Chemistry, Health and Social Equity: When it comes to material and chemistries, true sustainability entails a deep audit of the supply chain - Aug/Sept 2020

By Darius Helm

The sustainability movement’s drive toward transparency over the last decade has greatly expanded the scope of sustainability, with both a deeper dive into the material use phase and a longer reach upstream into the supply chain and downstream toward end-of-life or cradle-to-cradle reuse. The focus on greener chemistries has heavily influenced the flooring industry’s evolution, and greener building materials in general have helped drive the growth of models for health and wellness, expressed through organizations like the International Living Future Institute, the International Well Building Institute and the Healthy Building Network. But most of the real work lies ahead.

Of the three pillars of the standard sustainability model, the wellness and healthy building movement is largely centered on social equity-the other pillars relate to ecological and economic sustainability. And social equity is commonly interpreted as the health, safety and sustainability of-in the case of, say, a company-employees and stakeholders, as well as impacted communities. Social equity is ultimately about human rights, including not only physical health, mental health, safety and security, but also social justice.

For a flooring manufacturer, for instance, this means addressing the health, well-being and general satisfaction of not just employees, but also downstream stakeholders like distributors, retailers, contractors, homeowners and commercial end users; and those upstream within the supply chain. And beyond all these stakeholders that are connected through the actual business of this firm, there are the impacted communities, like those that live in the vicinity of processing facilities whose waste or airborne emissions can, if left unchecked, present toxic threats to health.

The most well-established standards for green construction-from commercial buildings and interiors, both new and renovated, as well as residential housing-are the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED programs, which have evolved in recent years to elevate transparency and accommodate the emphasis on health and wellness, though it’s not the focus (LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). But the innovation largely comes from pioneering organizations like the Healthy Building Network (HBN), founded in 2000 by Bill Walsh. Walsh, who was previously with Greenpeace for about a decade, is also a founding member of the HPD Collaborative, launched in 2012. Its Health Product Declarations (HPDs) were the first standard format for disclosing the content of building products-there are currently over 5,000 HPDs in the public repository.

HBN has a three-fold mission: research and policy, which includes tracking down data on products and their health

impacts; data tools, like software platforms for ensuring product transparency and cataloging chemical hazards; and education and capacity building.

Last year, HBN was recognized by the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) with the national 2019 Design for Humanity award, recognizing, among other accomplishments, its leadership in the fight to get the Environmental Protection Agency to restrict the use of arsenic in pressure-treated wood; the creation of the Pharos chemical and hazardous waste material library, as well as HPDs; its Green Guide for Health Care; and the HomeFree website, launched in 2016, which includes flooring guidance.

According to Walsh, “We have identified flooring as one of HBN’s ‘Transformation Targets,’ which are product/chemical combinations that we believe are capable of industry-wide transformation.” He adds that such a transformation can move healthier materials into the mainstream, rather than having to follow the arduous and costly certification route.

Another pioneer is the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), which has developed a range of tools for product transparency and the creation of challenging programs for the responsible creation of products, buildings, communities and more. It started with the Living Building Challenge (LBC), developed by Jason F. McLennan and launched in 2006 through the Cascadia Green Building Council, which created ILFI a few years later. In the years since, ILFI has introduced the Living Community Challenge and the Living Product Challenge. The first flooring firm to attain Living Product Challenge certification was Mohawk Industries with its Lichen carpet tile. Since then, Mohawk has added other products, both soft and hard surface, as have HMTX’s Teknoflor, Crossville and Tarkett.

ILFI is also behind the increasingly ubiquitous Declare transparency labels for products-Declared, LBC Red List Approved and LBC Red List Free. Flooring firms using the labels include Mohawk, Shaw, Interface, Tarkett, EF Contract/J+J Flooring, Bentley, Crossville, LG Hausys, Forbo, Mannington, Milliken, Amorim, Novalis, HMTX and many more.

McLennan also had a hand in shaping the Well standard, which was developed by the International Well Building Institute (IWBI), launched in 2014 by Paul Scialla, a financial trader who also founded Delos, a real estate and technology firm based in New York City. IWBI’s chairman and CEO is Rick Fedrizzi, who was CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) from 2001 to 2016. The two groups work closely together.

According to McLennan, ILFI’s Living Building Challenge is the most demanding green building program and is much more rigorous than the LEED standards. The Well standard covers a different range of issues, and a key difference between Well and LBC is that Well is focused primarily on occupant health and it doesn’t cover issues like energy efficiency, water efficiency and other issues that relate to the building’s relationship with the outside world. LBC digs more deeply, particularly on the chemical side.

Some of the most important developments in the last couple of years have come from a handful of leading women in sustainability. One is Stacy Smedley, executive director of building transparency and director of sustainability for Skanska USA. In 2016, Smedley got funding to work with the University of Washington’s Carbon Leadership Forum to establish embodied carbon benchmarks derived from environmental product declarations (EPDs). Embodied carbon is a measurement of the total greenhouse gas impacts on the manufacture of a material, including all the energy and material use involved in extraction, transportation, manufacturing, construction, emissions from installation of products and removal, end of life costs and more.

Working with software developer C Change Labs, and with financial support from a range of entities including Microsoft and Interface, Skanska was able to develop an open-source platform. Last November, EC3 was beta-launched as a cloud-based tool, a database of construction material information that can be used by contractors, specifiers and end users in order to calculate-and minimize-overall embodied carbon footprints for projects.

Currently, there are over 7,500 users of the EC3 tool, which is constantly being updated based on feedback from users. At the beginning of this year, EC3 leadership established a nonprofit called Building Transparency to continue the management and development of the EC3 tool and associated resources.

In buildings, Walsh points out, concrete and steel are what really move the embodied carbon needle and interior finishes have a much smaller scale of impact. However, while a floorcovering with high embodied carbon may not have a significant impact on the building’s total environmental burden, when it comes to the manufacturer’s environmental burden, it can represent a massive carbon debt.

Since retiring from his position as chairman of ILFI last year, though he still sits on the board, Jason F. McLennan has focused on his own practice, McLennan Design, which specializes in “deep green projects,” both residential and commercial.

One major project is the Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, Washington. McLennan is working with a partnership between NHL Seattle, Oak View Group and Amazon to create the first zero-carbon arena in the world. The arena, which will be home to the Seattle Kraken NHL expansion team, is currently under construction and should be completed next year, and it will be entirely powered by renewable energy from both onsite and off-site solar power. All events and related transportation for everyone-sports teams, fans, entertainers, etc.-will be fully offset. And the ice for the arena will come from rainwater frozen with zero greenhouse gas emissions and resurfaced by electric Zambonis.

It’s important to remember that this whole green movement has been a learning curve. There’s no rulebook. And it has also been a process of discovery, including identifying new issues and vulnerabilities (particularly on the supply side) and developing mechanisms to address them, and expanding sustainability models to capture all of the environmental, economic and social impacts. With every year, the scope of sustainability seems to expand, as do the standards and certifications that capture and codify progress toward sustainability in the built environment.

It can be costly and complicated, and the bureaucratic aspect is daunting. And from the perspective of specifiers and end users, it is onerous to have to wade through certifications, some of which are competing, in order to get a clear picture of a product.

When it comes to chemistries, ChemForward may have the solution. It started as an internal initiative at the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, where ChemForward’s executive director, Stacy Glass, worked from 2012 to 2017, to provide badly needed chemical hazard data. ChemForward, a nonprofit operation, launched in 2018.

Walsh describes ChemForward as an agnostic assessment bureau designed to be available for any certification system, harmonizing data analysis. Instead of firms paying for every chemical assessment internally, ChemForward enables firms to chip in, pay once and get good data that is consistent.

In terms of the limitations of gathering data internally, Glass points out that “often when you receive these toxicology reports, you are not able to share them with your whole supply chain.” And the reports themselves can be huge and full of technical data. Glass asks, “How is it actionable for people who don’t have that kind of background?”

She adds, “The companies we’re talking about are the innovators, and we’re moving into a space with early adopters, but we’re designing a system for the majority. We can’t have the kind of change we want to safer chemistry until it’s really available to the majority of companies-cost-effective, trusted, actionable.”

In April 2019, Lauren Heine, joined ChemForward as director of safer materials and data integrity. Heine has worked for decades on green chemistry issues and also created programs like GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals and CleanGradients. Heine and Glass had worked together for several years in the field of material health.

In terms of products like flooring, Heine points out that ChemForward offers a lot of cost efficiencies. Heine says, “If you’re a flooring manufacturer, and your customer is saying, ‘I need to know what the additives are in the flooring,’ that forces you to have to go back to your supplier, who may or may not have all the answers, who has to go back and talk to their supplier, who may or may not have the answers.” If a customer wants the manufacturer to prove that certain additives are safe, the manufacturer, which didn’t even make those additives, now has to pay for chemical hazard assessments, which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars.

A centralized repository like ChemForward is developing can be used to string together the chemicals in the supply chain, providing hazard information. Heine adds that there’s even a mechanism to redact formulations, to protect confidential information but still show hazards.

ChemForward uses a network of independent toxicologists to serve as peer reviewers, and there’s also a challenge process that can prompt a reexamination of the data.

In addition to offering a globally harmonized repository of chemical hazard assessments, ChemForward is curating the safer alternatives, so that manufacturers dealing with a problematic chemical have vetted options to use as replacements. This year, which is the pilot year for ChemForward, the organization is testing 200 safer chemicals and piloting them across various sectors-the built environment, apparel and footwear, beauty and personal care, and packaging-and the goal is to ramp up to 2,000 chemicals.

ChemForward is currently running on seed funding, but the goal is to be financially independent within five years. Glass says, “The supply chain needs this information so much that we believe that we can do a cost-sharing/benefit-sharing model where everybody, instead of paying thousands of dollars for a single chemical, will pay a few thousand dollars for hundreds of chemicals to access. So we’re removing a zero or two from the cost of doing this work.”

While there are several flooring firms that are making progress toward a more sustainable model, the industry does not always react with alacrity. According to Walsh, “The flooring industry is not a rapid innovator compared to fashion brands.” Apparel and cosmetics brands have reacted more readily to issues with chemistries, in part because people are “more sensitive to what’s right up against their bodies.” Also, frequency of purchase can make a brand more sensitive to these sorts of issues.

Offsets are generally a valid way of compensating for environmental inadequacies, and they are commonly used by a range of businesses to account for anything from the environmental burden of transportation to renewable energy goals to products and processes that are not as green as they ought to be. And the concept is basically sound: you purchase carbon offsets from another entity, like a renewable energy producer, and thereby add its green attributes to those of your firm to improve your environmental profile.

But what about when offsets are compensating for, say, a chemical whose production releases toxins to the surrounding community? The firm is taken care of, because those offsets have been calculated to neutralize those impacts. But it does nothing to actually reduce those toxic emissions and protect that community. Every entity benefits, except for that vulnerable group of people.

When it comes to evaluating chemistries, it can take a deep dive to uncover all the potential hazards. And this means taking a careful look at the communities where the chemicals and materials are sourced and processed. Globally, toxic chemical exposures disproportionately target low-income communities and other vulnerable populations. And that’s also true in the U.S., where poor and minority communities are more heavily impacted, as are children. According to Dr. David Bellinger, a neurology professor at Harvard Medical School, the scientific consensus is that children are the population subgroup most vulnerable to toxicities from exposure to environmental chemicals. He notes, “Children are being exposed to unrecognized toxic chemicals that are silently eroding intelligence, disrupting behaviors, truncating future achievements and damaging societies.”

The most obvious example in the U.S. is “Cancer Alley,” which is a stretch of the Mississippi River running from Baton Rouge to New Orleans that is chock full of industrial plants and refineries. It has one of the highest concentrations of cancers in the U.S., largely impacting those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

It’s also worth noting that a chemical doesn’t have to be toxic to have an unacceptably negative impact on populations. Clear-cutting of hardwood can also decimate local populations, for instance, by displacing communities or disrupting farming practices.

Toxic impacts on vulnerable communities is a major problem when it comes to sourcing from overseas, particularly in less-developed nations where there is less social equity in general. And with overseas manufacturing, it’s not just the surrounding communities that need to be vetted but also the facility employees. Working conditions, wages and healthcare are critical to the sustainability of these workforces.

To address these issues, the International Living Future Institute came out with its Just label in 2013, updated to Just 2.0 last year. The label, which is formulated similarly to the Declare labels, covers a range of social justice indicators under five categories: Diversity & Inclusion, which includes ethnic and gender diversity; Equity, which is focused on wages and pay scales; Employee Health, covering both physical health and well-being; Employee Benefits, including healthcare, retirement, education and family leave; Stewardship, which ranges from volunteering and local communities to animal welfare, charitable giving and “positive products”; and Purchasing & Supply Chain, which includes equitable purchasing.

To date, the only flooring firm using Just 2.0 labels is HMTX Industries, the parent of the Metroflor, Teknoflor, Aspecta, Vertex and Halstead brands. Its products are made through long-standing partnerships with two Chinese manufacturers, both of which have Just labels. And earlier this year, the Norwalk, Connecticut-headquartered business came out with a Just label for the entire $700 million global firm.

This year has been dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, and right in the middle of it came the human rights protests. Both have impacted people all across the globe. It’s no surprise that the pandemic has everyone’s attention, since it is by definition a global event, but the protests that started in the U.S. also spread to much of the world, particularly in Europe, whose colonial history shares some common elements with the American legacy.

These historic events have led many people to see the world differently. In terms of the pandemic, people are far more conscious of how they live their own lives, what they consume and what they’re exposed to. And when it comes to the protests, more than ever before, white people empathize with the plight of black Americans, who in turn have welcomed them as allies in this struggle for equal rights.

These events have led many people to see the world differently. Health and safety are on the forefront of everyone’s mind, as individuals and as a society. For many people, their vision and understanding of the world has broadened.

As McLennan puts it, “2020 is the year of perfect vision, the year when people perhaps finally see how society needs to change related to a range of issues, from the environment to the economy to issues of social justice and equity.”

One area where people seem to need more education is disinfection. The overuse of cleaning chemicals and treatments has been extensive, and some of those chemistries can be problematic, particularly when used to excess. And people have been so concerned about not catching the virus that they’ve been soaking their spaces in chemicals that are toxic.

Heine notes, “People are going crazy with disinfectants, thinking that if they douse their home with disinfectants, they’ll protect themselves against COVID. It’s been proven that soap and water is really effective. It’s a virus that disintegrates with the surfactant in soap.” Glass and Heine point out that a number of organizations, including the Interstate Chemicals Clearinghouse and EPA’s Safer Choice, offer resources that identify safer antimicrobials.

It’s not likely that people will change their behavior in this atmosphere of high anxiety, but there’s a good chance that the post mortem will shine a spotlight on some of these chemistries, hopefully driving another round of assessment and replacement with greener options.

Copyright 2020 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:Interface, Crossville, American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), Mohawk Industries, Novalis Innovative Flooring, Metroflor Luxury Vinyl Tile, HMTX, LG Hausys, Shaw Industries Group, Inc., Tarkett, Mannington Mills