A closer look behind the walls of product transparency

The U.S. EPA estimates that people are spending 90 percent of their time indoors. The winter season (when we’re spending even more time curled up on the couch) is a perfect time to ask ourselves if we are living in a healthy indoor environment. Do we really know what is in the products that surround us all day long?  

Most people do not know if their sofa foam contains bioaccumulative flame retardants or if their wooden furniture is offgassing carcinogenic fumes. Fortunately, many players in the green building industry (including building occupants, architects, building managers, specifiers and product manufacturers) are now demanding that we take a peek behind the walls (and all around us) to know what toxins might be lurking in our building products.

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is leading the way by demanding transparency from product manufacturers about the safety of building materials and ingredients. At the Greenbuild Expo held last November in San Francisco, USGBC President & CEO Rick Fedrizzi laid down this challenge in the opening plenary, “If you claim to be the best, if you claim to be healthier, [then] prove it! Green building is about transparency and accountability.” The USGBC is rewarding product manufacturers who can answer this call with a greatly expanded offering of points in the draft of the next LEED standard (Version 4) for public disclosure of product ingredients, healthier products, responsible sourcing, and life cycle considerations. 

The challenge of transparency

It is not as easy as it may seem for a manufacturer to disclose to the public a complete list of all product ingredients. Manufacturers may not actually know everything that is in their products, and they need cooperation from the entire supply chain in order to inventory all the ingredients. Suppliers of chemicals, plastics and other component materials are understandably protective of their proprietary formulations, and there is little incentive for them to share their ingredients with their customers.  

Current regulations do not require suppliers to disclose their full formulations. Often the only available information about product ingredients can be found in a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), which is a form required by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for the disclosure of certain hazardous chemicals. However, this one standard does not include all of the chemicals of concern that may be in building products. Furthermore, many chemicals are harmful to consumers below the OSHA reporting threshold of 1 percent, but it’s not required to report the amount of the chemical in any given product in a MSDS.  

Some manufacturers are waiting until government regulations or a critical mass of consumers demand full transparency from all manufacturers. Without that even playing field, many are afraid that disclosing their chemical hazards will put them at a disadvantage compared to a competitor who doesn’t disclose anything. In this case, consumers are then forced to choose between a product with a known hazard or one without any detailed ingredient information.

In this dark age of product information, many trailblazing companies are setting themselves apart by disclosing everything that is in their products. Product manufacturers, such as Construction Specialties, are earning the trust of consumers by tearing down the walls of secrecy and letting us all in.  Construction Specialties worked with Perkins & Will to develop a nutrition label that discloses not only the ingredients in the product but also the product’s potential impacts to the environment (including material sourcing & recyclability, packaging content, and water & energy use).

Being an early adopter of transparency can also demonstrate a company’s commitment to change and finding healthier ingredients. Method, a cleaning products company devoted to green chemistry, lists every ingredient they use on their website.  In a piece published on GreenBiz, Method’s (now former) director of sustainability Drummond Lawson wrote, “We disclose the detailed composition of our products and the practices used to make them. We do this because we feel that transparency is the basis for authenticity and meaningful commitment to social or environmental change.”

Photo of colored bottles provided by Picsfive/Shutterstock

Next page: Tools for inventory and disclosure