Let’s Talk: Mainstreaming Transparency Takes More than Letters

It will take intensive collaboration across sectors to change an industry and get us safer, better products.

Nadav Malin, BuildingGreen president

Nadav Malin, Hon. AIA, is president of BuildingGreen, Inc.

Photo: BuildingGreen
Back in 2013, when LEED version 4 was just emerging, the push for information transparency in building materials got a boost when a host of major architecture firms put a stake in the ground. HKS and then SmithGroupJJR led the way, with public letters requesting that manufacturers provide details about the contents of their products using an industry-standard format, such as the newly released Health Product Declaration (HPD).

Dozens of firms eventually joined in, expanding the ask to include Declare Labels and environmental product declarations (EPDs) in addition to HPDs. And some upped the ante with ultimatums, saying the products lacking these transparency documents would soon be removed from the firms’ libraries, and their reps would be banned from offering lunch-and-learns.

Those letters made a splash

Major manufacturers took these letters seriously. Armed with the letters as indicators of market demand, along with the Building Product Disclosure and Optimization credits in LEED v4, sustainability champions within these companies got resources to invest in these transparency declarations.

Now five years later, a bunch of product manufacturers have written a reply. They’ve provided the transparency documentation and optimized their products, they say, but aren’t seeing any bump in the sales of these better products. This lack of return on investment (ROI) is a problem not only for those companies but also for everyone who wants safer, greener products. Without that return, they won’t be able to continue pursuing these changes in their supply chain and manufacturing.

No one industry can fix the whole system

Changing the materials we build with, it turns out, is complicated. The building materials ecosystem has lots of players, and they all have to make changes for this to work. Writing letters from one industry to another is one way to communicate, but we also need to collaborate more directly.

Last November I facilitated a forum, convened by the American Institute of Architects, aimed at addressing this problem. That forum brought together manufacturers, designers, and others to talk about the barriers to increased transparency and how we can overcome them. In the space of a couple of hours, we focused in on five primary barriers:

  1. Lack of knowledge: Across the industry, people are not well informed about these issues.
  2. Poor quality & reliability of information: Disclosures vary widely in their accuracy and comprehensiveness.
  3. Lack of technical standardization: The various disclosure formats and programs have inconsistent requirements.
  4. A shortage of products with transparency documentation: Designers, contractors, and owners struggle to find products that meet their needs, such as for LEED v4, WELL, and Living Building Challenge projects.
  5. Lack of ROI for investing in transparency documentation: Manufacturers that do invest in transparency and optimization don’t consistently get rewarded with more sales, at least as far as they know.

Progress is being made on all these challenges. What was most remarkable to me about that meeting was how quickly people with many different roles in the system were able to agree on the pinch points and start to identify solutions. Working in close collaboration will be key to stepping up the pace of those solutions.

Write back when you’ve got something to show

It’s tempting now for the design community to write back with a new letter of their own. I think that’s premature.

What made the manufacturer’s letter that just came out so persuasive is that they had attacked the problem and had results to show for it. Now designers need to step up so that the next letter they send is backed up by real progress on their end. Hopefully that won’t take another five years, but if it takes one or two, that might be ok; this is a conversation on a grand scale.

Collaboration across industries is the only way

But real progress won’t happen sector by sector: it takes us all working together. If we collaborate intensively in these two areas, the ROI that companies need, and the better products we all want, will follow:

  1. Educate: The green champions are fully on board, but too many people at all the organizations involved are still out of the loop. Whether it’s product reps or designers, everyone has to be knowledgeable about what this all means and why it’s important.
  2. Simplify: I spend a fair amount of time training people on this stuff, and that’s driven home to me just how complicated it has gotten. Try explaining to a designer who has never heard of an EPD that LEED won’t accept it unless the PCR behind the LCA is also compliant*. Or that a Declare Label works for LEED if it’s “Declared” or “Red List-Free,” but if it’s “LBC-compliant” you have to make sure that it has disclosed ingredients to at least 1,000 parts per million.

I know that the science behind this stuff is complicated, and that making it too simple runs the risk of incentivizing the wrong thing. We have to keep the rigor but find ways to hide the complexity from people who have day jobs focusing on other things.  

All this complexity is great for keeping consultants and trainers busy (including us at BuildingGreen). But this is no way to transform an industry.

It’s obvious that we can only simplify the task if we work together. Harmonization across programs and better search options within databases are coming along. But there is so much more to be done here.

Educating people in the building industry also works best when we collaborate across professions. Architects and interior designers get much of the continuing education in lunch-and-learns provided by manufacturers, or from their consultants. And designers, contractors, and product reps can all learn from each other when they’re part of an integrated team.

Roll up your sleeves and join us

The next major collaboration opportunity is coming in early September at the International Living Future Institute’s Living Product Expo in Pittsburgh. The half-day Human Health and Materials Summit that precedes the expo will set the stage, with an intensive collaboration across disciplines, getting specific about solutions. BuildingGreen’s product and materials specialist, Brent Ehrlich, will be there. I hope you’ll join in and stay tuned for other opportunities.

*Those acronyms? EPD = Environmental Product Declaration. PCR = Product Category Rule. LCA = life-cycle assessment.

Published August 6, 2018

Malin, N. (2018, August 6). Let’s Talk: Mainstreaming Transparency Takes More than Letters. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/op-ed/let-s-talk-mainstreaming-transparency-takes-more-letters

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October 3, 2018 - 3:54 am

LEED missed the bigger issues out of the gate and still does. And here I mean the "HOLY COW" tipping point issues that must be solved or most of our efforts are stop gap measures at best. 

October 3, 2018 - 9:01 am

Max, curious what you think LEED missed.

October 3, 2018 - 2:55 pm

As a sustainability consultant and designer, my driving passion is to help owners of every hue get to a place that makes sense to them.... Out of the gate we offer a clear and concise definition of sustainable linked to the natural world and our relationship with it. Right now "sustainable" is a throw away word like Green or Eco. The landscape of definitions is confusing to people and organizations who want to be part of the solution.
A common definition brings a shared understanding that leads to effective implementation. Right now, it appears the prevailing attitude is that everyone's idea of sustainability is different. This to me is like saying everyone's idea about gravity is different.
By correctly identifying key underlying problems, you actually dictate solution streams with meaningful "sustainable" impact. However, I believe these problems are not usually adequately identified, or even on most professionals radars. And that is because there is no clear understanding. Someone may push bamboo flooring; I say not sustainable by my definition. Someone else likes low flow toilets; I say not sustainable by my definition. The disconnects between "experts" is huge.
A million LED light bulbs does not address the problems of the grid system as it currently exists.
Low flush toilets , faucets and washers do not address the problems of wastewater infrastructure on a larger scale. 
Could urban densification be the opposite a sustainable world? I would argue that that is indeed the case, generally speaking.

What I am hearing from many commercial owners, home owners and architects is that they are not willing or interested in shouldering the costs around certification; but are rather happy and eager to implement best practices. The current bottom line does not make sense to them. 
We felt we needed to come up with approach that was so well thought out and easy to explain that walking the walk of sustainability not just makes sense, but is joyfully beneficial in all three pillars.