What is Product Transparency?
There are many ways to define product transparency. For the purposes of this post, we are exploring the ways that manufacturers can utilize transparency via product sustainability certifications. Manufacturers of building products have a unique opportunity to seek out and earn third party certifications that their products meet predetermined sustainability criteria. This criteria could include recycled content, biodegradability, avoidance of VOCs or other contaminants, etc. There are multiple certifications that apply to different types of building products and range from adhesives, flooring, paint, furnishings, upholstery, and more.
Advantages of Transparency
The word transparency is heard a lot today on social media, in the news, and from leaders in the public and private sectors. The concept of transparency applies in all of these realms as well as in product manufacturing and marketing. The products individuals and companies consume everyday have varying amounts of transparency in terms of the origin, manufacturing process, and “real cost” of their components. The real cost can be in the form of natural resource consumption and destruction, added chemicals, working conditions, and a variety of other factors that go into making a physical product that can be consumed.
Consumers and Corporations
Consumers have called manufacturers to task in recent decades and demanded to know where their products come from and who or what is affected by their manufacturing processes. Many corporations seek to provide some transparency and have “cleaned up” their processes along the way. With a new consumer spotlight on them, some corporations have improved working conditions, environmentally responsible resource extraction, and reduced carbon footprints.
A lot of commercials and online advertisements boast sustainability measures from electric vehicles to tree planting. It is refreshing to see corporations focus on their messaging and initiatives that can potentially improve the environment.
What both individual and corporate consumers should be aware of is the phenomenon known as greenwashing. It is a tactic used in advertising and marketing that gives consumers the impression of environmental responsibility but has no real action to back it up. Packaging is a major vessel for greenwashing efforts. Plant life, and sustainability buzzwords adorn packaging on food, toys, electronics, and many other products. Certifications like the ones discussed in this post give guidance to all consumers and help them choose products that have been legitimately tested and made to meet specific sustainability standards.
Corporate Social Responsibility
Manufacturers and corporations can publicly share their history and future intentions of running a socially and environmentally responsible business. This is usually done in the form of a public corporate social responsibility (CSR) statement or initiative. Consumers can analyze a business’s CSR and decide for themselves if the business is doing enough to offset any negative social and environmental impacts that their business may cause. This is where transparency can play a vital role. If a company is transparent regarding their CSR initiatives, it is easier for the average consumer to access that information. The CSR can be a draw for consumers who are searching for more responsible products, and that demographic is rapidly growing.
GREENGUARD has been a recognizable certification mark since the early 2000s. It is typically earned by manufacturers that produce low-emitting furniture but also covers other building products. The highest level of GREENGUARD certification limits many VOCs and other indoor air contaminants. Earning GREENGUARD certification is a similar process to the other certifications we have explored here on The Thread. GREENGUARD certification is administered by UL.
UL is an acronym you should know. It stands for Underwriters Laboratories whose seal you have most likely seen on a variety of products and equipment in your home, office, school, or your favorite store. UL is an independent, non-profit organization that establishes safety and testing standards for consumable products. It is another good guide on your search for higher quality, safer products on the market. UL has established standards and testing for building materials, furnishings, finishes, electronics, and cleaners. These standards are widely regarded as, well, just that, standards that should be trusted and decisions based off of.
The furnishings must also comply with California Department of Public Health (CDPH) Standard Method for the Testing and Evaluation of Volatile Organic Chemical Emissions from Indoor Sources Using Environmental Chambers. That was a lot of words. Just know that, if a product complies with CPDH, it generally meets many sustainability and emissions standards. The CPDH standards seem strict to some, since they are often lofty standards compared to other parts of the country that accept lower quality, often more dangerous products. You may have noticed a product you own has a label that states that it does not comply with CPDH standards. Keep in mind that that product may be emitting harmful contaminants including VOCs that will reduce the quality of your indoor environment and may contribute to health problems.
Keep in mind that products have several certifications they may be eligible for. For example, furnishings can also earn Indoor Advantage certification. Additional standards include ANSI/BIFMA Furniture Emissions Standard.
Green Seal focuses on keeping indoor environments healthy and clean by reducing toxicity and improving indoor air quality. Green Seal certified cleaning products can help earn a building project points if it is pursuing LEED or other sustainability certifications. Building owners can create operations and cleaning plans that preserve healthy indoor air quality and avoid asthma triggers often found in these products. Schools can also benefit from clean surfaces achieved with reduced toxicity. Green Seal gives purchasing departments a great avenue for finding and procuring safer and healthier alternatives to products they are required to purchase.
FloorScore, not surprisingly, is one of the leading certifications a flooring product can earn. FloorScore bases its certification on a product’s recycled content, its ability to be recycled, and contributions to indoor air quality. It applies to the flooring itself as well as accessories like adhesives, base, trim, etc. A similar certification specific to tile (ceramic and porcelain) and tile installation products is Green Squared. CRI Green Label Plus is the certification specifically for carpet products. These products can all contribute to LEED and other sustainability certifications.
Environmental Product Declarations
An Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) is a way to communicate the attributes of a product’s life. An EPD is a formal declaration that is made public to all. A Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) creates the foundation of an EPD. The LCA is a technical report that investigates the life of a product from raw material extraction, manufacturing, transport, packaging, and disposal. So, a product has a publicly available EPD. Does that mean it is the most environmentally responsible product choice? Not necessarily. Having an EPD is a good move and proves some dedication to transparency. It is up to consumers to determine if the information in the EPD means that a product is sufficient based on their standards. An EPD coupled with one of the certifications listed above could mean that the product is environmentally responsible and that its manufacturer is dedicated to transparency.
Manufacturers will continue to be held to higher standards in terms of transparency and providing high quality products with sustainable attributes. You as a business owner or individual consumer have a lot of power in your hands. You can demand transparency and higher standards for the products you consume everyday. You can “show” manufacturers where you intend to put your dollars by purchasing primarily sustainable products. Manufacturers will follow the dollars, and as a result, we could see a shift in the marketplace. A focused effort towards creating more sustainable products and using the products we already have will reduce our collective and individual impacts on the environment.