Mind & Matter


Material Chemistry: Part 1

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For the fall 2010 issue of the ARCHITECT Product Spec Guide, I had the opportunity to address what defines green materials in an article titled “Multiple Choice.” To give further definition to this topic, I decided to discuss the issue with Michael Werner, a chemist with McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry—the well-known sustainable design consultancy in Charlottesville, Va., and purveyors of Cradle to Cradle certification.

As you know, there are many factors that determine the “greenness” of a material. In your research, what particular aspect do you prioritize?
I think material chemistry is number one. You cannot change or optimize the chemical composition of a product once it leaves your door. There is a lot of buzz about carbon footprint, energy footprint, water efficiency, and other important measures that you can optimize over time. However, if a manufacturer sends toxic products into the biosphere, you can't get them back without leakages and the potential for large environmental, human, and/or economic costs. Therefore, it is absolutely crucial that you design products that are safe and healthy for human and environmental systems from the outset.
It’s a shame that eco-labeling doesn’t yet convey an accurate picture of material chemistry.
Very few eco-labels attempt to address this area and do a good job at it. Most labeling systems that do make an attempt typically use restricted substances lists (RSLs or “Sin” lists) for chemicals in products or materials. Almost every program in this sub-set of eco-labels focus on a very limited set of ingredients—anywhere between the 22 Stockholm Convention chemicals up to a few hundred, and only if they are present above 0.1% or 1% in a product or material. Thousands of hazardous chemicals slip through the cracks.  

The Cradle to Cradle® Certification (C2C) program is at the other end of the spectrum. Companies work to identify and evaluate the impacts on human and environmental health for all ingredients of their products and materials down to 0.01% because they and we believe that the only way to produce a truly "green" product is to first ensure the safety of all product ingredients in the biosphere by way of a rigorous human and environmental health evaluation. We’ve consciously chosen to go one order of magnitude lower than most regulations—down to 0.01%—because we have learned over the last 15 years that many of the problematic additives in materials occur in the 0.01% - 1% range. We’re also keen on how releases of even low concentrations of certain chemicals into the environment can have significant biological and environmental consequences.
The evaluation process you describe must certainly be a chore, which is a primary reason that eco-labeling has been inadequate thus far.
This evaluation process is not easy. First, you're dealing with complex supply chains that operate all over the world, have their own unique language barriers, and have differing levels of comfort with sharing intellectual property on the creation of their products. Obtaining the information you need to make an evaluation can be quite challenging. Can you imagine tracking down the full chemistry composition for all metals, plastics, foams, and rubber on your office chair as well as the colorants, plating, finishes, and coatings? Or how about the chemistry of highly sophisticated electronics like your laptop or mobile phone? It has been done, but high product complexity extends the timeline and scope of the evaluation.

However challenging this process might be, the value of understanding and evaluating product chemistry can be immeasurable. Every manufacturer’s business and brand name is on the line with real consequences if their products are ever shown to contain toxic chemistry. Sadly, we’ve seen that story play out with certain toy manufacturers, water bottles, cosmetics, cleaning products, and other product types. Brand protection is not the only benefit of understanding your product chemistry. It also provides the opportunity to optimize any problematic materials to limit liability exposure and position yourself in the marketplace to deliver higher value products to your customers.

Right—and trust between the manufacturer and certifier becomes paramount.
Absolutely. When you do identify those components and companies supplying them, the process typically involves obtaining robust confidentiality agreements for ingredient disclosures. But, even those contracts don't offer comfort to companies that have been burned by intellectual piracy via spies.
Spies, eh?
Yes, corporate spies—they’re not just in the movies!

[The interview continues in Material Chemistry: Part 2.]




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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.