Recap: Better Building Materials Through a Chain of Transparency

Panelists Susan Kaplan, Brooks Perlin, Christy Everett, and Rachel Berman

At our Emerging Professionals forum last Thursday, we learned that sustainability starts with transparency—and we don’t mean glass buildings. Following a bustling career fair at the Fashion Institute of Technology, a panel of industry experts working along various supply chains discussed "transparency" in building products—like window shades and countertops to furniture and flooring—and what that means for sustainability overall.

To understand how transparency can make buildings more sustainable, we first have to understand what it is. According to Susan Kaplan (HLW International), the transparency movement is “not about ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ it’s about honesty.” Rachel Berman (MechoSystems) drew a parallel between the calls for transparency in building materials and in food production. Disclosure of ingredients and associated impacts comes first, just like projects can receive LEED credits simply for listing what’s in their products. Optimization—making the products better—comes after.

Brooks Perlin (Eco Supply Center) praised the Cradle to Cradle certification for doing just that, by aiming “not just to make products that do less bad, but that actually start to do good.” Beyond the end result, the other panelists elaborated on how to create product lifecycles that benefit everyone along the supply chain, protecting and improving human and environmental health.

One way to do this is to rethink codes and standards. Standards, panelists said, need to incorporate the whole supply chain. Bamboo, for example, is a rapidly renewable material, but should not qualify projects for LEED credits if the supplier cleared a forest to plant it, according to Kaplan.

An area where codes can impact transparency is flame retardants, which are increasingly under fire for damaging the environment when they are produced, contaminating indoor air when they are used, and exposing firefighters to carcinogens. These chemical additives increase production costs, so why do manufacturers continue to choose product components that are not only more expensive but have serious health risks? All four panelists agreed that fire codes—requiring manufacturers to add flame retardants to many building products—warrant re-evaluation, especially outside the US where more stringent fire codes result in even more exposure to flame retardants in the built environment.

Panelists also thought standards for green building need to be stricter. LEED requirements have come a long way, but Perlin lamented the fact that LEED still allows the use of over 30 carcinogens in building materials.

Another way to tie the supply chain to sustainability is to adapt practices and build partnerships among stakeholders on both the supply and demand sides of the process. Christy Everett (Respondé Furnishings) brought up supply-side changes in design and manufacturing, such as avoiding composite materials that can’t be separated for recycling or reuse in disposal.

On the demand side, panelists said, consumers can become less accustomed to easy disposability and more invested in the mantra of “reduce, reuse, and recycle.” With the rise of biodegradable materials, like the cork and agricultural fiber products presented and discussed at the forum, we may even add in “return (to the earth)” as an end-of-life option for building materials.

About the authors

Rena Lee
Rena is the Communications Associate at Urban Green Council.