We typically buy furniture based on things like style, comfort and cost. Shouldn’t we also consider what materials went into the furnishings – and their impact on our health and the planet?
Walking the aisles at my local supermarket, it’s hard to remember a time when food nutrition labels weren’t ubiquitous. Or when we knew enough to care about the ingredients in, say, sunscreen or glass cleaner. In the span of two decades, a lot has changed.
When it comes to what we put into our mouths or on our skin, transparency has become an everyday expectation. Unfortunately, many other industries have not kept pace — including my own: home and office furnishings. Our industry is in many ways akin to the pre-ingredient-label food business. But shouldn’t items that fill our homes and workplaces display clearly stated ingredients, too? If you’re not sure, what if I told you that many of those furnishings contain toxic chemicals linked to cancer, asthma and other ailments?
We all want clean air outside, but what about inside, where people spend 90 percent of their time? Harvard University’s Office for Sustainability recently outlined the critical importance of creating and maintaining buildings that enhance well-being. “There are more than 80,000 chemicals in use today, many of which are unregulated, and are associated with long-term problems on our health and the environment,” the office states. They’re not the only ones sharing alarming data. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air are consistently higher — up to 10 times higher — indoors versus outdoors.
It’s encouraging to see a number of fellow manufacturing companies committing to materials transparency. Companies such as Mohawk Flooring, Owens Corning and Kohler are making their product ingredients more transparent. At Humanscale, we’re leading our industry in materials transparency with more Health Product Declarations (HPDs) and Declare ingredients than any other company. Inspired by what we’re seeing brands such as sustainability pioneer Patagonia do in apparel, we’re diving deep into our supply chain to create the most thorough and accurate disclosures you’ll find. By understanding what goes into our products, we’re creating a healthier environment not only where we live and work but also for the world. We’re even working to make a net positive impact on it.
I fear, however, too many building materials and furnishings companies aren’t doing their part in supporting this movement. Many employ marketing rhetoric about sustainability but, in actuality, aren’t doing much. They make thin, uninformative statements that they “care about material health” and that they’ve “evaluated their products for you,” but they won’t share what they found transparently. I recently spoke with Health Product Declaration Collaborative (HPDC) Executive Director Wendy Vittori about the topic. “It’s easy to make statements like this,” she says. “It’s a lot harder to say, ‘This product contains mercury, formaldehyde or PVCs — materials known to be bad for the health of humans and our planet.’”
Establishing a Standard
That’s why the HPDC is working toward establishing an open standard for disclosure and transparency in our industry, and counts companies such as Armstrong Ceiling Solutions, GAF Roofing and Humanscale among its members. Although legal measures such as California Proposition 65 force companies to disclose what’s in their products to some extent, Vittori and I agree that we should be responsible enough to do it on our own — to do what’s right.
The HPDC’s standard of science-based, accurate specifications — all the way down to the chemical level — facilitates that. “If no one discloses anything, and no one is required to disclose anything, it makes it hard for companies to take toxins out of their products because nobody really understands what the difference is,” Vittori notes. “An open standard like this that is broadly adopted will really help lower the cost and complexity for everybody.”
From there, accurately reporting to the standard is key so that information is consistent within categories. That way, architects and interior designers — and, ultimately, consumers — can make the decisions that are good for human and environmental health.
Accurate reporting, however, requires a deep understanding of sourcing and the supply chain. “One of the big stumbling blocks is education,” Alison Mears, head of the Healthy Materials Lab at Parsons School of Design, recently shared in a conversation with me. “We hear people say, ‘We’re good, we’ve got that, we’ve done the sustainability thing.’ But we need to encourage people to understand this more deeply.”
Parsons started to take a serious look at materials transparency about three years ago and now offers four new online courses available to everyone. “If you want to understand more about the paints for your baby’s bedroom, you could actually start taking these courses and would be pretty well informed and know where to look for more,” Mears tells me.
A Healthier Planet
In striving for materials transparency, Humanscale now attaches ingredient labels to nearly 70 percent of our products. It’s not only a reflection of our commitment to avoid red-list materials and chemicals of concern; it’s proof we’re prioritizing ingredients that are healthy and environmentally friendly. In addition to transparency, we’re taking proactive measures to develop products with that create net positive impacts. Our Smart Ocean chair, for example, incorporates nearly 2 pounds of discarded ocean fishing nets. Those plastic nets are sourced from Bureo, a start-up funded by Tin Shed Ventures, Patagonia’s corporate venture capital firm — and we’re proud to list the materials on our HPD and Declare labels.
But we will never rest in satisfaction for what we’ve done. We want to go further and continue to show what’s possible, knowing the journey has just begun. Our hope is that our example will help change the face of materials transparency and responsible sourcing — and make it possible for others to join us.
For fellow home and office furnishings companies, this means moving toward transparency labels that are complete (as in all materials used, down to a granular level) and verified (reviewed and confirmed for accuracy by a third party). For design professionals specifying products, it means letting manufacturers know preference is given to items with transparency labels — that transparency is driving the purchase decision. For those design professionals’ customers, it means requiring products with transparency labels for all projects — as is the case at Harvard University and Google. And for consumers, it means shopping for products from companies that are transparent and clean. HPD and Declare both have public databases listing complying products. If products aren’t complying, contact a brand directly and demand change.
While all of this work bodes well for personal and environmental health, it’s also poised to become increasingly better business. According to research from Nielsen, millennials and members of Generation Z are significantly more willing than previous generations to pay for products and services that come from companies committed to positive social and environmental impact. And that’s why what’s good for health and the planet is just good business.
Jane Abernethy is the Chief Sustainability Officer of Humanscale.
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