Dialogue regarding materials transparency in the building products sector has increased in recent years through efforts such as the Health Product Declaration, but less progress has been made in designing, specifying, and adopting safer materials. Although knowing what’s in a product and what you want to avoid is a good starting point for discussing safer materials, it is equally important to know what you want in place of an ingredient of concern. Eliminating ingredients of concern without careful consideration of the alternative ingredients you’re replacing them with can lead to unintended consequences. Unfortunately, progress on safer materials has been limited in part by a lack of collaboration among product designers, health professionals, material specifiers, and investors. Each profession has different goals, interests, and perspectives that can work at cross-purposes (and even lead to negative outcomes when not coordinated), but when their efforts are combined, they can significantly accelerate momentum towards safer, more sustainable materials.
To bring together the diverse stakeholders involved in these issues, USGBC, the Massachusetts chapter of USGBC (USGBC-MA), and UMASS Lowell organized a workshop this past December, hosted by EPA Region 1, as part of USGBC’s LEED, Materials, and Health Initiative. The goal of the workshop was to enhance understanding and collaboration among product designers, health professionals, material specifiers, and investors to support the design, adoption, and scaling of safer materials in the building sector. The event was designed to support existing regional efforts in sustainable materials and green chemistry, including those of EPA Region 1, USGBC-MA, and various institutes at UMASS Lowell, including the Toxics Use Reduction Institute, the Department of Plastics Engineering, the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, and the Green Chemistry and Commerce Council, a network of firms across sectors seeking to accelerate green chemistry adoption.
Workshop participants focused on several desired outcomes:
Panel presentations and discussions:
Perhaps the biggest lesson learned from the workshop was the limited degree to which different actors in the building materials space understand each other’s roles, motivations, and expertise. For example, most workshop participants, who included product designers, manufacturers, purchasers, health professionals, and scientists, did not understand the materials specification process and the tools that specifiers use. A basic understanding of the processes used and challenges faced for each stakeholder is essential to accelerate research, development, and adoption of sustainable materials.
A second lesson was the need for more proactive approaches to innovation in safer, more sustainable materials. Much of the focus of materials transparency and action to date has been to avoid chemicals and materials of concern. There is a clear need for more forward-looking approaches to innovation and greater communication and collaboration between materials innovators and those selecting materials. Proactive opportunities offer more than doing just a little less bad.
Part of the solution to both of these issues must be education on sustainable materials for different actors in the building materials space. Such education can help build collaborative bridges for the future. Finally, there is a need for greater investment along with other incentives that can move sustainable materials from a niche concept into the mainstream in such a way that they become the way materials are designed in the first place. The Green Chemistry and Commerce Council has taken on such a vision as part of its effort to Mainstream Green Chemistry.
Specific recommendations for future areas of development and collaboration stemming from workshop discussions included:
The workshop served as a starting point to advance dialogue, collaboration, and momentum on sustainable materials. USGBC and its local chapters need to play the critical facilitation role in ensuring that such dialogues continue and lead to the significant changes that will be necessary to accelerate the development and adoption of sustainable materials in the future.
Presentation slides and summary notes from this workshop are available here.