Product Transparency: There’s No Turning Back Now

 by guest blogger Bill Walsh

bill-walsh2The year 2013 was a turning point in which product transparency emerged as a cornerstone of corporate sustainability efforts.  In the green building movement, this was driven by the Health Product Declaration (HPD), an open-standard format for reporting building product content and related health hazard information.  The HPD is triggering unprecedented levels of disclosure by product manufacturers since its introduction at Greenbuild 2012.

This November at Greenbuild, a full house of manufacturers and their customers engaged for a full day at the Healthy Materials Summit, discussing how to make transparency work in the building industry. If applause is an indicator, everyone seemed to agree with the attendee who took to the microphone to call it the most inspiring event she had ever attended at Greenbuild. Nearly 100 companies have indicated that they will participate in the Manufacturer’s Advisory Panel convened by the HPD Collaborative, the independent non-profit organization that manages the HPD open standard.

Virtually all of the leading architecture firms in the green building movement have notified manufacturers they will soon begin requiring HPDs. One trade association, BIFMA, has stepped forward to express interest in harmonizing their certification protocols with the HPD. Independent materials evaluation tools such as my organization’s Pharos Project, the Cradle To Cradle Innovation Institute, the GreenScreen and the Living Building Challenge Declare label are also engaged in a harmonization process with the goal of making it easy for manufacturers to use the HPD to provide product information to multiple systems using the standard format.  All of the leading product certification groups are participating in a pilot project to develop certification protocols for HPDs. And of course, the new LEED v.4 materials credits reward the use of HPDs as well.

My organization, the Healthy Building Network, actively supports the HPD. Our Pharos Project pioneered analysis of product health hazards based upon full disclosure of product content information. In order to help the industry standardize the disclosures needed to do this analysis, HBN conceived of the HPD, and together with BuildingGreen, convened the HPD Working Group in July of 2011. We believed then and believe now that the HPD is the industry standard for communicating building product contents and related chemical hazards information. Here’s why:

  • The HPD is a customer-led collaboration. The architects, designers, builders and building owners who created and administer the HPD are not likely to drop it in favor of fractured offerings from individual manufacturers or trade associations. Likewise smart manufacturers will not walk from an open collaboration at the invitation of valued customers.
  • The HPD is a standard format. The multiple disclosure formats that have cropped up in the flooring industry alone typify the very problem that customers are trying to solve with a standard reporting format – too many inconsistent, confusing and self-serving information systems.
  • The HPD is comprehensive and resilient. Manufacturers are invited to communicate additional information such as the availability of their risk-estimates prominently on the format. The HPD Collaborative is establishing a revision process that will continuously improve the HPD to optimize its accuracy and value.
  • The HPD is voluntary and universal. It can be used by any manufacturer on any product at any stage of the disclosure path to describe what they do and don’t know, and what they can and can’t disclose. It is the ultimate market-based approach to information.

The trend towards full disclosure in the green building movement is part of a larger trend in corporate sustainability.  In September, both Walmart and Target announced new policies that will require their suppliers to disclose ingredients and phase-out the use of certain chemicals of concern in consumer products.

The transparency movement is only in its infancy. HPDs remain voluntary, unverified and in many cases incomplete. But there is no question that it is here to stay.