Plastic icebergs:  Navigating the PVC conundrum

If your company sails under the sustainability flag long enough and makes enough bold public commitments, you are bound to hit an iceberg sooner or later, where the public nature of your commitment and brand strength combine to make it that much harder to navigate your way out of a controversy. Interface, with the tremendous benefit of Ray Anderson’s years of eco-evangelism from the CEO suite, had quite a head of steam when we hit rough waters in the mid-2000s.

The reverberating crunch that we heard was rising stakeholder concern over the use of polyvinyl chloride (PVC, or vinyl) in building products, including in the backing material of our U.S. carpet tiles. In the space of a few years, we went from some customers and thought leaders thinking of us as the only company that truly “got it” on sustainability to a company that refused to “get it” about PVC.

Ten years into our sustainability journey, how could we find ourselves so out of step with some of our biggest supporters?

The first part of the answer has to do with the specific tools we were using to make decisions. In a flurry of work in the late ‘90s, we developed our own Restricted Substances List to eliminate potentially hazardous process chemicals and additives such as solvents and flame retardants. PVC made it through this screening because it is not toxic or hazardous in our factory or in our product, and we do not use toxic or heavy-metal additives. In contrast, our polyurethane carpet backing (a PVC-free, non-recyclable alternative) raised concerns because its manufacturing process requires us to store and react several regulated chemicals in the factory. So, why the big fuss over PVC?

Vinyl is the plastic environmentalists love to hate because of its life-cycle toxicity issues, which occur both upstream (emissions from plastic production) and downstream (if it gets burned under uncontrolled conditions). In addition, PVC always contains other chemical additives, some of which (e.g., heavy-metal stabilizers) may be quite toxic. While our Restricted Substances List adequately screens out toxic additives, it is not designed to account for these life-cycle toxicity issues.

As an early champion of lifecycle assessment (LCA), we were confident that we had a tool to account for the life-cycle of PVC. And while LCA has proven to be a reliable tool for more holistic decision-making, especially for considering carbon footprint or water impacts, it is notoriously weak at evaluating human health impacts like toxicity.

Even with robust life-cycle toxicity data (such as the chlorinated emissions from a PVC supplier), plotting it in a graph next to greenhouse gas emissions is scientifically meaningless and emotionally explosive, given that potential health impacts are far more personal and comprehensible.

Next Page: Learning the hard way