Reflections on Transparency — or Not

Penny Bonda, FASID, LEED Fellow, HBN Board Member | November 29, 2012 | Policies

December 10, 2012 marks the end of the latest public comment period for LEED v4, and in particular, for the proposed Materials and Resources credits that reward transparency in material specification and avoidance of chemicals of concern. These are the proposals that prompted the American Chemistry Council, a trade association that spends over $10 million annually to advance its federal lobbying efforts, to target LEED.

ACC recently joined with other major industry trade associations to form the American High Performance Building Coalition (AHPBC), a supergroup that is lobbying Congress to demand that GSA eliminate LEED requirements from federal building projects. The ACC accuses USGBC of imposing "arbitrary chemical restrictions" and claims LEED is "becoming a tool to punish chemical companies." This is no small issue and has received press attention in the New York Times, and from my HBN colleague Bill Walsh.

With this in mind, I tackled a challenging assignment at the 2012 Greenbuild EXPO. Accompanied by a video crew, I visited exhibitors on both sides of the issue of transparency in building materials and products, asking both toxic supporters — primarily big chemical associations and manufacturers — and transparency supporters — culled from participants in Pharos and the Health Product Declaration — three questions:

  • Does your company or organization support full disclosure of chemicals of concern to customers?
  • Does your company or organization support the LEED v4 credit for toxic chemical disclosure and avoidance?
  • Does your company or organization support the lobbying efforts of trade associations against LEED and the USGBC or has it issued a statement rejecting this effort?

Appropriately named the Transparency Tour, I along with folks from the Healthy Building Network (of which I am a member of the Board of Directors), set out to engage in a dialogue that would begin to resolve the conflict between the green building industry and "Big Chem." Click here for an overview of the conflict's history and the tour's origins.

Predictably, representatives from the transparency supporters were enthusiastic, and this is important. A growing number of leading manufacturers are engaged with transparency efforts and rightfully proud of their efforts. Not so it seems with Big Chem, where our interviews met with mixed results. Some chemical manufacturers simply refused to talk to us, claiming ignorance of the issues. The representatives I approached at Bayer, the world's top producer of bisphenol-A (BPA), and Arkema, France's largest chemical producer, said I would have to contact the appropriate experts at their companies who were conveniently not attending Greenbuild.

I was looking forward to my scheduled interview with BASF, a manufacturer that seems to value good public relations with the green building movement. In addition to its active participation in green building conferences, BASF engaged in the recent Health Product Declaration Pilot and its North American headquarters building has achieved LEED double Platinum certification. Surely, I thought, we would have a frank discussion on transparency and chemical hazards. I was wrong.

I've been called the "mother of green interiors" and perhaps it's my maternal instincts as the founding chair of the U.S. Green Building Council LEED for Commercial Interiors, but I take offense at the unwillingness of these companies to even discuss the issue, while their trade association wages such a brutal campaign against LEED in their name. After all, a BASF executive recently took over from a Dow executive as head of the ACC's Global group, and in 2011 BASF was honored with the ACC's Political Leadership Award.

Given its aggressive pursuit of the USGBC, an open and transparent conversation with the ACC of the issues might have been productive. However, Steve Russell, VP of ACC's Plastics Department, stonewalled our interview by refusing to answer my questions concerning transparency and chemical safety on camera, insisting instead on discussing only his agenda.

It is possible to have a civil dialogue even if you disagree. I had a good conversation with the Director of Global Product Innovation from Quanex Building Products, a vinyl windows company. Although the company spent over $300,000 in 2012 lobbying Congress on changes to the toxic-avoidance credits in LEED v4 and other issues, and we disagree on the value versus toxicity of vinyl, each of us listened to the other's point of view, but he did balk when asked about Quanex's lobbying activities.

Our most satisfying interview was with Kevin Mulvaney, VP of Marketing and Communications for the Vinyl Institute. HBN and I have had a long and contentious relationship with VI that is steadily improving largely through Kevin's willingness to engage in respectful dialogue. Yes, the organization is a member of AHPBC and has been lobbying Congress on green building issues since 2007. Yet he stated VI's goal as "transparency in the marketplace that allows for fair and open competition." Fair enough but I'd suggest VI continue the discussion more fully informed on green building performance data.

If given the opportunity I'd go back to these companies and organizations to ask these additional questions:

  • If you believe the chemicals you promote or use are safe, what are your objections to transparent disclosure?
  • If you are engaged with the USGBC, either as a member or an EXPO exhibitor, why are you so heavily involved in efforts to discredit LEED, its most valuable product in its largest market?

On November 6th a majority of voters rejected a presidential candidate whose campaign was based on the antithesis of transparency. This isn't who we are as a nation — or an industry. Those who believe or behave otherwise risk irrelevance and defeat. Rick Fedrizzi is right — We. Are. Right!