The Not So Secret Formula: a Major Milestone for Transparency?

Bill Walsh | December 2018 | Newsletter

Did you know that the first ingredient listed in many name-brand infant formulas is corn syrup? I learned this during a late-night run to CVS in search of a post-Thanksgiving feast for my infant granddaughter. Her mother, my daughter, admonished me, “Make sure you read the label; no corn syrup.” In the end, she came with me. Just to make sure.  

We were far from home and the local grocer’s brand of formula preferred by my daughter. Scrutinizing the labels to find a comparable alternative  reminded me how far the building industry lags behind the sort of basic transparency we expect in virtually every other aspect of our lives, and how the recent Greenbuild announcement by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and the Health Product Declaration Collaborative (HPDC) could change that.

Rising levels of transparency.

As a founding board member of the HPDC, I am proud of how the organization has defied skeptics and proven that there’s a market demand for transparency and healthier products in the building industry, just as there is in other aspects of our lives.

In the past, building product manufacturers resisted requests for disclosure with near universal concern about revealing their secret formulas. Today, more than 4,200 Health Product Declaration (HPD) reports are currently available in the HPD Public Repository, representing over 10,000 building products. An influential wave of industry leaders has embraced transparency in a truly meaningful way, and even more are authentically engaged with other stakeholders in the HPDC Technical Committee and Sub Groups, grappling with the challenges of disclosing actionable information about complex products and materials.

The partnership with USGBC presents an opportunity to take things to a whole new level – accelerating adoption of transparency and material health practices for tens of thousands of products.

The groups have outlined four principal areas of collaboration:

  1. Broaden the common framework for practice through open standards – Working with ecosystem partners, the USGBC and HPDC will continue efforts to increase the effectiveness of the LEED and HPD standards as catalysts for change. 
  2. Support a collaborative approach through information technology – A connected set of IT and platform offerings will enable both design professionals and manufacturers to easily and effectively use information resources.
  3. Increase the depth, breadth, and availability of education and credentialing offerings – This will extend their accessibility to better serve the broad population of global design and manufacturing professionals.
  4. Create engaging forums for communication and support – Outreach will facilitate more rapid learning and growth of the community of practice, with special focus on global design professionals and manufacturers.

Rising expectations for greater transparency.

In announcing the new strategic partnership with the HPDC, Melissa Baker, USGBC’s senior vice president for Technical Core, took note of rising expectations: “Market demand for transparency and healthier products in all aspects of our lives is greater than ever. Nowhere is the impact felt more than in the building industry.”

That’s right. Choosing paint or flooring for my granddaughter’s nursery or day care should be just as straightforward as choosing her formula. The debate over chemical hazards in building products is not that much different from the debate over corn syrup in infant formula. Both cases involve decision-making amid uncertainty. Independent data is still being gathered. Concerning evidence is mounting but is being vigorously contested by those in the industry that are well financed, politically connected, and invested in defending the status quo.

In the baby aisle at CVS there are no “secret formulas.” All ingredients are disclosed. Consumers make informed decisions after weighing the available evidence. The infant formula market remains highly competitive with forecasts of vigorous growth.1 Transparency helps to drive that growth, by increasing the confidence of the parents – and grandparents – making informed choices for the next generation, just as we do with building products.


1] Future Market Insights. “Infant Formula Market is estimated to reach a valuation of more than US$ 66 Bn by end of 2027.” August 30, 2018.