The following post is by Kathleen O’Brien:
Ten years ago when Alistair Jackson (now principal of O’Brien & Company) and Michelle Long (now Executive Director of BALLE) created the Transparency Institute, they just couldn’t gain traction they wanted and needed to make a go of it. “We were ten years ahead of our time,” Jackson sighs. Now, transparency is all the rage. In fact, at GreenBuild recently, I couldn’t walk five feet without some reference to the concept. Most references were focused on product transparency, but not all. At the International Living Future Institute’s GreenBuild Booth, the nonprofit was touting its new “JUST” Label, which applies to organizations transparency. Organizations of all types and sizes can earn the JUST label when they are willing to report on 22 social and equity indicators related to six categories: diversity, equity, safety, worker benefit, local benefit and stewardship. The JUST Label joins the organization’s DECLARE, a “nutrition” label of sorts for building products.
DECLARE is one of the latest efforts over the past decade to make it easier for building project teams to “do the right thing” when selecting products and technologies. Product certifications, such as those offered by the Carpet & Rug Industry Institute (focused on VOC emissions) and Forest Stewardship Council SC (focused on sustainably harvested wood products) have been one way to achieve this goal; but even there, industry members have been demanding more transparency, wanting to know what’s behind the “green” label. DECLARE requires that manufacturers complete a Health Product Declaration (HPD) that is then publicly available. The hope is that this label will make it easier for project teams to use the Living Building Challenge, which “red lists” materials and chemicals the ILFI deems hazardous.
Eden Brukman, Technical Director for the non-profit HPD Collaborative was staffing its booth at GreenBuild, where business was non-stop. Brukman noted a “remarkable uptick in interest in (HPD’s) work.” The Transparency Movement (as some like to call it) is definitely experiencing an upswing, and HPD is clearly a key player in this progression. In addition to offering manufacturers an open standard format for reporting product content and associated health information for building products and materials, the service is free for all to use, which is certainly one factor in its gaining popularity.
The HPD Collaborative partners with several product databases. Green Spec was one of the first independent efforts to vet and list products meeting specific requirements. The Pharos Building Library provides access to HPDs (as do most of the other collaborative members) as well as a full assessment of health hazards associated with the product and its manufacture, VOC certifications, renewable material content, and renewable energy usage. SpecSimple is more recent, and unlike Green Spec or Pharos, includes advertising. Another commercial database partnering with HPD includes Green Wizard, which integrates its product library with a proprietary software aligned with LEED credits (WORKflow Pro). I understand from one user that the software program is “pricey” but a good value. GPD’s THESource (which also offers advertising) aligns product transparency efforts with BIM and Revit; I attended a GreenBuild presentation introducing GPDTools (Alpha), a free downloadable add-in specifically designed for the Autodesk Revit users to search, select and annotate building product data (including HPDs) directly.
Nearly 30 manufacturers at GreenBuild were exhibiting products that are Cradle to Cradle Certified. Up to recently a proprietary system closely held by its founders William McDonough and Michael Braungart, the Certification has gone public with the founding of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. Lots of other product certifications were on display as well — sometimes several for the same product. One GreenBuild attendee complained that the multiple certifications on many product booths were confusing, but my guess is that as the drive for transparency takes hold, two things will happen, the value of a given certification will be understood more clearly, resulting in a more nuanced weighting of that certification in the prospective purchaser’s mind. Another consideration is the audience for the certification(s): a skilled professional whose license depends on being informed, and the less informed consumer of the skilled professional’s services. My observation, at least at events like GreenBuild, is that professionals are seeking more information, not less. But they want to know the information they are getting is good quality — and transparency can help them know that.
Transparency is not intended, however, to sort out the certification puzzle. The commonly held view is that manufacturers won’t want to reveal damaging information, such as the fact that a given product includes harmful ingredients or was created using harmful processes. Forward-thinking companies with solid product portfolios (or willing to create them) have done the calculus. This is good for business. Laggards will innovate or lose in the race for transparency.
Kathleen O’Brien is a long time advocate for green building and sustainable development and most well known for founding O’Brien & Company, the oldest green building consultancy in the Seattle area. She lives in a green home, and drives a hybrid when she drives at all. After 30 years of working in the field, she is now focused on providing leadership training and mentoring through her legacy project: The Emerge Leadership Project, a 501c3 non-profit with a mission to “accelerate life-sustaining solutions in the built environment through emergent leadership principles.”