Cradle to Cradle

How Construction Specialties Commits to Healthy Chemistry

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I recently spoke with Howard Williams, vice president and general manager of building product maker Construction Specialties, to discuss what it means as a company to commit to improving material health and eliminating toxic chemicals.

James Ewell: To start, can you briefly describe Construction Specialties’ chemical policy?

Howard Williams: We want to see safer chemicals being used throughout our entire supply chain. As a result of our work with Clean Product Action’s Biz-NGO Working Group, we’ve adopted the forum’s four guiding principles as the foundation of our chemical policy, which are to know the chemical ingredients in products and disclose chemicals of high concern; assess chemical toxicity and avoid hazardous chemicals in manufacturing as well as products; commit to continuous improvement; and finally, support public policies and industry standards that advance the implementation of the first three principles.

JE: What inspired your company to make such a bold commitment?

HW: As a company, there was a moment of revelation that led us down this path. In 1990, a hazardous waste incinerator was going to be put in our community in central Pennsylvania. A grassroots environmental group called the Organizations United for the Environment, or OUE, formed to fight it and successfully had the permit denied. Afterwards we realized that that incinerator was just going to go somewhere else, in someone else’s community. The next question we had was, “Why does our company create hazardous waste that might be ending up in this incinerator?" This question caused us to examine our own practices more closely, and we made a conscious decision as a company to reduce our negative impact.

JE: What were the first steps you made toward eliminating harmful chemicals? 

HW: First, we took on the goal of eliminating polyvinyl chloride — PVC.  While its use is very common in our industry, it is a material that is known to be harmful to people and the environment throughout manufacturing, use and disposal. Then we came to a point when we were offering both products with PVC and without PVC for customers who wanted a healthier alternative, particularly in schools and hospitals. That was a bit hypocritical. It was time to pick sides. 

Acrovyn 4000 wall protection was our first product line to become completely free of PVC. Once we did that, we realized we could still do more. Getting rid of PVC alone wasn’t enough, because you can have a PVC-free product that is still filled with other persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals, also called PBTs. Committing to healthy chemistry has become the guiding principle for our material selection and product design. We are proud of our success in eliminating all chemicals of high hazard to human and environmental health from the Acrovyn 4000 wall protection profiles, and because of that we recently were recognized as Cradle to Cradle (C2C) Certified Gold.  We plan to continue making strides throughout all of our product lines. 

JE: What knowledge have you accumulated during this process that you would pass onto other companies considering a similar commitment?  

HW: Start only if you’re committed and are able to first answer the challenges that will be raised within your own company and then the ones that will come from your suppliers. Know that some suppliers will make it very difficult for you and they’ll have various reasons why they’ll not disclose their formulations.  

Through our experience with MBDC collecting formulation data for Cradle to Cradle Certification, we now know that we can’t delegate the first series of conversations about our chemicals policy with our suppliers. The short answer is: Know why you’re committed, be committed, explain your commitment, stay committed and know it can be done.  

JE: What has been the response of your customers?

HW: The response has been overwhelmingly positive, not just because we’ve taken this step, but also because we’ve been able to do it without raising prices.  It’s a bit scary to step away from a material that hasn’t completely fallen out of favor across the whole customer base while your competitors are still pitching PVC as an environmentally responsible material.  

However, the architectural and design community is largely aware of the need for safer materials, and our material health claims are made credible by achieving Cradle to Cradle Certification. We’ve actually received applause in the middle of our presentations when we announce Acrovyn 4000 is PBT-free.

Many of our mentors throughout this seven-year journey have been our customers. They have confirmed their commitment to us while affirming our commitment to safe chemistry.

JE: How does your chemicals policy fit into your organization’s approach to larger sustainability issues?  

HW: Although sustainability is technically a noun, we see it as a verb. It requires action. We apply the Cradle to Cradle framework to help us advance our sustainability agenda because it moves forward on five primary axes: material chemistry, material reutilization, renewable energy, water stewardship and social responsibility. That appeals to us because it doesn’t exclude existing work or limit the future.

JE: Your organization has made an amazing commitment to material health and sustainability. What is next for Construction Specialties?  

HW: We can have a positive and unobtrusive impact through everything we do and make. The opportunity is great, and we don’t want to miss a minute of it. We have an ambitious program ahead of us:

  • Get more of our products Cradle to Cradle Certified Gold 
  • Further embed our Chemicals Policy 
  • Design new materials from renewable (but not food-based) resources
  • Incorporating higher percentages of recycled content 
  • Use only recycled materials of known origin and disqualifying those of unknown pedigree. For example, not adding recycled content at the expense of staying PBT-free.
  • Increase involvement in education
  • Obtain LEED EBOM (Existing Buildings, Operations and Maintenance) certification for our facilities
  • Promote the understanding that sustainability is people-centered in a present and future tense.  

JE: Can you explain how this works with manufacturers with proprietary policies?

HW: That is the role of the third party — examine the processes and materials down to 100 parts per million without violating proprietary agreements. Our version of the policy is to disclose the information thoroughly through third parties.

JE: Why is 100 parts per million an important figure?

HW: At 100 parts per million we know 99.9999% of what is in a product. At that level, we feel confident that the remaining 0.0001% is insignificant for our applications.

JE: As you already know, the Cradle to Cradle Certification program is moving to the non-profit Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. As a company that has certified 17 products so far, what does this mean to you and what do you hope to see happen?  

HW: I think it puts legs under William McDonough’s expression, “Design is the first signal of human intention.” Moving it into the non-profit sector disarms the program’s critics and expands its influence. My hope is that more people will come to understand that the book Cradle to Cradle sets the context, and the certification says you’re living it. We really need to sustainably “remake the way we make things.”

JE: How have you communicated and spread the concept of Cradle to Cradle throughout the organization?  

HW: Our communication began in 2008 as we took a step into Cradle to Cradle Certification at the Silver level.  We presented it to our sales staff, gave them detailed background on the meaning and intent of Cradle to Cradle. We presented the market drivers within healthcare and buildings in general. 

Our training was based on our 2008 understandings, but that’s not sufficient for today and C2C Certification at the Gold level. The current market’s demand for environmentally responsible products heightens the need for credible product information, and raises the value of all of our C2C Certifications.

There’s only time for high quality communication. Believing that our initial work in 2008 was inadequate, we engaged a professional communications group to ensure we get it right this time.

JE: What have you found to be the benefits and challenges of implementing your chemical policy throughout your supply chain? 

HW: The benefits are that it sets a direction for material selection, specifies areas of focus, and measures progress. It’s not just about chemicals in our products; it’s about the chemicals and materials we use, or knowingly choose not to use, in all of our processes. 

Our challenge is implementation. We’re still working on it. We’ve gone back to the beginning and started all over again because the implementation plan wasn’t sufficient and I hadn’t given it enough attention. EHS and Purchasing are now running with it. R&D grasped it right away and began checking chemistry at the beginning of the product design and materials selection processes.  

See the video below for a short talk with Howard Williams from GreenBuild last year.

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