Market transformation as seen, and acted upon, by a manufacturer

James Vallette | March 22, 2013 | Materials

This blog post, originally shared in the Pharos Signal, includes information about parts of Pharos that are no longer available. Please use it for historical reference and for the other useful information it contains.

This week, Pharos opened its latest category of product evaluations: wall protection.  These products, generally used in interior high traffic areas to protect corners, walls, and doors, are a microcosm of the wider building materials marketplace. Manufacturers are shifting away from problematic plastics, like PVC, and are finding themselves under greater pressure to disclose their new products' ingredients.

For a closer understanding of these trends, I spoke with an eyewitness to this change: Lisa Britton, president of Alpar Architectural Products. She was a member of the Health Product Declaration pilot committee, and a key resource for helping us understand wall protection as we developed Pharos evaluations.  Industry giant Pawling acquired her company in 2012.

"I established Alpar Architectural to drive change in the industry.  Partnering with Pawling is the best way to achieve that goal,” she said in a company press release last April.

She elaborated on industry changes in our interview this week.  “I have been making wall protection since about 1995,” she began. “Around 2004, I started looking at some of the human health and environmental issues. I went to see Bill Walsh of the Healthy Building Network speak, and that really solidified where PVC was on the spectrum for me. Then I started looking for alternatives to PVC for wall protection.”

A significant hurdle, said Ms. Britton, was the unavailability of suitable non-halogenated flame retardants for non-PVC materials.

Polycarbonates were the early wave of substitutions, she said.  “From a manufacturing standpoint, it was a fairly easy transition. What I had learned was that it (polycarbonate) was almost as bad as what it was replacing.  For me, if I’m going to make a replacement, I need it to be actually good, not just less bad.”

She hired a chemist to develop a bio-based polymer product that contains a single, homogenous, polylactic acid resin from Natureworks and the non-halogenated flame retardant, melamine polyphosphate. The product earns better manufacturing scores than the other 10 products that Pharos evaluated for this category opening.   “Mine is the petroleum-free product,” she explains.

PVC still commands the majority of the wall protection market, but shares of alternatives, like PLA, HDPE, and PETG, are growing each year.  “It is changing very quickly,” said Ms. Britton. “Even just a few years ago, it was a fight to bring up the issue of an alternative. With a lot of folks, it was a completely foreign concept.  Now I’m seeing a lot more PVC-free specifications.”

Material content disclosure, she says, is the next transformational wave striking the wall protection industry.  “I think the marketplace demand for transparency is starting to take off. It wasn’t until recently that people were asking me what is in my materials; I’m thrilled; I’m very happy to disclose the information about my products. They’re not going to be perfect obviously, but it really helps the market compare apples to apples and get rid of greenwash.”

The Pharos team appreciates it when manufacturers like Alpar fully disclose their products through Pharos.  Since our system launched in 2009, dozens of companies have driven innovation and transparency by fully participating in Pharos.  We are heartened by the degree to which manufacturers are engaged, and share the goal of improving the health of building materials.

For further analysis of these types of products, see our new Wall Protection category description.