Materials transparency is foundational to improving the health and safety of building materials. Last year, we wrote about the growth we’ve seen in the past decade in the amount and quality of data that’s available. This year we looked a little closer, and it’s clear that some product categories are ahead of others. When it comes to transparency, who's leading and who's lagging?
To answer this question, we reviewed transparency data from 2019-2021. Remember that just a few years ago material ingredient reporting was still in its infancy and transparency documents were few and far between.
The Health Product Declaration Collaborative (HPDC) is a nonprofit collaborative that develops and manages a user-designed open standard (the HPD) for reporting product content and associated health information. The first HPD was published in 2012. Today, there are more than 8,500 publicly available HPD reports and the HPDC has engagement of more than 300 manufacturers.
The International Living Future Institute’s Declare Label program, launched around the same time, promotes product transparency by disclosing product content and screening chemicals in building products against their own restricted substance list, which they call the Red List. There are currently 930 active Declare Labels.
Both of these programs continue to evolve to promote and reward higher levels of transparency, and both continue to grow. For example, these organizations are collaborating to allow manufacturers to take the same data that they use to publish an HPD and use it to publish a Declare label or earn a Cradle to Cradle certification.
One driver for this increase in transparency is likely the incorporation of material ingredient reporting programs into green building certifications. Project teams who choose to use products having published HPDs or Declare labels can be awarded points under the most recognized green building certification programs. As the transparency programs and green building certification programs coevolve, the latter are also beginning to recognize the importance of higher quality transparency documentation. For example, widely used green building certifications such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED v4.1 (beta), International WELL Building Institute’s WELL v2, and 2020 Enterprise Green Communities all encourage the use of third-party-verified documents and more complete disclosures by rewarding project teams with these higher-quality transparency documents.1
Which industries are leading the way in transparency?
While conducting product research, HBN collects and records transparency documents available by product type. Though our research is not exhaustive, it is able to show rough trends in how frequently we found manufacturers with at least one HPD or Declare label available within a product category. For instance, of the quartz countertop manufacturers, 5 years ago only 1 participated in disclosure programs, but now that number has increased to 12. Based on our research, here are the leaders and laggards by product category:
LEADERS IN TRANSPARENCY
LAGGARDS IN TRANSPARENCY
While the increase in transparency by manufacturers seen in categories like countertops, drywall, flooring, and paint is encouraging, some product categories still are not well represented. For instance, there are still few transparency documents for waterproofing products, and an HPD for copper pipes was the only transparency document available for water pipes.
To promote more transparency, one green building certification program has incentivized the use of products with transparency documents in categories where there is little transparency. The 2020 Enterprise Green Communities Ingredient Transparency for Material Health credit rewards teams with extra points for using products with HPDs or Declare labels for sealants, adhesives, and windows, which it considers high-priority categories due to the lack of HPDs and Declare labels for them. For this, we offer a big shout out to Green Communities for their leadership! Although Green Communities may be more familiar to the affordable housing sector, it easily applies to any real estate project, so we suggest you check it out. And for additional tips on their materials section, check out HBN’s resource to support your success.
Why does this matter?
Transparency is an important first step toward avoiding hazardous chemicals in building products, which can have human health impacts not only on building occupants, but also for the workers who manufacture, install, or remove the products and the communities that surround production or waste facilities. Making chemical content publicly available allows researchers like HBN and certification programs like Declare to translate the often complex disclosure information into simple guidance for you, and at the core, the public has a right to know which chemicals are in these products. Purchasers, contractors, and others in the architecture and design community can then use that information to make informed decisions and select products containing fewer harmful chemicals, and ultimately feel better about what they are putting into their buildings. Ideally, this increase in transparency can also help drive market transformation and encourage safer product formulations.
What can you do?
- Manufacturers: Learn more about the benefits of reporting product content through the HPD Open Standard. In addition to publishing transparency documents, by giving feedback on the process manufacturers can help identify common hurdles to publishing HPDs and create opportunities for even greater transparency for those wishing to set their products apart.
- Green building certification community: Continue to incorporate language rewarding third-party verified documents reporting content with greater precision (i.e. lower reporting thresholds) in your certification programs. Follow the example of Enterprise Green Communities and reward the use of products having transparency documents in categories where few exist.
- Architects, specifiers, and purchasers: Whether or not your project team is seeking a green building certification, prefer and select products with HPDs that are reported to a 100 ppm threshold and third-party verified.
Change is possible
While some product categories are more well-represented than others, there is room for both greater participation and higher quality transparency in every corner of the building products industry. This data shows that it takes both time and industry leaders to make this change happen. Strengthening the language in green building standards to include a higher standard of reporting and to offer incentive for underrepresented product categories could drive further change. Such change takes time and requires cooperation from players at all points in the supply chain. The current trajectory trend suggests that however insurmountable the hurdles appear to be, this type of change is possible.
 U.S. Green Building Council. “LEED BD+C: New Construction v4.1 - LEED v4.1.” Accessed August 11, 2021. https://www.usgbc.org;
International WELL Building Institute pbc. “The WELL Building Standard Version 2 (WELL v2),” Q3 2021. https://v2.wellcertified.com/wellv2/en/materials/feature/7;
Enterprise Community Partners. “Category 6 - Materials.” 2020 Enterprise Green Communities Criteria. Accessed August 11, 2021. https://www.greencommunitiesonline.org/materials