The New Chemicals in Products Information Transparency

Ken Geiser, PhD
Material ingredient transparency is now part of the building design future.

One of the most impressive messages of the Materials and Human Health Summit at the Philadelphia Greenbuild Conference in November was how rapidly chemical information transparency in building materials has become commonly accepted.  Several hundred designers and building material suppliers listened to a panel on the Health Product Declaration, the Green Screen for Safer Chemicals and the Cradle to Cradle certification system.  The discussion was broad reaching and positive.  Material ingredient transparency is now part of the building design future.

Spending the day exploring the detailed frontiers of these new information systems might suggest that the building professions are alone in discovering the opportunities and complexities of an information rich materials menu.  But chemical information transparency is emerging in many other business sectors, as well.

A decade ago, the international automobile manufacturing sector set up IMDS – the International Material Data System – to provide a central database where vehicle component manufacturers can post the chemical ingredients of their products.  The IMDS permits companies like Honda, Ford and General Motors to clearly identify chemicals of concern in the component products that they purchase.  The password protected database is populated by component suppliers who provide full disclosure of all intentionally added substances contained in each part or device.  To date, 45 automobile manufacturers – 95 percent of the market – and 77,000 component suppliers are participating in the system.

Driven by new European restrictions on chemicals in electronic products, electronic product manufacturers set up an international standard called BOMcheck (Bill of Materials check) whereby some 2000 component manufacturers can send chemical ingredient information to 330 product manufacturers.  The information can be either in the form of a regulatory compliance declaration or full material disclosure.   Over 500,000 chemical substances are covered in the database.  Once a component manufacturer enters the identities of the component’s ingredients into the database, an analytical tool in the database automatically calculates the percentage of each substance in the part and identifies any relevant regulatory requirements.

More recently, the Outdoor Industry Association and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition have launched a sophisticated chemical management framework that, among other things, sets up procedures for tracking and declaring the chemicals that go into garments, footwear and apparel from fiber sourcing to dying, processing, cutting, sewing, finishing and packaging.   Specific requirements are set up in three performance tiers for chemical suppliers, brand name manufacturers and retailers.

“Consumers around the world are increasingly health conscious and they want assurances about the chemical safety of the products that they purchase.”

All this transparency is not so surprising.  Consumers around the world are increasingly health conscious and they want assurances about the chemical safety of the products that they purchase.  The Internet has made information highly accessible and cheap to get.  Retailers and product manufacturers recognize this new consumer interest and they see market advantage in being able to assure customers  that their products are free of worrisome chemicals like BPA (bisphenol A), lead, mercury, formaldehyde, isocyanates, flame retardants and phthalates.   But retailers like Walmart, Target, Home Depot, Lowes and consumer product manufacturers like Hewlett Packard, Levis and Nike cannot make such assurances if they cannot get suppliers to provide information on the chemical ingredients of products.

Here is where things get sticky.

  • Chemical information does not flow easily through supply chains
  • Firms fear to disclose chemical information for both competitive and liability concerns
  • Even when chemical information is available, it is difficult to interpret

This is why it takes the economic power and technical capacity of a whole business sector to set up systems that are likely to be effective, broadly accepted and well used.

A generation ago, we thought that we could trust the government to assure that products were chemically safe.  We passed federal laws like the Federal Hazardous Substances Act and Consumer Product Safety Act.  Today, we realize the high cost and practical limits of such government policing.  Chemical and material suppliers have the chemical information we want to assure product safety and, with the information systems we are developing today, it is simply more direct and less contentious to get that information directly from them.

So… building professionals are not alone in confronting information transparency.   The new LEED credits for disclosing chemical ingredients and optimizing products by screening out hazardous chemicals are pretty exciting, but they are not without precedent.  They are simply part of a larger transparency movement in the broader product market.  This movement is only likely to grow as we learn more about materials and health, desire to build safer buildings and increase our information handling capacity.

Ken Geiser, PhD
USGBC Senior Research Fellow, Professor Emeritus of Work Environment, and Co-Director, Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Ph.D. in Urban Studies and Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.