I recently returned from NeoCon, North America’s largest design exposition and conference for commercial interiors. While this expo is not particularly focused on sustainability, I was disappointed that so few companies had made sustainability a priority in the designs of their new interiors products this year. For those who did address the sustainability of their products, the common theme this year seemed to center around indoor air quality.
On the one hand, I was delighted to see company after company touting reductions in harmful gases being emitted from their products, but I became increasingly concerned with how much was left unsaid.
While product messaging was clearly focused on health and well-being, gone was the previous year’s more comprehensive focus on sustainability and product ingredients that are additively good for the environment. In its place I saw a preponderance of claims such as "PVC-free." One has to wonder, when you can only talk about what’s coming out of your product, should we worry about what really is in your product?
As the conversation around sustainability has grown and matured, it has also outpaced industry leaders’ ability to properly message around it. Having coincided with an economic downturn, it’s no wonder we’ve diluted how we talk about sustainability. In tough economic times, manufacturers and retailers need to get the most bang for their buck in choosing one of hundreds of eco-labels, and they also need to feel confident that whatever label or certification they choose will be able to cut through the noise. Today, particularly at NeoCon, it appears that indoor air quality has won this battle.
While indoor air quality is indeed a major concern for the interiors industry, it doesn’t provide the full picture. Indoor air quality is a very narrow slice of the lifecycle of a product; it is merely a measure of what comes out of your product, and not what goes in. It doesn’t say anything about the material selection, manufacturing process, the supply chain or product recyclability — all the things you need to know to make a proper assessment of health and sustainability for both people and planet.
Sustainability, in many ways, has become too difficult to understand. People want a clear message. As a response, we’d rather just talk about what’s not in a product, rather than what is. By removing materials like PVC, which can result in harmful emissions throughout its lifecycle, manufacturers and retailers can make a simple environmental claim and internally check the box that their work on sustainability is done.
I left NeoCon wanting to implore industry leaders to stop talking about what a product isn’t, and start exploring what it is. If it’s not made of PVC, what is it made of? Don’t you deserve to know?
Image - LDI Corporation's PVC-free EnviroLeather