Bunnies and Butterflies: Envisioning the Ideal Future of Building Materials

Ashley White
If we could know everything about building product ingredients along the entire supply chain – from the extraction of raw materials, to the chemical supplier, through the product manufacturer, and all the way to the consumer – how would this transform the marketplace?

Last month USGBC convened a small group of industry and academic leaders to discuss how to increase information transparency in the building materials supply chain and leverage that transparency to transform the marketplace to remove hazardous ingredients from products. The event was an exercise in “backcasting” – in other words, agreeing on a desired future state that addresses a challenge, then creating a roadmap to get there.

Our first task was to envision the ideal state for information transparency and the marketplace for building materials. At the moment, ingredients and related health and environmental information for the products we’re surrounded by every day are usually unavailable. The information that is available is sparse, incomplete, and often uninterpretable and unverified. Furthermore, there is little incentive for manufacturers to provide information about what’s in their products, if they even have a complete list themselves.

“If we could know everything about building product ingredients along the entire supply chain… how would this transform the marketplace?”

But if we could know everything about building product ingredients along the entire supply chain – from the extraction of raw materials, to the chemical supplier, through the product manufacturer, and all the way to the consumer – how would this transform the marketplace?

Coming to a consensus on an end state proved to be the most challenging part of the exercise. Should we head for a perfect world, even if seemingly divorced from the constraints of reality, or should we try to imagine a practical, but advanced, system? Or, just maybe, could a “perfect” vision become reality?

One participant put it (and I’m paraphrasing here): “In ten years, when I walk into a Home Depot, I want to be choosing between a product that benefits bunnies and one that benefits butterflies.” In other words, a world in which all options are good because all hazardous ingredients have been entirely removed from the supply chain.

For me, this conjures up the image of Breyer’s ice cream commercials with kids reading aloud the list of easily pronounceable, “all natural” ingredients. But in this ideal world, it wouldn’t just be the Breyer’s label that reads that way – it would be all ice cream labels. (Presumably, ice cream would be vitamin-filled, low calorie, and come from sustainably reared cows’ milk, too.)  Information disclosure, market forces, consumer behavior, and scientific knowledge would have converged to the point that there is every incentive to only create products with non-toxic, fully disclosed ingredients.

A basic challenge is to figure out what’s in products to start with. Short of regulatory measures requiring ingredient transparency, consumers would likely need to demand the information themselves (perhaps because they want to obtain a LEED materials and resources credit), thus creating an incentive for suppliers and manufacturers to disclose it. That said, another challenge is that some manufacturers who would like to provide full disclosure of their products are unable to because they can’t track the ingredients further up the supply chain.

But does having all the information really lead to better product options and smarter consumer decisions? Food labels and some restaurant menus provide nutrition information due to regulatory measures, but studies have shown it often doesn’t affect consumer behavior. Restaurants have increased their menu offerings in many cases, adding healthier options, but haven’t addressed the nutrition of long-standing menu items. Most people know a salad with low-calorie dressing is a healthier option than a Big Mac, but they still go with the Big Mac. They’re cheap, and they taste good, so McDonald’s continues to profit from them.

“If we’re going to work to disclose materials ingredient lists, we also need to provide architects, engineers, construction workers, and other consumers the tools to understand what those lists mean.”

Expecting information disclosure to affect the marketplace also assumes that people will know what to do with the information once they get it. While nutrition labels distill the information about food into a format that most educated people can understand at least partially, there’s no equivalent for building products. If we’re going to work to disclose materials ingredient lists, we also need to provide architects, engineers, construction workers, and other consumers the tools to understand what those lists mean. Moreover, as per the Big Mac example, information and education may not be enough.

So, is it realistic to expect that full information disclosure, access, and understanding at all steps of the materials supply chain will lead to market incentives for better products to the point that we’re only choosing between the bunnies and the butterflies? Some would argue a more realistic future state is a database containing full ingredient information for all products and a level of consumer education that has substantially increased demand for and availability of healthier products. But, for the sake of next steps, does it matter which goal we target?

Either way, we need to continue to focus on three main areas: 1) providing user-friendly pathways for companies to disclose product information and for consumers to access it and distill it; 2) educating consumers and manufacturers about the health and environmental impacts of their choices; and 3) advancing our scientific understanding of chemicals and materials, particularly with regard to complex interactions among combinations of ingredients and the behavior of the thousands of new ingredients that are introduced to commerce each year.

Change takes time, particularly in such a complex system, and additional challenges will arise along the way. Should we expect to end up with a vastly improved system or the “ideal” vision of the bunnies and the butterflies and no bad options? I say “shoot for the moon.” As the lunar landing proved in 1969, sometimes a fantastic and seemingly unachievable vision can at the least be inspiring, and just may become reality.

Tags:                  
Ashley White
Senior Research Fellow at USGBC and Materials Scientist. Working to improve our understanding of the health impacts of building materials, increase materials data transparency, and incentivize the use of non-toxic ingredients in building materials. Ph.D. in Materials Science from the University of Cambridge.