorting It Out

This month at NeoCon, Herman Miller is introducing Quilty, a small product that could have a big impact. It’s really small, in fact: a collection of textiles fortified with nanotechnology called GreenShield (made by G3 Technology Innovations) that reduces by two-thirds the amount of chemicals used in the finishing process, which the industry relies on for water- and stain-resistance. Instead of being dunked in a noxious bath of trichloroethylene and flourocarbons, the textiles are embedded with minuscule silica particles that deliver the same chemistry with far less chemicals. It’s innovative, green, and cost-effective—exactly the kind of product that environmentally conscious consumers seem to be clamoring for.

But here’s the rub: it could very well get lost in the din of the marketplace, where companies touting their green products face a growing credibility gap. Designers and end users are doing their homework, and with ten years of LEED under their belt, they feel emboldened to demand increasingly specific information about the products they spec and buy. “As an industry, we felt that we were being bombarded with questions from the design community,” says Janan Rabiah, executive director of the Association for Contract Textiles (ACT), the industry trade group. Furthermore, among the alphabet soup of metrics used to judge contract fabrics—Cradle to Cradle, Greenguard, Scientific Certification Systems, Bluesign, Oeko-Tex, and others—many are either opaque or incomplete. “One of the challenges for the design community is, Which stories should I believe?” Rabiah says.

In January 2006, ACT’s members—which include most of the big-gest textile companies—all facing similar pressures, set about cre­at­ing an industry-wide standard that could provide some transparency to its customers. Tentatively called the Sustainability Assessment for Commmercial Furnishings Fabric, it’s the result of a partnership between industry representatives and NSF International (a standards de-vel­­oper) and GreenBlue (an institute pushing eco-friendly redesigns), with input from public-health nonprofits, the Environmental Protection Agency, end users, and academia.

Under a draft version posted on NSF’s Web site, textiles would be assessed using a LEED-like point system, with half dedicated to materials (fiber sources and safety) and half to manufacturing (water and energy use, air quality, recycling, and social accountability). “It will allow the customers to choose the products with the attributes that are important to them,” Rabiah says. “It will also help guide manufacturers to improve their practices all the way around.”

And the standard—which is going through a review process, with approval possible by the end of the year—seems to hold up to outside scrutiny. “It’s very impressive,” says Ingrid Johnson, a professor in textile development and marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology, in Manhattan. “This document defines every corner of the marketplace, and it will allow us then to be able to certify what’s truly environmentally friendly and what’s a fiber that is extremely questionable.”

It will have to be tough enough to be meaningful, but at the same time, it can’t scare away distributors—or manufacturers. Companies already bleeding money from a stagnant economy and competition in China are loath to retool their operations. “Every time you introduce a new fiber into a mill it’s a very big deal,” says Susan Lyons, a consultant for Herman Miller’s materials group. “You don’t want to make it so impossible that people get discouraged.” One possibility under discussion is a pass-fail system with a sort of nutritional label that would indicate how a material received its points without stratifying the process like LEED does—with Silver, Gold, and Platinum ratings beyond simple certification.

The textile industry is hardly alone in developing new metrics for its customers. “The Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturer’s Association is working with NSF on their own assessment for sustainable office furniture,” Rabiah says. “The Carpet and Rug Institute has just finished a program with NSF to develop the carpet standard. The resilient-flooring folks are working with NSF right now. I think there are two or three others.” LEED has a lot to do with that, and it’s safe to assume that other materials companies will continue to feel the push from consumers toward transparency.

In the meantime, as ACT’s members come closer to agreeing on a standard, it’s worth remembering that safe and environmentally friendly materials are well on their way to going from a luxury to the new normal. “I remember being involved when ACT did their voluntary performance standards, probably twenty years ago,” Lyons says. “Something that is now so completely understood to be normal—expecting to have performance guidelines for your products—was then wildly controversial. I think it takes people some time to get on the bandwagon.”

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