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Beyond Transparency: The Next Essential Step in Product Optimization

Image credit: GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals

If you’ve been around the building products industry in the last five years, you’ve probably encountered conversations about transparency — around material health, chemical hazards, environmental impacts, you name it.

To be fair, if you were around the building products industry 10 years ago, no one was really talking about transparency (at least not like today). The buzzword of the day back then was recycled content. Before that, it was indoor air quality. And over time those attributes have become commonplace for most manufacturers; transparency is the next attribute to achieve.

But the act of becoming transparent is a long and difficult road, and most manufacturers are just now learning what it takes to meet the market’s definition of transparency.

By definition, material health transparency is the act of being transparent about the human health impacts of materials and ingredients used to make a product. Material health transparency is typically SKU-specific. For example, the blue chair is different from the brown chair because the blue and brown dyes are chemically different.

Many companies, however, have fully embraced transparency. They have learned that in order to know what is in their products, they must first trace backwards up into their supply chains to collect chemical information on all materials and ingredients they use. This is no small feat as intellectual property, confidential business information, and complicated org charts make chasing down this information difficult.

After chemical and ingredient data is collected, “transparency” asks manufacturers to screen each chemical against various chemical hazard lists and issue some type of disclosure using Manufacturers’ Inventories, Health Product Declarations (HPDs) or Declare labels as the transparency vehicle. While those manufacturers issuing transparency documents should certainly be recognized for their hard work and openness, transparency isn’t the actual end goal.

So, what is?

Many will say “optimization” — but, while that is the end goal for many manufacturers, most would struggle to concisely define what “optimization” actually is. Is an optimized product one that is free of known carcinogens? A non-toxic product? A safe product? Without further definition, optimization is a location with no GPS coordinates; it simply does not exist.

There is one very important, intermittent step that enables manufacturers to further define what life after transparency looks like — one that reduces the risk of regrettable substitutions and helps to define what optimization actually is: A chemical assessment.

Too many companies rely on their suppliers or the government to tell them what is okay to use and what isn’t — which chemicals are legal vs. illegal, regulated vs. approved. Chemical assessments help manufacturers make those decisions on their own, internalizing the risk evaluation associated with an alternative product or chemical of concern.

No manufacturer wants to spend the time, energy and resources to change a chemical ingredient only to find out the replacement product is more harmful than its predecessor. No manufacturer wins when they try to optimize their product for material health only to realize the chemical they are using is much more impactful on natural resources and the environment. The dirty little secret few want to acknowledge is that in the pursuit of healthier materials, there will be trade-offs — healthier chemicals with higher carbon footprints or even lower carbon footprints with unresearched, unstudied chemicals. Only by doing a deep dive into the ingredients can one truly have the knowledge required to make an informed decision surrounding optimization.

While there are many different assessment methodologies out there, there are two that we recommend manufacturers consider when exploring life after transparency in the pursuit of optimization.

The first is the GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals, which allows users to determine the material health impacts of chemicals against 18 human and environmental endpoints — including carcinogenicity, reproductive toxicity, and endocrine disruption. This detailed toxicological assessment allows its users to better understand why a chemical is or isn’t considered a potential hazard, allowing them to make informed optimization decisions. Best practices include using GreenScreen Assessments to evaluate alternatives to ensure the replacement product is truly “better.”

The second assessment methodology we like to recommend is the Supply Chain Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). Most companies performing LCAs typically utilize purchasable secondary datasets (ecoinvent or GaBi, for example) in place of primary data from their actual suppliers. This happens primarily because actual LCA data is limited within supply chains. Supply Chain LCAs pull data out of the supply chain and provides insight on the actual impacts of specific suppliers’ chemicals and ingredients. The benefit of this assessment approach is that it enables manufacturers to better understand if a material’s impacts are better or worse than another material, illuminating differences in same materials from different suppliers.

The key to manufacturers being able to benefit from these assessment methodologies is the availability and access to this type of data. To borrow a quote from Uncle Ben, “with great assessment comes great optimization.” We are firm believers that the only way manufacturers can produce safe products with no negative human health impacts across the entire product value chain is to have access to the type of information that enables manufacturers to make those informed decisions.

WAP Sustainability is pioneering the growth of publicly available GreenScreen Assessments and working within supply chains to create better access to primary LCA data of the world’s largest ingredient suppliers. We have partnered with Toxnot PBC on a crowdfunded tool whereby manufacturers who use the same chemicals can partner to cost-share GreenScreen Assessments that can be used for HPDs or product certifications such as TCO Certified, or to comply with company supplier requirements.

Combined, these assessment tools create significant value by putting informative data into manufacturers’ hands that are representative of their actual supply chains. The more data that are made publicly available, the more companies will be able to drive lower-impacting materials and products into the marketplace. While the growth of the trend toward transparency is creating radical change in supply chains, we can’t forget that there is a whole other world beyond it.

 


Matt is a Partner and Sustainability Director at WAP Sustainability. In his role, he guides consumer and building product manufacturers in the management of technical sustainability tasks ranging from Life Cycle Assessment to Material Health Reporting, Greenhouse Gas… [Read more about Matt Van Duinen]


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