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Closing the Transparency Loop Requires Industry Collaboration

Posted on April 25th, 2019

Superior Essex is paving the way to a more sustainable future for the entire building materials industry. Global Head of Sustainability Annie Bevan explains the movement towards transparency in sustainability and how you can join in its progress.

There is a simple truth regarding truly impactful, industry-wide, sustainable change and that is that it cannot be achieved by any single organization. A sustainability revolution takes a concerted effort from every sector in the value chain, from manufacturers and suppliers to architects, specifiers and building owners. Moreover, it requires shared responsibility and accountability with an industry-wide understanding of sustainability goals, and a serious commitment to meeting them. Nowhere is this more relevant than in the building industry.

Superior Essex started its own sustainability journey in 2010 when building materials and product sustainability initiatives — beyond containing recycled content — were few and far between. What made those first years more difficult was that there was little or no transparency around the health and environmental impacts of manufacturing them, especially regarding mechanical, electrical, and plumbing products.

It was soon thereafter that Superior Essex made the decision to invest in transparency and optimization, as the company pioneered several key sustainability breakthroughs in the industry. Superior Essex was the first to perform life-cycle analysis of cabling products, producing detailed and independently and externally verified Environmental Product Declarations. It also adopted sustainable cable manufacturing practices, becoming the first — and still only — cabling manufacturer to receive zero waste-to-landfill certification. Today, Superior Essex also remains the only cable manufacturer to produce verified Red List-free products, that can contribute to Living Building Challenge requirements, eliminating toxic chemistries that impact human health.

Recently many other manufacturers have joined the transparency movement, which has led to a greater proliferation of transparent, sustainable products for the building industry. In part, this shift was driven by a series of letters from the architect and design (A&D) community released in 2012. In these letters, architects and designers reached out to leading global product manufacturers asking them to stand up for transparency and provide information about the health and environmental impacts of their products. Simply put: the sustainable materials industry would not be where it is today were it not for this first step, in which the A&D community sent a market signal on what they valued as most important to them: transparency surrounding a building products environmental and human health in the form of EPDs and HPDs.

That movement undoubtedly marked a positive step forward for the industry, but major challenges remain. While more manufacturers have increased investments in transparency, many are failing to see a return on the investment. For example, many A&D firms have shown no preference for sustainable products and materials over less sustainable alternatives. The modest financial return that has resulted makes the business case for manufacturers investing in sustainability much harder to make.

There is more room to improve. In fact, it is imperative that improvements are made because the risk is real that all of the amazing progress that has already been made will be lost.

On behalf of Superior Essex, and in partnership with the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), there was a co-authored response letter back to the A&D community. Last May, nearly 40 leading building product manufacturers — all members of the Living Product 50 (LP50) — co-signed the letter which went to 300 leading architects, designers and building owners.

The letter (which you can read here), urged the A&D community to refresh conversations about sustainable materials that had gone stale since the original campaign in 2012. It also marked an unprecedented move by the manufacturing industry as it was the first time there been such a coordinated commitment to product transparency and sustainability across such a broad spectrum of global manufacturing leaders.

Each signatory made a number of commitments, including the continuation of sustainability practices into manufacturing and material selection, as well as using common platforms for product information to make finding these documents easier for the A&D community. Other commitments included raising internal awareness of the importance of product transparency and sustainability and prioritizing suppliers who support sustainability efforts. The goal of these commitments was to define the baseline collectively, and to hold each other accountable for progress in our industry sector.

The letter also asked the A&D community to take a number of actions. Specifically, it aimed to identify products whose impacts have been transparently disclosed. It also asked for additional advocation to customers regarding programs such as LEED, WELL, and Living Building Challenge that value transparency. It was the hope that by making these requests, it would lead to the creation of a more consistent, collaborative approach to product transparency across our entire industry, ensuring that manufacturers’ investment in sustainability is complemented and rewarded by A&D firms’ purchasing decisions.

Personally, I congratulate all who have joined in the effort to change the conversation on healthy, sustainable materials for all. As proud as we all are of the progress already achieved, we cannot become complacent. The truth is, this is just the beginning. In order to see lasting change, we need to continue building momentum for this movement by inviting our peers to join us. Above all, our success relies on continued collaboration. In the words of Simon Sinek, “Words may inspire, but it’s only action that creates change.” My fellow members of the LP50 group take this message to heart. We are determined to change our industry for the better and committed to making that change together. I am proud to see communities come together, break out of silos, to educate everyone on how to work more collaboratively, and encourage everyone involved to make collective and impactful change. To join the LP 50 movement or learn more, contact Alex Muller at [email protected]

To join the AIA Materials movement or learn more, contact Melissa Wackerle at [email protected]

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