The Big Materials Dream Needs to Include Climate Change and More
For years we advocated for alternatives to formaldehyde-based binders in fiberglass insulation. Then in 2008, Knauf made a huge breakthrough, unveiling its EcoBatt fiberglass insulation with Ecose biobased binder. This was clearly the beginning of the end for formaldehyde binders.
But we couldn’t fully endorse Ecose at first because the company would not reveal exactly what it was. Today, the company continues to be a sustainability leader, including in the area of ingredient transparency. Knauf was one of the first manufacturers to adopt the Declare label, which revealed its binder as dextrose, or sugar.
That kind of challenge was on our minds when we worked with the Healthy Building Network and leading design firms to create the Health Product Declaration (HPD) a couple of years after Ecose came out. We’ve also partnered with the International Living Future Institute to highlight Declare participants in our BuildingGreen Approved product guidance, among other things.
The product transparency movement, particularly with what it tells us about material health, is just getting its feet. It remains a huge priority for the industry. So it’s a great time to bring it into balance with climate change, biodiversity, and other more conventional green building issues.
Disclosure ≠ sustainability
Spurred on by the momentum behind the HPD, Declare, and LEED v4’s Material Ingredients credit, we’re getting unprecedented transparency. Manufacturers are revealing what’s in their products and even making changes to eliminate hazards along the way. This initiative has become so successful that it runs the risk of being mistaken for the whole story when it comes to Dream Materials.
Minimizing hazardous ingredients is an essential aspect of improving the material supply chain, but if we do that at the expense of attending to climate change, biodiversity loss, or social-equity impacts, we’ve not made meaningful progress.
Materials that are used to build or refurbish a building represent a large release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere that can take decades of super-efficient operations to recoup. We don’t have that kind of time.
It’s not either/or
It troubles me when suppliers get the message that their customers only care about HPDs, then abandon their broader life-cycle-based assessments to focus only on health impacts.
I understand the market dynamics behind the Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation Institute’s (C2CPII) move to peel off its Material Health assessment and offer that as a separate offering from the full Cradle to Cradle certification. At the same time, this opens the door to single-track optimization, which may run counter to creating products that are the best we can make them from a more holistic view.
Dreaming (and focusing) even bigger
So I was thrilled to hear from C2CPII’s Stacy Glass that the program is working on staying true to its original, broad vision, with the theme “healthy materials, perpetually cycled.”
Google’s internal Portico Tool is also focused narrowly on health, but the company has signaled an interest in expanding its view by helping fund the Quartz Project.
And I’ve been impressed with the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association’s efforts to pull all these considerations together into one coherent label (with recent updates to its multi-attribute level certification) that covers health, sustainability, and resilience.
It’s been helpful for a time to narrow our focus and get traction on the health front, and we certainly don’t want to slow the amazing progress that’s being made in that arena. But I’m really encouraged by the signs that we’re ready to open that view wider again and address the full spectrum of opportunities for making products that are better in every way.
Are you seeing similar evidence that we’re ready to move to a more holistic view of materials?
Have you seen examples of unfortunate trade-offs, where carbon footprint is compromised in the pursuit of health, or vice versa?
How do you think the design and construction industry should work to encourage the best overall choices? Please comment below.
Published February 9, 2016