Innovations in Transparency Practice

No one wants toxic materials in their home or workplace. Which is why the building materials industry has made a dramatic shift in the last decade to weed those substances out of their supply chains and provide full disclosure to designers and end-users regarding their product formulations. Environmental Product Declarations and Health Product Declarations have become part of the core business practices of leading edge suppliers. Volumes of data are now available on the potential negative impacts of virtually all common building materials, and public sentiment is slowly shifting. The industry is developing a reputation for environmental stewardship, and is improving health and wellness within the built environment, pointing a bright road ahead.

What more could we want? Quite a lot, actually, says Paul Firth, director of service development and innovation at UL Environment. “More data does not necessarily equate to better information. While manufacturers have started responding to the demands for chemical information disclosure, it has left users a bit perplexed at how to effectually use what they’ve been given in their day to day processes.”
In other words, the most salient points about potentially toxic substances and their appropriate applications are too easily lost between the reams of available data and the myths and misinformation out there about certain ingredients, which may pose a threat in one context, but not in another.

UL_Facts_SidebarThat’s where UL’s Product Lens Program comes in. Designed specifically with LEED v4 in mind, as it assists in achieving the new Material Ingredients credit, this new program launched in July in collaboration with MBDC, a product and material assessment company, and the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. While the Product Lens Report provides the transparency now demanded in the marketplace for products from paint to particleboard, carpet to Ethernet cables and everything in between, it goes further to present the information on potentially hazardous substances in the appropriate context—“something unique among programs today,” says Firth. By accounting for potential exposures, he says, the Product Lens Report reveals a product’s chemical assessments in a meaningful context that enables architects, designers, and specifiers to be better informed—and make better decisions—about the products they use.

Belden: An Early Adopter for Connectivity and Networking Products

With over a century of experience and more than 1,000 standards under its belt, UL has literally “set the standards for safety.” UL’s technical expertise was certainly up for the challenge of creating a robust chemical disclosure vehicle, but Firth says their approach to structuring the Product Lens report came directly from the people who would use the reports. “We met with a group of A&D firms and asked them: What would be most useful to you in a chemical ingredient transparency solution? If we could design that solution for you, not just a list of ingredients and their hazards, what would it look like? What would actually make your life easier?”

In 2015, 10 manufacturers enrolled in UL Environment’s pilot for the Product Lens Program, including Allegion, ARAUCO North America, Mannington, Milliken and Sherwin-Williams. One of the earliest adopters was Belden, a global leader in the connectivity and networking products space and a provider of high-quality, end-to-end signal transmission solutions. “After thoroughly reviewing various options, we decided to partner with UL Environment, an internationally recognized and highly respected company, to participate in the pilot launch of the program,” says Alice Albrinck, a senior materials development engineer at Belden.


Albrinck says Belden has entered into a contract with UL Environment to obtain Product Lens reports for up to 2,000 products.  All of these products are included in the Enterprise Connectivity platform of our business and include data networking, fiber, fire alarm and sound/security cables. “Our guiding philosophy at Belden is that customers define our success—and our customers are demanding more and more product material declarations,” says Albrinck.

UL’s ability to provide transparency with context was part of what clinched the deal, but there was another factor that weighed in heavily: UL’s commitment to protecting proprietary information contained in product formulations and ingredient lists, a major concern for any manufacturer. Says Albrinck, “Product Lens allows us to open the doors, providing insight into our ingredients, without necessarily telling them the specific recipes.”

Protection of proprietary information is a cornerstone of UL’s business, says Firth, and contractual agreements provide tight control over who gains access to chemicals and formulations, ultimately dictating how much detail is revealed. In the case of Product Lens, suppliers and manufacturers disclose their full formulation contents to UL, but where indicated, chemical ingredients remain proprietary. Only the potential impact of the chemicals is revealed through an easy to understand color coding system: green, yellow, red or black—are reported publicly.  These ratings are a simplified way to communicate that materials are ideal or they have something along their life-cycle identified as having mild or moderate hazards found, problematic hazards found, or something designated as a CMR (carcinogen, mutagen or reproductive toxin).  

Paul Firth, director of service development and innovation at UL Environment. Since landing at UL Environment, Firth has joined the Materials and Resources Technical Advisory Group of the U.S. Green Building Council, the team that oversees the LEED category for Building Product Disclosure and Optimization, which includes the Material Ingredients credit.
Paul Firth, director of service development and innovation at UL Environment. Since landing at UL Environment, Firth has joined the Materials and Resources Technical Advisory Group of the U.S. Green Building Council, the team that oversees the LEED category for Building Product Disclosure and Optimization, which includes the Material Ingredients credit. Photo: courtesy of UL Environment

The UL Environment Vision and the Leadership of Paul Firth

Paul Firth is quite the trailblazer in the burgeoning transparency movement of the building materials industry. After starting his career at Interface, the Georgia-based modular carpet company led by the late sustainability guru Ray C. Anderson, he became the vice president of The Green Standard, a non-profit organization, where he led the creation and launch of the first North American Environmental Product Declaration program. Since landing at UL Environment, Firth has joined the Materials and Resources Technical Advisory Group of the U.S. Green Building Council, the team that oversees the LEED category that includes Building Product Disclosure and Optimization, which includes the Material Ingredients credit.

Firth says his past experiences have opened his eyes to the power and influence of demand drivers such as the LEED rating system to transform the industry. “It has been a natural path to becoming more interested in and focused on the area of transparency,” he says. “There is nothing like a real-world education to motivate your interests.” In joining UL Environment in 2009, Firth saw an opportunity to deepen and globalize his impact by applying himself in an organization of such technical depth and global breadth. Several initiatives quickly presented themselves as a means to strengthen the science behind, and credibility of, environmental and human health standards and certification programs in the industry.

“One of the big question marks for sustainability initiatives was: How much of this is underpinned by science?” Firth says. “The thinking at the time was that more is better—the more criteria you can build into a standard, the better that standard. But when you really apply science to it, sometimes less is more.” He explains that often the major impacts of hazardous substances are affected by only a few key criteria.  So as the industry evolves in its knowledge and experience, Firth feels it’s important to balance the desire to include every possible piece of information in the name of full disclosure, “with the reality of true benefit.” Rather than assuming a substance will cause harm, he proposes providing the next level of information, context, to allow for more informed decision making.

“Right now, I’m working on a laptop with carbon black plastic pigmentation,” he says. “Carbon black is a known cancer causing chemical. But it only causes a problem in a specific form and through a specific exposure pathway: if you inhale it. Ideally, yes, we would like to replace it with something that is not carcinogenic, with something that doesn’t pose a hazard of any kind. However, we must be visionary with our goals, desires, and expectations; and yet at the same time, we must be pragmatic with where we are today.” That type of thinking is what led UL Environment to the creation of the Product Lens Program.

Firth says another major goal of UL Environment is to bring about greater harmonization among the plethora of product certifications and disclosure protocols within the building sector, each of which addresses one or more stages in a product life cycle, from the supply chain and manufacturing end of the spectrum all the way to installation, use, and “end of use” or re-entry into the supply chain. Methodological harmonization among all of these is an increasingly important need within the industry, and one which is embodied by Product Lens. For example, for companies such as Belden, Product Lens can acts as a springboard to some of the most stringent sustainability standards in the industry, such as those set out by MBDC and the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, accelerating their sustainability journey.  “That was the intent behind our harmonization efforts—providing opportunities to leverage the work a company does for more than just one output,” Firth says.

Under Firth’s leadership, UL Environment has significantly expanded its Environmental Product Declaration program, which is now the largest in North America, representing 60 to 80 percent of the market share, and is one of the top five globally. UL Environment has also assumed a leadership role with their GREENGUARD and ECOLOGO Certification programs as the company continues to advance its goal of harmonizing sustainability standards and creating leading solutions for our customers. As time goes on, he says UL Environment is perfecting both the science and art of product transparency in a way that meets the long-term needs of the industry by putting hazards into the proper context.


The Business Case for Better Transparency

How do Firth and his team make the business case for greater product scrutiny, and for the nuanced approach inherent in a Product Lens report in particular? There are three key selling points: Product Lens signals trust and legitimacy to buyers; it provides an appropriate context for making meaningful disclosure, not just transparency for the sake of transparency; and it protects proprietary information.

But driving it all is the undeniable fact that demand for sustainable products is increasing dramatically. A report by BBC Research forecasts that the U.S. market for green building materials will reach nearly $69 billion by 2019. This demand is driven, in part, by the LEED rating system, which, according to a McGraw Hill report, is listed in project specifications for 71 percent of projects valued at $50 million and over. And recently, more than 30 top design firms, including SmithGroupJJR and Perkins + Will, have issued open letters to manufacturers demanding disclosure of chemical ingredients, according to a UL company analysis.

Mark Rossolo, public affairs director at UL Environment, says that “on a higher level, what’s driving these massive numbers in the green and sustainable building economies is greater acknowledgement of the costs of health impacts of harmful chemicals. We’ve seen a convergence, in the last few years, between the building community and those focused on health and environment issues.”

UL_Mark_SidebarWhere UL Environment sees real opportunity for Product Lens is among those manufacturers seeking to meet transparency demands stemming from LEED v4 and present their product information to their customers in the right context—which begins with an understanding of what is actually in their products. Jay Bolus, the president of certification services at MBDC, says that because ingredients are sourced globally and often from a web of third-party suppliers, chemical formulations can be nearly impossible to determine. “There’s not a manufacturer around that knows 100 percent what’s in their product once they’ve drilled down five or seven layers deep into their supply chain. We can help them get together with their suppliers to phase out bad ingredients and optimize formulas.”

In addition to clarifying the origins of a product’s ingredients, Bolus says, Product Lens provides a useful middle-ground alternative to the Cradle to Cradle Certified Product Standard, which can be prohibitively rigorous for companies just starting out on their sustainability journey, and the Health Product Declaration Open Standard program, which relies on self-reporting and is viewed by some as too flimsy. Third-party verification is widely accepted as a minimum basis for maintaining credibility in any industry. But that premise was reinforced by a recent UL study which found that 77 percent of architects and designers are skeptical of self-declaration programs, and consider products with third-party substantiation to be more reputable.


The Product Lens methodology is based on that of the Cradle to Cradle Certified program’s Material Health Assessment, for which MSBC is one of only four accredited material assessment teams in the world, says Bolus. In this rigorous framework, scientists evaluate each ingredient against 24 human and environmental health criteria, such as cancer and birth defects, in the process of awarding a product color rating. The rigor of the evaluation protocols and their harmonization with other certification programs are major market differentiators for the Product Lens Program.
Bolus also stresses that maintaining a high level of sensitivity to proprietary information is an equally important market differentiator. “What we don’t want is for companies to feel like this a food product, with all the ingredients on the label, stifling innovation overnight,” Bolus says. “What manufacturers want is a trusted third party who can access the deep-level chemistry, evaluate it, and then come up with a high-level summary.”

On the engineering and R&D side, Firth adds that “the assessment that goes into the report is useful for internal measurement, analysis and development, providing an environmental dashboard of sorts to help guide you in your decision making,” Firth says. “This type of information is very helpful when making key decisions about the future improvement of your products, helping achieve the best of both worlds—economic and environmental returns on your investment.” Doing the right thing while improving the bottom line: that’s the power of transparency.


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