As Americans, we spend much of our time indoors, working at desks, lounging on couches, eating at tables, sleeping in beds. Until recently, we paid little collective attention to how the spaces where we spend so much of our lives affect the planet or our own bodies. But today, and given COVID consumers are seeking healthier, more sustainable options for everything from food to footwear, and our living rooms and offices are also getting a closer look.
This shift has not gone unnoticed by designers and product manufacturers, who increasingly see wellness and sustainability as big business. In a recent poll, Nielsen found that 48% of all Americans (and interestingly 75% of millennial Americans) would change their purchasing habits to benefit the environment. 90% of American millennials said they are more willing to pay more for products that contain environmentally friendly or sustainable ingredients. By end of 2021, Nielsen forecasts that the sustainable goods market is expected to expand by up to $150 billion.
A chamber to test VOCs in furniture (aka off-gassing volatile organic compounds!)
But greenwashers beware: As public interest in these issues grows, demands for transparency are also increasing. With complex, globe-spanning supply chains and hard-to-pronounce chemical compounds still the norm in many industries, sophisticated customers are looking beyond marketing slogans and asking for more rigorous accounting about how companies are making their products safer.
Among architects and interior designers, the need for better information about these issues has led to the rapid growth of an initiative that offers a glimpse into how these issues might evolve over time. Called mindful MATERIALS, it takes the form of an easy-to-use online product library providing detailed information about the environmental and health impacts of different products used in buildings, from furniture and paint to roofing and concrete.
The platform began in 2014 as an in-house resource at HKS Architects, which needed an easy way for its design teams to share product information. According to Rebecca Best, who leads outreach for mindful MATERIALS, HKS soon recognized that “they probably weren’t the only firm that was struggling with sourcing materials that met some baseline material sustainability and transparency requirements.” Business as usual—“having different spreadsheets all over the place, and manufacturers having to so inefficiently provide [the same information to] every single [architecture] firm that’s asking for this information”—was clearly not ideal. Back-of-the-envelope calculations indicated that the average design firm wasted about 1,100 hours per year, or the equivalent of $42,000, on inefficient searches for green products.
Once word spread, mindful MATERIALS quickly grew into a volunteer collaborative run by and for designers at a number of different firms. Originally a collection of spreadsheets in a shared Google Drive, the product library is now hosted on a cloud database. In a recent quarter, it received over 2 million visits—an increase of almost 22% over the previous time frame. The library currently provides information about products from 205 different manufacturers.
According to Ryan Dick, who went from practicing architecture in Shanghai to developing the technology the program runs on, mindful MATERIALS’s potential lies not only in helping designers find products, but also in pushing companies to make their offerings greener. “It starts to chart a path that becomes less hazy for manufacturers to really understand where the market is at, where the market is heading, and where there are the greatest opportunities for them to make a business case by doing things that are ultimately good for people and planet,” he said.
In this respect, he sees furniture as a particularly good place to start. “What gets me super excited about furniture is the fact that it’s really a component-driven manufacturing process. Does the chair have casters? Does it not? Does it have arms, no arms, fabric backing, leather backing, etc.? There’s a high degree of customizability.” One furniture manufacturer that works with mindful MATERIALS reports that a single office chair line can have around five million different design permutations. This complexity presents a perfect opportunity to figure out ways to untangle the threads of modern supply chains and more effectively target problem areas—lessons that can then be applied to other product types. “It’s often said that if we can solve the problems with the furniture industry, virtually every other industry is a cakewalk with regard to most impacts,” Dick said.
Of course, mindful MATERIALS is not the only organization steering buyers toward sustainable furniture choices. The Forest Stewardship Council has a labeling system focused on sustainably sourced wood, while GREENGUARD examines volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Declare, a certification run by the parent organization of the Living Building Challenge, describes itself as a “nutrition label for products.” And the list goes on.
But keeping track of different certifications can be time-consuming, and therefore expensive, for buyers and manufacturers alike, particularly because information is often presented in different ways by different programs. Mindful MATERIALS, on the other hand, collects information from certification programs’ databases and manufacturer documentation and presents it in a standardized format, creating a kind of one-stop data shop. “You don’t have to go to seven different websites and look for these certifications or look for these products—you can come into mindful MATERIALS, you can select your filters, and away you go,” said Best.
In addition, some certifications charge manufacturers to participate, which can act as a deterrent in the absence of strong proof of return on investment. “Gone are the days, in such a tight economy and such fierce competition, when manufacturers can just afford to have an unlimited budget to apply for certifications and declarations,” said Best. Mindful MATERIALS, on the other hand, is free for both buyers and manufacturers to use. Far from discouraging companies to seek third-party approval, however, Best believes that mindful MATERIALS can help demonstrate the value of certification by more efficiently steering customers toward products that have it.
Another benefit of the program is a flexible structure that can react to the needs of buyers with specialized needs, including groups seeking to push the limits of responsible sourcing. A number of large organizations—e.g., Kaiser Permanente, the City of San Francisco, and New York State—have developed their own procurement requirements, motivated in part by the desire to use their considerable purchasing power to shift the marketplace. But for the individuals tasked with buying products based on these specifications, tracking down the detailed information often required can be a headache.
Take the issue of harmful chemicals. According to Dick, “All the certifications out there are quite general. You have a couple representatives that you put through a chamber test, if we’re talking about VOCs . . . But things can vary from just those few [product samples].” Now think about the five million office chair model permutations. Many components used in different iterations of the chair are likely sourced from different suppliers at different times, depending on factors like price fluctuations and lead time—and each of these suppliers may use different chemicals. Certification tests typically don’t reflect these nuances. “They’re quite static, whereas the industry works in a much more dynamic way,” Dick said.
Dick has recently been working on a project aimed at removing harmful chemicals from furniture. The first step involved combing through a number of red lists and chemicals-of-concern lists (e.g., the Cradle to Cradle Banned List, Six Classes) to find common data points, then creating filters in the mindful MATERIALS library that can show whether products contain these chemicals. Now that this data framework is complete, manufacturers have the option of disclosing the chemicals used in their products. As this information gets populated, it will become easier for buyers to find products whose chemical composition complies with custom sourcing protocols like Kaiser Permanente’s. The initiative will also help manufacturers understand which chemicals they should eliminate from their supply chains in order to attract more business, Dick said.
Today, mindful MATERIALS focuses on the professional end of market, targeting architects, interior designers, and institutional clients. But Dick said that it has potential to one day be used by everyday people seeking green, healthy furniture and other goods for their homes. In the meantime, he said, pushes for sustainability improvements in commercial and institutional settings are likely to result in changes in products targeted to average consumers as well. “To really transform the industry, the purchasing power of large projects and owners, groups and industries like healthcare—that’s where the greatest opportunities are.”