When it comes to designing and ultimately building a new facility, there are endless decisions to be made and details to consider. From the layout, to the lighting, to the plumbing, colors, and accessories, the choices to consider can no doubt make some people’s head spin. And then when the decision to create a “green building” is made, there are whole other items to consider and products to review.
Sustainability. That one word can mean a lot of different things to different people. The commercial building industry uses the United Nations Documents definition of sustainability which states, ₁“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
In a world where it seems pollutants are everywhere, including our oceans, air, ozone, and certainly the land, various organizations and agencies have been created to help better educate people on the importance of making changes, and working to create a cleaner and healthier place to live.
While much has been implemented by the Environmental Protection Agency in terms of air quality management, that is only one piece in a global issue of pollution. And while such regulations are good for their intended purpose of protecting us from the worst hazards there are, a regulation is not necessarily the best vehicle to drive “green” initiatives and a sustainable future. As such, product manufacturers, non-government organizations (NGOs), academia, and others are filling the void by supporting initiatives and programs that define sustainable (i.e. “green”) building products. Thankfully, many of these types of organizations have stepped up to offer guidance and notoriety to those who are being good stewards of nature.
Perhaps one of the better-known organizations which is challenging companies to evaluate their design protocol in how they make things, is the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. A multi-attribute framework by which products are measured for their environmental and human health impacts, the Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation Institute administers the Cradle to Cradle Certified™ Products Program, which evaluate not only how safe a product is to use, but also how safe all the materials that go along with that product are for the environment and humans. Cradle to Cradle offers a certification process which is gaining momentum and recognition within the green building community. Officially licensed as a certification program in 2010, the Cradle to Cradle design protocol began in 1992 with William McDonough and Dr. Michael Braungart. These thought-leaders created the framework for assessing the material health of a product’s ingredients in their use as technical nutrients.
Today, we have a program that challenges and recognizes manufacturers of consumer products – including building materials, health & beauty, toys, automotive, home & office supply, and more – to demonstrate a commitment to sustainability. This is done through a rigorous assessment across five program categories: material health, material reutilization, renewable energy, water stewardship, and social fairness.
- Material Health looks at the chemical ingredients of every material in a product – down to 100 parts per million. This means that every ingredient representing at least 0.01% (one-hundredth of one percent) of the product is evaluated against 24 risk factors for human and environmental health. This includes carcinogens (cancer-causing agents); endocrine disruption (potential to negatively affect hormone function and impact development); mutagenicity (potential to damage DNA); reproductive toxicity (potential to negatively impact reproductive system); and teratogenicity (potential to harm fetus), as well as many others. Products certified at the Silver Level or above, mean that there is no exposure from carcinogens, mutagens, or reproductive toxicants.
- Material Reutilization encourages the use of recycled content materials and the ability to recover and reuse materials at the end of a product’s life.
- Renewable Energy & Carbon Management encourages the use of clean energy by requiring manufacturers to source renewable electricity and offset carbon emissions for the product’s manufacture.
- Water Stewardship reviews how water is used in the manufacturing of a product, and what measures are in place to minimize impacts on the local watershed.
- Social Fairness is a holistic review of how employees, and the local community are treated.
Based on the outcome of the third-party assessment, a product may receive one of five levels of certification: Basic, Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum. There are hundreds of Cradle to Cradle Certified™ products on the market today.
While Cradle to Cradle is growing in recognition as a product certification, a well-known standard for whole building certification, which rewards the use of sustainable products in the overall construction and operation of a building, is LEED. As defined on the LEED website, www.usgbc.org, LEED, or Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, is a green building certification program that recognizes best-in-class building strategies and practices. There are various levels of LEED certification, which relate to how sustainable a building is for its occupants and the environment.
LEED has recently reworked guidelines which will affect all future projects desiring certification. LEED v4 encompasses more than just the use of recycled content in a project. The new Material Resource (MR) credits seek to fill the gap in LEED’s whole building lifecycle approach by considering human health impacts.
While Cradle to Cradle and LEED are third-party verified for certification, the notion to offer transparency on products, especially those within the building manufacturing category, has gained a great deal of momentum the previous few years. There are three more well-known programs, which manufacturers may also participate:
- Environmental Product Declaration
- Health Product Declaration
Similar to a ‘nutrition’ label one might find on a food product, Declare allows manufacturers a standardized format in which to share all the various chemicals and materials that are in their products, making it easier for consumers to review. Declare’s program requires that the product’s ingredients be screened against the Living Building Challenge Red List of Chemicals which is a collection of the 21 worst of the worst classes of chemicals used in building products . Based on the results of the ingredient screening, manufacturers report their Declare level according to the following categories: ₂ (1) LBC Red List free, which means that the product is free of all red list ingredients; (2) LBC compliant, which can mean one of two things. One, the LBC Compliant product is free of Red List chemicals, but has utilized one or more of the program’s temporary exemptions to protect proprietary ingredients. Or two, that the LBC Compliant product may contain Red List chemicals based on building codes which require the use of certain chemicals for occupant safety. Or (3) Declared, which means that the product does contain Red List chemicals, but the manufacturer is supporting the industry’s expectation for ingredient transparency. A manufacturer may opt to use a Declare label as a way to be transparent about their product ingredients and/or to contribute to credits offered by green building programs like LEED and Living Building Challenge.
Two other programs that some manufacturers also embrace are the utilization of Environmental Product Declarations® and Health Product Declarations™.
An Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) focuses on the Environmental impacts derived from a product’s life-cycle analysis. Specifically, the declaration has information on the environmental impact in acquiring raw materials; energy use and efficiency; the ingredients of the materials – including chemical substances; emissions; and waste.
A Health Product Declaration (HPD) focuses on ingredients and pure chemical hazards – with no focus on the environmental impacts. It is a list of all known chemicals within the product, and their associated health effects.
There is certainly no shortage of ways in which companies can be transparent about their products, and how safe they are – or are not – for humans and the environment. In a world where costs can run high, and doing the “right” thing may not always be the easiest or less expensive route, it is imperative that consumers hold product manufacturers accountable. The movement towards product transparency is not only a way for consumers to protect ourselves, and be knowledgeable about how material health can impact our lives, but is a commendable challenge to manufacturers. This transparency effort is rapidly evolving, and manufacturers that are proactive and leading the industry towards the use of sustainable materials, in sustainable products, which are manufactured responsibly, should be rewarded with business. While some programs may overlap in what they are assessing, all are meant to help educate and inform so that manufacturers may be further challenged with product design which may help to sustain our world for hundreds of years to come. So when you are faced with that next “green” building project, seek product manufacturers that demonstrate a holistic approach to providing beautiful, high-performing and sustainable products.
₁ United Nations Documents; Gathering a body of global agreements; un-documents.net
₂Declare and the Living Building Challenge; International Living Future Institute; declareproducts.com
For more information on our sustainability initiatives, visit our sustainability page.