Transparency: There's an App for That

Bill Walsh | February 18, 2010 | Policies

iPad environmental checklist

Steve Jobs discusses a slide that declares the iPad arsenic-free, BFR-free, mercury-free PVC-free system, and highly recyclable.

You know that transparency is cool if it gets its own slide at the iPad rollout.[1] And it’s pretty cool to find transparency featured in the rollout of two new initiatives to establish green building products business groups. It’s further evidence that the age of radical transparency is coming to the green building movement.

Apple’s about-face is a harbinger of things to come. In May of 2007, the head of the notoriously secretive company answered environmental critics of Apple products with an open letter in which he “apologiz[ed] for leaving you in the dark,” and declared: “Producers must also take responsibility for the design and material choices that create the product in the first place.” This year’s environmental checklist for the new iPad reads like our wish-list for healthier building products: arsenic-free, brominated flame retardant (bfr)-free, mercury-free and PVC-free systems (gotta work on those pesky cords !)

Historically, in the green building movement, there has been no greater opponent of transparency than manufacturer trade associations. That’s why it is so intriguing to find the new Green Products Association staking its claim to “providing the only vehicle in the industry to address the most challenging issues of transparency, third party standards and more,” through a vision that “all construction and building operation products meet a continuously increasing level of sustainability… and that their performance criteria and metrics will be visible to all.” The GPA is a project of the Boston-based Green Roundtable. Underwriters Laboratories Environment has signed on as an early partner. [Update 4/25/11: The Green Roundtable is now the Sustainable Performance Institute (SPI).]

Another effort, to be launched in May, will focus on the building products supply chain. The Construction Specifications Institute along with EPA and GreenBlue will host a founders' meeting for the Green Building Products Coalition (GBPC). The GBPC is targeting businesses concerned that “genuine innovation and transparency are getting lost in the rush to green marketing,” and lists among potential projects to be determined by its future membership, “developing responsible building product design and disclosure guidelines.”

To be sure, these are only indicators, not examples, of a new era of transparency. Apple, after all, is only telling us what is NOT in their products. They have not disclosed what the iPad is made of. The fledgling business products groups are in the early stages of enlisting industry support for a vision, not a defined commitment, to transparency. The record of trade association influence over LEED materials credits is decidedly negative. What, one might ask, is to prevent “transparency” from degenerating into a mere marketing buzzword like “sustainable” and “green?”

The difference is that while greenwash strategies came to dominate and dilute terms like “green” and “sustainable” until they were rendered meaningless, the movement towards transparency marks an “informational sea change” as “the control of data shifts from sellers to buyers.”[2]

We are learning this from our own transparency project, Pharos. A gratifying number of manufacturers have stepped forward to disclose basic information about their product ingredients, earning recognition for 100% transparency within the system. A major health care system now uses Pharos as part of an RFP process to review sustainability and environmental safety. Pharos researchers are able fact check claims and fill in the blanks leveraging unconventional tools, from Google Earth to the US Patent Office database, into green product screens. We think of these as “transparency apps” for Pharos.

Like the myriad of iPhone apps that have transformed what we expect from the people who make what we used to call “cell phones,” there are a myriad of transparency tools that will transform what we expect from the people who make what we used to call “green” products. So, if you find it annoying to know that there are no BFRs or PVC in an iPad, but not know what’s in a carpet pad, hang on. We might just have an app for that.


[1] Watch the Steve Jobs discuss the iPad environmental attributes in his Macworld keynote at starting at 29:10.

[2] Goleman, Daniel. Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing The Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything. Broadway Books / Random House 2009, p.11.