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Transparency Revealed

December 17, 2021
Lobby with  beautiful flooring

Earn CEU Credits:

i+s’ Continuing Education Series articles allow design practitioners to earn continuing education unit credits through an article.

Use the following learning objectives to focus your study while reading this article. To receive one health, safety and wellness hour of continuing education credit (0.1 CEU) as approved by IDCEC or 1 Learning Unit as approved by AIA, read the article, then log on to take the associated exam

After reading this article, you should be able to:

  • Explain the concept of life cycle thinking
  • Describe how transparency can impact health and wellness
  • Identify solutions for better navigating transparency
  • Discuss how transparency tools can reveal health and wellness criteria for flooring and other building product selection

*This CEU opportunity is sponsored by Armstrong Flooring.




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A growing issue in the AEC industry, transparency may be understood with an analogy. Consider how we decide what to buy at the grocery store; we’re influenced by different factors today than we were 20 years ago. We increasingly base our purchasing decisions not only on nutrition labels, but also on product ingredient lists and third-party certifications.

“Transparency stems from the idea that knowing what is in our products is a necessary first step toward making more informed decisions about the materials we use, especially around how materials impact human health and well-being,” according to a report by AIA and design/engineering firm Arup, Prescription for Healthier Building Materials. 1

As an expectation of transparency becomes the norm across industries, more and more specifiers are demanding transparency of construction materials. People want to know about more than just the food they ingest. They also want information on the quality of the air they’re breathing inside buildings and on those buildings’ effect on the environment. Access to data on building materials is seen as integral to that goal. 

“Transparency of material ingredients in the building products industry is mirroring a broader trend for the demand for transparency of all types: consumer products, business practices, even politics,” wrote Perkins+Will Senior Associate Suzanne Drake, an advocate for materials transparency, in a report on the topic. “The call has been building for a decade or more now.” 2

Turning back to our grocery example, for instance, transparency was ranked the top food and beverage trend for 2021 by Innova Market Insights. 3 And 81% of shoppers surveyed in 2020 for FMI, The Food Industry Association, rated transparency “important” or “extremely important” to their purchases. 4

Similarly, in the apparel industry, “consumers expect and demand transparency,” according to a recent report. “Now more than ever, they want to know the impact that their garments have. They want to know how they're made, who made them, where they've come from, what is in them, and ultimately, what they should do with them once they've reached the end of their useful life.” 5

The demand cuts across many sectors, with 86% of Americans saying transparency from businesses is more important than ever. 6 Brand agency Bailey Brand Consulting notes, “The brand value of transparency is increasingly becoming the central issue for brands, alongside a growing demand from customers to know what is in their products, where they come from and how they were made.” 7

It should come as no surprise, then, to see a demand for transparency in building materials. Demand can only be expected to have risen from five years ago, when 30% of project owners were interested in product transparency information, according to a Dodge Data and Analytics report. Interest was even higher among contractors (32%), architects (46%), and interior designers (73%). 8 Drake predicted rising interest among project owners in future. 2

Not out of the clear blue: Influences have been driving the trend

So what’s fueling all this interest in transparency? A number of factors, among them:

Health concerns — Interest in healthier living has been growing in recent years, and the pandemic has accelerated that growth. Deaths from COVID-19 were largely responsible for the greatest one-year drop in U.S. life expectancy since World War II — from 78.8 years in 2019 to 77.3 years in 2020 (diabetes and liver disease also played a role in the decline). 9 “The COVID-19 crisis appears to have intensified consumer interest in transparency and responsible production, and this is likely to persist going forward,” according to a report in Candy Industry Magazine. 10 This interest is especially evident in the grocery industry, where purchase decisions are increasingly affected by special diets (64% of shoppers in 2020 vs. 49% in 2018) and allergies/food insensitivities (55% of shoppers in 2020 vs. 44% in 2018) as well as by food safety. 4

A corresponding interest has been emerging in regard to buildings. Google is a pioneer of the transparency movement, citing health concerns as a reason for working to uncover what’s in the materials in its buildings: “Many of the chemicals that go into common building products have been linked to cancer, endocrine disorders, fertility issues, neurological conditions, allergies, asthma, and more. These chemicals can also leach into our environment and persist for decades, devastating ecosystems and endangering the long-term health of surrounding communities. Most of the time, we don’t even know what we’re exposed to.” 11

Availability of information — We demand data because we can, and we’ve developed a sense of entitlement to it. Millennials and Gen Z are particularly conditioned to expect access to data since they’ve grown up with its availability. As one reporter put it, “Just in my lifetime, we went from physical paper directories to having information at our fingertips, to finding what we’re looking for at the tip of our tongue with Siri, Alexa, and ‘Hey Google.’ So it makes sense that Millennials and Gen Z would just expect to be able to find the same information about their favorite brands. It’s not just them, though. We’ve all been living with that ability long enough that consumers of all ages expect access to information.” 10 Social media has contributed to this expectation: 40% of consumers who say that brand transparency is more important than ever attribute this belief to the easy access of information through social media. 6

Trust — Already skeptical of brand information (only 34% of us trust the brands we use 12), we’ve become even more distrustful in the wake of fake news and counterfeit designer and luxury products. “Brands are fighting an uphill battle to earn the trust — and business — of today’s consumer. The era of distrust is driving demand for greater transparency from power players, brands included, and setting new communication standards,” notes social media management platform Sprout Social. 6 Adds Bailey Brand Consulting, “A brand that seems to be trying to hide something runs a big risk.” 7

Environmental and social concerns — We’re increasingly looking to reward brands for doing the right thing, be it ensuring fair labor practices or sourcing raw materials responsibly — 66% of consumers will pay more for sustainable goods. 13 Much of the demand for transparency of building materials stems from a desire to understand their embodied carbon — that is, the greenhouse gas emissions arising from their manufacture, transport, installation, maintenance, and disposal. 14 “Unlike operational carbon (i.e., the carbon emitted from heating/cooling, lighting, and other activities while the building is in use), embodied carbon cannot be reduced once the material is installed,” explained Patrick Ford, product sustainability manager for building infrastructure specialist Legrand, in a recent report in The Construction Specifier. 
He noted that buildings’ embodied carbon comprises some 11% of annual GHGs. 15

Value — We’re accustomed to easily comparing the rates of airline flights, seeing what others are paying for cars we’re considering buying, contrasting the durability and performance of one refrigerator brand with another, or understanding real estate values in our neighborhoods. So now we’re starting to expect that same financial transparency elsewhere. In fact, some companies touting their transparency are sharing costs of materials, labor, transport, duties, and markup. 13

Building rating systems — Having already increased market demand for products with certain ecolabels, rating systems more recently have been emphasizing material ingredient disclosure as well as life cycle environmental impact.

Clear as mud: What is transparency?

Transparency means different things to different people and in different contexts. In the fashion industry with its concerns over counterfeit goods and sweatshop factories, for instance, ethical brand rater Good On You describes transparency as “the practice of openly sharing information about how, where, and by whom a product was made. Being transparent means publishing all information about every actor involved in the production process, from start to finish, from the fields to the store shelves. It allows customers to know exactly what they’re buying, with details from every step of the production process.” 16

Transparency in the jewelry industry is influenced by similar issues. “The journey of a rough diamond from the source mine all the way to the jewelry store is highly complex, involving multiple third parties around the world, and is therefore fraught with opportunities for fraud,” explains Jaime Lee, head of content strategy for tech firm AdRoll. So diamond brands are emphasizing gem provenance with traceability platforms. 12

But in the grocery industry, consumer concerns revolve more around their own health, so FMI research reveals, “Shoppers say a brand or manufacturer is transparent if they provide a complete list of ingredients (62%), the description of ingredients is in plain English (53%), [they] provide certifications such as USDA organic (48%), and [they] provide in-depth nutritional information (47%).” 4 

And when defining transparency about products in general, consumers tend to refer to how brands communicate, with 59% saying it entails openness, 53% clarity, and 49% honesty. Withholding information is deemed a lack of transparency by 69% of consumers. 6

Lee defines transparency more broadly: “Transparency in business is when a brand maintains open, honest, and accessible communications and relationships with internal and external stakeholders. When a company is transparent, it discloses important information about business operations, goals, values, and even data that could be considered sensitive, like pricing, sourcing, sales figures, and more.” 12

Indeed, the perception of what constitutes transparency has been expanding. Innova Market Insights reveals that a “clean label” for food often is now expected to address human and animal welfare, sustainable sourcing, and information throughout the supply chain. 3 And Bailey Brand Consulting notes that consumers are increasingly interested in the manufacturing process of products. 7 

An amplified perception of transparency is at work in the AEC industry as owners and public health officials consider how construction materials impact indoor air quality. Rand Ekman, FAIA, LEED Fellow, chief sustainability officer for architecture firm HKS, wrote in a 2013 report, “While the direct impact on building occupants may be non-existent, the transparency movement recognizes the up and down stream effects. From extraction to manufacturing, occupancy and demolition, people in all contexts can be exposed to these harmful substances.” 17

For this reason, transparency for construction materials often involves a comprehensive approach. “Transparency is about more than just product ingredients,” notes Armstrong Flooring in its white paper Transparency: A Smart Business Decision. “It involves changing the way you look at a product and engaging in a Life Cycle Thinking approach to product evaluation.” 18

The approach considers the impact of a product — social, environmental and economic — from the extraction of the raw materials, through its production and end use, and on to management of the end of the product’s useful life. In addition to factors like emissions and the sustainability of the material, the energy needed to make the product and maintain it are considered.

“Through transparency, companies openly disclose where their ingredients and energy come from,” Armstrong Flooring explains. “They talk about how the products impact society and the environment and what happens to them at the end of their useful life. Do the products emit any VOCs during their life? Do they go to a landfill or can they be recycled? Product information should be transparent enough to allow individuals to make a value-based decision on the use of a product.” 18

One thing is clear: However it is defined, transparency requires a sincere effort. Companies can’t simply give lip service. Consumers are already doubtful about information; 59% don’t completely trust product information from manufacturers and brands. 4 “Consumers won’t accept unfiltered, haphazard efforts — or overly polished marketing ploys,” Sprout Social warns. 6

Clear and present danger: Transparency can reveal health, environmental, and social impacts

Long before the lockdowns of the COVID pandemic, studies had shown that in modern society, people were already spending 90% of their time indoors. Clearly, building environments can have a significant impact on our health and wellbeing, so what’s going into these buildings, and how does it affect us? Well, despite interior design trends toward the look of natural materials, building products have increasingly been synthetic, experts point out. “Synthetic chemicals have become more and more pervasive in building construction — as exterior finishes as well as inside,” according to Perkins+Will’s Drake. “In particular, chemicals based on oil can be found in everything from adhesives and high-performance coatings to carpet and wall coverings.” 2

Given the vast amount of synthetic materials (as well as processing and finishing of natural materials) to which we’re exposed, it makes sense to consider their safety. Transparency advocates point to Centers for Disease Control and Infection studies showing that environmental chemicals appear frequently in our blood and urine (get more details on the biomonitoring program). And Drake writes, “Synthetic chemicals are cropping up in places they were never intended to be: inside the bodies of polar bears, in crustaceans at the bottom of the ocean, in air and water currents, soil, and perhaps most disturbingly, in the blood of our babies. The body burden of the chemicals we are all now subject to arises from a multitude of sources.” 2

Building materials are deemed one of those sources, and many believe some of this exposure may be hazardous. “Over the last decade, a growing body of environmental health research has shown that commercially available products, including building materials, commonly contain chemicals known or suspected to be hazardous to human health,” the AIA/Arup report argues. “There is growing belief that our buildings are exposing us to hazardous chemicals. In addition to impacts on building occupants, hazardous materials can pose impacts on people and natural systems across materials’ life cycles, during extraction, manufacturing, installation, and disposal.” 1

The Environmental Protection Agency is charged with protecting Americans from harmful environmental substances, and foreign agencies perform similar functions elsewhere. But their work is dependent on what’s already known about substances — and that, transparency advocates note, is where protection can fall short. “Chemical regulations are built around the idea of ‘safe until proven harmful’ — with the burden of proving harm falling to the EPA, which is widely acknowledged to be understaffed and underfunded for this effort,” Drake maintains. 2

The AIA/Arup report concurs that current scientific data is insufficient. “Due to these regulatory gaps, very little information exists about the toxicity of chemicals in industrial use,” the report notes. “In the absence of robust toxicity information, many environmental health scientists and policymakers promote the Precautionary Principle, which empowers decision makers to exercise caution in advance, rather than wait for absolute scientific proof of chemical health or safety.” 1

While the health impacts are an important aspect of the materials transparency movement, advocates also consider environmental impacts. The impact of buildings on the environment are complex, but have been quantified in a general sense. A UN report last year found that emissions from buildings had hit a record high, with the sector accounting for 38% of all energy-related CO2 emissions worldwide. 20 That breaks down to 28% from building operations and 11% from building materials and construction. 21 

Today, social and economic impacts of construction products may also be considered. “What goes into a building — appliances, furniture, piping, flooring, insulation, electronics, and everything else in between — may have complex and often destructive supply chains that affect people beyond the direct building end-users. Even products considered green by today’s standards often don’t take into account the true social impact of these products,” writes Kathleen Hetrick, a sustainability engineer at BuroHappold Engineering and a LEED, WELL, and EcoDistricts AP. “It has become increasingly clear that the materials we choose to build with are affecting populations way beyond the users and occupants of green buildings.” 22

Hetrick advocates for evaluating not just environmental impacts and the health impacts of materials on building occupants, but also their effect on communities. “This includes factory workers and those responsible for disassembling the product at the end of its use, the miners and harvesters of raw materials used to make building products, and the effects of manufacturing on those who live near production facilities, landfills and construction sites,” she notes. 22

While all of that may be a tall order, materials transparency is a step toward those lofty goals. It enables us to delve into the effect of products by knowing what’s in them and to choose products believed to have lower impacts. As the AIA/Arup report notes, “It will likely be impossible to find a perfectly benign material, so analyzing certain aspects of chemical exposure, even at a high level, that are specific to the project can help inform decision-making.” 1

Making your position clear: The process requires commitment, a life cycle approach, and a plan

Reaching for the ultimate goals of materials transparency — lowering the hazards and/or exposure risk of adverse impacts — simply starts with a commitment to do so. “Integrating better building materials into your design process must be intentional,” the AIA maintains. 23 But there are no silver bullets; one sustainable attribute of a product often must be weighed against another, and the product must fit within the project’s performance needs. Nothing is more unsustainable than replacing a product because it does not meet space performance requirements.

“In addition to looking across attributes, assessing tradeoffs requires looking across product and material life cycles,” the AIA/Arup report explains. “Health and environmental impacts may occur at any point in a material’s life cycle, from ecosystem disruption during extraction, to pollution caused during manufacturing, to occupant exposure while installed in the building, to emissions during product use, and finally to the release of hazardous substances at the end of the product’s service life.” 1

In a life cycle approach, the impacts of a product during each phase of its life are considered. Let’s look at a few of those phases:

  • Transparency in the supply chain — Transparency considers upstream disclosure. “Due to the complex and multi-tiered nature of the global material production supply chain, little is known about the tens of thousands of chemicals in circulation today. This lack of data obscures necessary information required to identify potential hazards to the environment and human health,” explains the International WELL Building Institute. 24 Manufacturers and fabricators must request disclosure of ingredients as a starting point for their own transparency. Disclosure from the supply chain drives them to review what goes into their products and perhaps seek more sustainable alternative ingredients where warranted. 19
  • Transparency in product ingredients — Once manufacturers know what’s in the materials they source, they can in turn be transparent about their products. This includes not only what’s in the products, but information about their health and environmental impacts. This enables specifiers to try to choose more sustainable products when feasible within a project’s goals.
  • Transparency in the manufacturing process — Transparency includes looking at how a product is produced. For instance, although they produce renewable energy, solar panels are notoriously energy-intensive to make in the first place. Fortunately, researchers at the University of Utrecht have found that they now pay for their embodied energy in just over a year. 25 Beyond the resources consumed in the production process are the manufacturer’s efforts toward transparency and sustainability. As AIA notes, “One key consideration is whether a manufacturer promotes transparency. Does the manufacturer disclose ingredients or publish a Health Product Declaration, Environmental Product Declaration or Declare label? Other considerations go beyond simply disclosing information: Do they reduce impact and optimize performance through certification programs?” 23
  • Transparency in end-of-life practices — In Transparency: A Smart Business Decision, Armstrong Flooring explains, “End-of-Life can be defined as the point when the product no longer performs the intended function or no longer satisfies the first user. In these situations, what happens to the product? Can it be recycled or repurposed? Can it be fixed or serviced or must it be disposed of? Companies need to understand how they can improve their products in order to reduce the environmental impact at the end-of-life and reduce hazardous materials remaining in the environment.” 18 If a product contains ingredients that may be hazardous in its disposal, despite the lack of hazard to building occupants when the product is used intact, then provision should be made for safe end-of-life management.

No matter how committed we are to avoiding products that have adverse impacts, it’s far easier said than done. Drake outlines some of the influences on designers: “Consider materials from structure and enclosure to flooring and walls at the outset; these (often default) selections become embedded into the project as budgets and schedules develop around them, making it difficult to change even at the design development stage. A strong design concept in which color and texture are important components also builds a case for products as specified (minimizing last-minute changes and ‘value engineering’ of finishes).” 2

If it’s hard to change products as a project progresses, logic would dictate that the sooner needed information is revealed through transparency, the better. The earlier in the project process that materials are considered, the more chances there are to make changes that result in healthier materials. AIA/Arup’s Prescription for Healthier Building Materials offers three ways designers can integrate healthier materials:

  • Redesign or simplify assemblies to replace or remove unwanted materials.
  • Revise specifications to allow for alternate materials with different performance characteristics to be used in place of unwanted materials.
  • Work with manufacturers to reformulate products using safer chemicals while still meeting the desired performance criteria. 1

The report notes that multiple stakeholders usually need to be involved in any changes and urges project teams to consider materials that may be overlooked. “Consider not only prescriptively specified materials, but also performance-based products most typically selected by the general contractor or subcontractor, such as adhesives, fasteners, and touch-up paints. These are time-consuming products to specify and may be overlooked in the materials vetting process, particularly for tenant improvement projects, which are designed and built on shorter timelines.” 1 In fact, general contractors should be involved in transparency early on in a project, suggests Andrew D. Mendelson, FAIA, chief risk management officer for Berkley Design Professional: “The role of general contractors in achieving greater materials transparency is essential. Their early involvement and effective communication with owners and design teams are needed to ensure the successful meeting of sustainable material goals.” 26 

If the entire process seems daunting, that’s because it is. But AIA suggests that it can be made more manageable by establishing a process for project priorities, subsequent goals and tracking mechanisms. 23 Drake recommends, “Identify a team-wide reference (like the Precautionary List or other defined strategy) for product vetting, and have the health champions from each stakeholder (and there should be a champion with every consultant, including the owner’s and contractor’s teams) on board with protocols for substitutions and alternates.” 2

In their Prescription for Healthier Building Materials, AIA and Arup recommend that designers develop a Healthier Materials Plan for each project in conjunction with the Owner’s Project Requirements (OPR) during the concept or schematic design phase. The report outlines seven elements the plan should have: 1

  • Establish goals and scope.
  • Set priorities to maximize impact without breaking the budget.
  • Develop measurable targets.
  • Define methodology and metrics.
  • Outline roles and responsibilities.
  • Provide for ongoing review and documentation.
  • Develop a building materials manual to hand off.

Clearing the air: Project teams should understand the challenges involved

Transparency and its ultimate goal are no mean feat. The good news is, some challenges may already have been overcome. Legrand’s Ford debunks three myths regarding challenges to transparency in building materials:

  • Myth: Documentation is insufficient for rating system requirements.
    Fact: “While this may have been true in the past, the recent increase in demand for transparency and optimization has pushed manufacturers to publish documentation for their products.”
  • Myth: It’s too hard to find documentation for differing product categories.
    Fact: Trusted sources such as HPDs provide the necessary documentation.
  • Myth: The industry lacks a collaboration forum for transparency and optimization.
    Fact: Ford lists materialsCAN and Living Product 50 (LP50). “Through conversations and collaboration with the design community including through their Materials Pledge group, the LP50 is looking to advance the case for specifying products that are transparently disclosed and/or optimized.” 15

But some challenges remain. For instance, some building owners are concerned about the liability of seeking “healthier” buildings through transparency, since this might raise questions about their existing facilities being “unhealthy.” And budget and timeframe pressures may discourage various project team members from taking the time to research or meet requirements. 1

While more vendors are jumping on the transparency bandwagon, it can be difficult to get disclosure from others for several reasons:

  • With requirements varying from one assessment tool to the next, manufacturers can be resource-challenged to respond to them all. 1
  • “Too much” transparency, particularly around pricing-related data, can pressure vendors to shrink margins. 27
  • Revealing “trade secrets” may hurt their competitive position. 1, 2
  • Disclosure and/or third-party certifications requires an investment, and they have no guarantee of a return. 1
  • They fear that if a disclosed substance is thought to be harmful, they can face liability and even lose market share. 1
  • They know how their existing formulations work, but if transparency efforts lead to the need for a change, that change could be disruptive and costly. 1, 19

Some transparency programs address the intellectual property issue by keeping formulations confidential to certifiers or not requiring exact substance names or amounts. “Striking a balance between full disclosure and intellectual property protection is one of the biggest challenges to overcome as the industry moves toward healthier building materials,” AIA and Arup contend in Prescription for Healthier Building Materials. 1

For architects and designers, the challenges include fear of scope creep as well as liability. 2 “Practitioners are often concerned about whether we’re taking on more risk when requesting additional transparency documents from product manufacturers,” AIA notes in its report How materials transparency affects your practice. “What if a client sues us for specifying a product with toxic substances, for example?” 23

Some fear that knowing about a hazardous substance in a material may make the architect or designer responsible for avoiding that material. 1  In Materials transparency and risk for architects, AIA cites three specific concerns architects may have for the adoption of materials disclosure and assessment:

  • “One common concern is that a building occupant may claim to have been injured by a substance contained in a product, and may assert that the architect was aware of the presence of the allegedly injurious substance and had a duty to avoid specifying products containing that substance.
  • “Another concern is that architects may not be fully aware of the contents of materials, or the contents may be obscured in some way, affecting what the architect knows or should know about materials.
  • “Finally, overreaching marketing claims for the delivery of ‘healthy’ buildings and similar promises create risks and challenges for architects.” 19

AIA urges architects to manage those risks the same way they manage other liability risks, including clear contract language and professional liability insurance. They should avoid trying to interpret disclosure data, guarantee its accuracy, or guarantee a “healthy” building. 23 For details on risk management strategies, practitioners should refer to the Materials Transparency and Risk for Architects white paper, which also states, “Architects should also ask their broker and/or insurer about how their policy will handle coverage for materials transparency claims … each time they renew their policy.” 19 Another source of risk management information is the AIA Trust report Materials Transparency: Opportunities and Risks. 28

Mendelson adds, “Both builders and designers should manage the expectations of owners by making it crystal clear that material and health analyses are most often solely based on the information furnished by manufacturers and their suppliers. If owners require further assurances, they should be urged to seek the professional services provided by toxicologists, environmental hygienists or other trained and certified individuals retained directly by the owner.” 26

Steering clear of lesser evils: While they can’t guarantee any silver bullets, transparency tools can help specifiers find better materials

A number of tools are available to help with materials transparency. Project teams can find transparency documents in databases managed by certifying organizations as well as in platforms such as Mindful MATERIALS, Sustainable Minds, Green Building Pages, Ecomedes, Green Badger and GBCI’s Better Materials. 15

Environmental Impact Transparency Tools

Life cycle assessment modeling is used to quantify life cycle impacts. These impacts are reported in Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). An EPD is a third-party certification that discloses information about the carbon footprint and other environmental impacts of a product based on a life cycle assessment. It does not require optimization, nor does it use a standardized method for disclosing hazards. 19 “EPDs generally cover impacts only up to delivery of a product to the job site; they stop short of impacts from the ‘use’ phase, where building occupants might be affected,” AIA noted in Materials transparency and risk for architects. 19

EPDs are used frequently in construction materials transparency, and they provide many benefits. “For the manufacturer, this means newfound opportunity for product improvement and impact reduction. For the buyer, EPDs enable objectivity, easier comparison of similar products and more informed decision-making,” according to Armstrong Flooring. 29 Declarations may include: information on the manufacturer, product identification, life cycle assessment methodology and results, Product Category Rules, data on raw material acquisition, material content and chemical substances, efficiency and energy use, emissions, and waste generation. 30

Another environmental impact disclosure tool is a Product Environmental Profile (PEP). This declaration is specifically used for electric, electronic, and heating and cooling products. It provides an environmental profile without quantifying how environmentally friendly the product is. Data is based on a verified life cycle assessment. A PEP can cover a single product or a product family. 32

Additionally, tools are trying to make information easier to understand and compare. “The push to reduce the embodied carbon from materials used in construction has always faced an enormous hurdle: It’s difficult for architects and contractors to quickly evaluate the differences in carbon emitted in the process of manufacturing two comparable products,” according to Brad Kahn, a Seattle-based communications consultant focused on climate, forests and green building. 33Building Transparency, a new nonprofit, has an Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3). This tool pulls the A1-A3 carbon footprint data from Environmental Product Declarations, applies a factor to adjust for variation, and encourages users to compare carbon footprints across products and categories. Per ISO life cycle assessment standards, EPDs are not comparable unless the assumptions and program operators are the same. Building Transparency also recently released Tally, a life cycle assessment app that quantifies and analyzes carbon locked in building materials. The next generation tallyCAT tool will leverage the capabilities of Tally and EC3 directly within BIM modeling programs like Revit. 34

Material Ingredient Disclosure Tools

Many product certifications and designations with an emphasis on material ingredients focus on health impacts. Some look at impacts in different phases of a product’s life cycle. Here are a few of the commonly used programs.

Health Product Declaration (HPD) — While it does not require optimization, this disclosure document, which may be third-party verified, 34 provides data in a standardized format, allowing apples-to-apples comparisons. 1 “Reporting thresholds for an HPD may vary from 100 to 10,000 ppm, and the chosen threshold(s) must be disclosed. Depending on the manufacturer’s own understanding of residual chemicals and impurities, HPDs may not report health impacts of process chemicals, combined exposures, or chemicals’ potential transformation products.” 1

HPDs can be used to achieve requirements of building rating systems, to inform product selection, and to collaborate with manufacturers on product innovation by providing a common language and database of product health information to support discussions. An HPD has six sections:

  1. The Summary highlights the product’s ingredients, hazards, and thresholds.
  2. The Content section lists ingredients, along with their associated hazards and other relevant information, in descending order of their quantity — either by their substance level regardless of the material structure, or by Nested Materials Inventory. In the latter method, contents are reported first at the materials level, with substances then itemized within each material.
  3. A Certifications and Compliance section provides information such as VOC content and emissions.
  4. The Accessories section explains what’s needed to install or maintain the product.
  5. General Notes can include other information the manufacturer deems relevant.
  6. The References section lists ways to find more info, such as links to hazard lists. 36

UL Product Lens — This third-party-verified certification and declaration tool provides chemical content data for hazards over four phases of a product’s life cycle, with potential exposure at each phase indicated. While it doesn’t require chemical content optimization, it requires disclosure to UL of chemicals that the final product retains in concentrations greater than 100ppm and rates hazards on a point system. Reaction chemistry at each phase is also considered. 1 It stresses the significance of chemical exposure during usage, and the program is designed to help companies fulfill disclosure requirements for LEED and WELL. 37

Cradle to Cradle (C2C) — This certification doesn’t require public disclosure, but a Bronze or higher level C2C Material Health Certificate does assure specifiers that a product is free of chemicals on the C2C Banned List. Routes of exposure during life cycle phases are considered. In addition to material health, the program assesses material reutilization, energy and carbon management, water impacts, and social fairness, though manufacturers may opt to certify the material health only if desired. Scores in each area are reported on a product label. 1

Declare — Developed by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), this certification indicates compliance with the Living Building Challenge’s Red List of toxic chemicals. “A Declare label includes a list of disclosed constituent chemicals, sourcing data for those chemicals, a statement regarding extent of compliance with the LBC Red List, estimated life expectancy, and end-of-life options for the product. Chemicals are required to be disclosed to 100ppm.” 1

Use of Tools in Rating Systems

Many tools outlined above can help bring transparency to building projects. In fact, building rating systems have been an impetus to the development of some of the tools. Rating systems referencing disclosure tools include LEED, WELL, the Living Building Challenge, Green Globes, and BREEAM, among others. But as is often the case, building rating systems don’t all reward the same tool in the same way. The Living Building Challenge, for instance, rewards project teams using Declare, while some rating systems accept several different types of tools for various credits. A handy reference showing which rating systems accept which types of disclosure tools is available at Sustainable Minds at

Clearcut advantage: Focusing on transparency rewards companies and the world at large

Embracing transparency is not easy, but it has its rewards. It enhances a company’s trust, according to Bailey Brand Consulting. “Increased transparency about your product’s contents, manufacture and journey to the consumer inspires trust in your company, its values and what it is offering.” 7 It solidifies brand loyalty, with 85% of people willing to give a second chance to a transparent company after a bad experience and 94% willing to be loyal to transparent brands. 38 Companies may even be able to charge more, as 73% of consumers will pay more for transparent products. 6 As AIA notes, “It can also give you and your firm a competitive advantage. With more clients showing interest in occupant health outcomes, architects and design professionals without materials transparency experience are at a disadvantage.” 23

Material disclosure transparency incentivizes manufacturers to review product ingredients and find safer alternatives. Merely asking for disclosure information creates demand, which advances the movement. 19 “Every new designer, firm and manufacturer that commits to creating transparency strengthens the effort at large,” notes HKS’s Ekman. 17

The effort generates momentum for better materials. “Architects can reduce the impact on people and the planet by selecting innovative and responsible materials from manufacturers that practice transparency … Once manufacturers understand industry transparency priorities, they can optimize their products [to meet market demands] by phasing out harmful ingredients and processes. As more and more architects and designers ask for product disclosure information, manufacturers are encouraged to create better products, enabling permanent, far-reaching improvement in building manufacturing standards. As architects and designers have more data, they can make better, more informed decisions. With this added knowledge, we can all influence the building product marketplace.” 23



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1.    Yang, Frances and Tepfer, Sara. Prescription for Healthier Building Materials: A Design and Implementation Protocol, AIA and Arup. Spring 2018.

2.    Drake, Suzanne. Looking Back To Get Ahead In Building Materials Transparency, Work Design Magazine. December 2017.

3.    Innova Market Insights, Innova identifies top 10 food and beverage trends to accelerate innovation in 2021. Oct. 21, 2020.

4.    FMI, The Food Industry Association. Press release. June 23, 2020.

5.    Chaffo, Tyler. #WhoMadeMyClothes: Transparency Has Become a Fashion-Industry Imperative, Sustainable Brands. February 2021.

6.    SproutSocial. From Risk to Responsibility: Social Media & the Evolution of Transparency, 2018.

7.    Bailey Brand Consulting. The Brand Value of Transparency.

8.    Dodge Data & Analytics. The Drive Toward Healthier Buildings 2016: Tactical Intelligence to Transform Building Design and Construction. 2016.

9.    CDC, National Center for Health Statistics. Life Expectancy in the U.S. Declined a Year and Half in 2020. July 21, 2021.

10.    Lindell, Crystal. Pandemic heightens consumer demand for brand transparency, Candy Industry Magazine. May 26, 2021.

11.    Google. The Journey Toward Healthier Materials. September 2019.

12.    Lee, Jaime. Why Brand Transparency Matters, AdRoll. Feb. 14, 2020.

13.    Amed, Imran et al. What radical transparency could mean for the fashion industry, McKinsey & Company. Feb. 14, 2019.

14.    Carbon Leadership Forum. Embodied Carbon 101.

15.    Ford, Patrick. The growing demand for transparency in buildings, The Construction Specifier. March 12, 2021.

16.    Rauturier, Solene. The Importance of Transparency in the Fashion Industry, Good On You. April 22, 2021.

17.    Ekman, Rand. Substances of Concern: Why Material Transparency Matters, ArchDaily. Nov. 16, 2013.

18.    Armstrong Flooring. Transparency: A Smart Business Decision. 2016.

19.    Malin, Nadav et al. Materials transparency & risk for architects: An introduction to advancing professional ethics while managing professional liability risks, The American Institute of Architects. April 2016.

20.    UN Environment Programme. Press release. Dec. 16, 2020.

21.    Architecture 2030. Why The Building Sector?

22.    Hetrick, Kathleen. The Social Impacts of Green (and Not-So-Green) Materials, USGBC LA. Dec. 3, 2019.

23.    AIA. How materials transparency affects your practice.

24.    International WELL Building Institute, WELL standard.

25.    Goodall, Chris. Solar panels now pay back the energy used to make them in little more than a year, Carbon Commentary. Dec. 8, 2016.

26.    Mendelson, Andrew D. Materials Transparency: The Movement Continues to Gain Traction, Construction Executive. Dec. 11, 2017.

27.    Granados, Nelson. Can you see what I see? Transparency, consumer demand and strategic pricing in B2C electronic commerce, University of Minnesota Information and Decision Sciences. May 19, 2003.

28.    The AIA Trust. Materials Transparency: Opportunities and Risks.

29.    Armstrong Flooring. Understanding Environmental Product Declarations. 2016.

30.    Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs): A Guide for Architects. Archtoolbox. May 29, 2021.

31.    EPD International. Different EPD Types.

32.    Ford, Patrick. USGBC Platinum member Legrand North America uses product environmental profiles to increase transparency, USGBC. Oct. 12, 2016.

33.    Kahn, Brad. Transparency builds around embodied carbon in construction materials, Living Building Chronicle. June 16, 2020.

34.    Perkins&Will. Press release. June 24, 2021.

35.    HPDC Third-Party Verification Program, HPD Collaborative.

36.    Health Product Declaration Collaborative. Project Team User Guide: Using Health Product Declaration (HPD) Open Standard, version 2.2. May 2020.

37.    UL. Sustainable Product Transparency Tools.

38.    The Light Digital. Consumers Want Transparency. Here’s How to Give It to Them.