ExclusivesThinkingHealthy workspaces: Why we must demand transparency

How often do you question what goes into the furnishings and buildings around you? We all want reassurance that they cause no harm to human or planetary health, but that means asking the right questions and demanding clear answers… By Sophie Barton
Sophie Barton5 years ago20 min

Picture yourself in a supermarket, picking up a new pre-packaged food product for the first time. In today’s health-conscious society, you might well find yourself curiously scanning the ingredients, before deciding whether or not you’re prepared to eat them. If you find yourself faced with a litany of unrecognisable names, the chances are you’ll return the package firmly to the shelf.

But while an increasing number of us quite rightly devote time and attention to thinking about the food we put into our bodies, what about the buildings and furnishings we surround ourselves with day-in, day-out? Everything – from the paint decorating our office walls to the carpets we stand on and the desks we sit at – has its own set of ingredients, and they’re not always healthy.

For example, some wall coverings, wood preservatives, building materials and furnishings release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air we breathe, which can trigger nausea, dizziness, sore eyes and concentration difficulties. Long term exposure to these pollutants has also been linked to cancers, as well as an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and pneumonia.

A cocktail of chemicals

Just five months ago, an alarming report by the Commons Environmental Audit Committee warned that Britons are being exposed to a “cocktail” of potentially hazardous chemicals from birth. These include certain flame retardants, which have been commonly used on home furnishings, including mattresses and sofas. It’s believed people can be exposed to them when they inhale household dust.

“Most people assume that they aren’t at risk from toxic chemicals but the reality is different,” said committee chairwoman Mary Creagh. “Mums in the UK have some of the world’s highest concentrations of flame retardants in their breast milk, some of which have now been banned.”

Formaldehyde, which is commonly used as an adhesive in pressed wood products, is another thorny issue, because it’s thought that long-term or unusually high exposure could be linked to certain types of cancer. Just ask office rental firm WeWork, which recently announced it was taking some 1,600 in-office phone booths out of service in North America because tests revealed they contained potentially high levels of formaldehyde. Even at low levels, it can irritate the nose and throat.

A demand for transparency

Thankfully though, it seems the tide is definitely turning. And as we all become increasingly aware of the impact that the physical environment has on our wellbeing, we are starting to demand increased transparency around exactly what goes into the materials surrounding us day-to-day.

Of course, sustainable building schemes like the WELL Standard are further fuelling this demand. Zoë French is Environmental and Sustainability Manager at leading office fit-out firm, Overbury. She tells Work in Mind that they’ve seen an increase in the number of WELL Building Standard projects in which material transparency is a key feature.

“Material transparency is vital to our business,” says Zoë. “It has the potential to benefit not only the installers but the future occupiers, by giving us full knowledge of what’s in a product, so we can make an informed choice. Thankfully, awareness around the impact of products we use in our everyday lives is increasing, with more information than ever available to consumers and contractors

“Clients aren’t demanding material transparency as a standalone item, but they are striving for healthier workplaces and it is one aspect of this. Healthy employees – both physically and mentally – are more productive employees, and in turn can impact the bottom line of a business.”

– Zoë French, Environmental and Sustainability Manager at Overbury

Zoë adds that “a number” of clients are asking the firm to design-out high-VOC products, and that this increased appetite will fuel availability in time.

“If more people ask for low-VOC products, then the suppliers will respond and more products will be developed to meet this need,” she explains, adding that the second version of the WELL Standard is upping the ante.

“WELL v2 requires products to be measured for VOC content, which is a common requirement within legislation and in Environmental Certification schemes,” she explains. “However, you can also gain points for your products having been tested for their actual emissions too.

“This added level of testing gives more information on products and allows contractors and designers to make informed choices. It’s already encouraging the supply chain to change, as we are seeing manufacturers who are testing to these newer, more involved standards rather than the minimum legal requirement, and I hope we will see more following suit.”

The suppliers leading the way

When it comes to transparency, it’s fair to say some suppliers are streets ahead. Take Tarkett, the specialist flooring company, for example. The business puts a huge emphasis on indoor air quality and wellbeing, and leads the way with its low-VOC products.

“At Tarkett we place health and wellbeing at the very core of product design and development.” “We start with that as the fundamental brief, before moving on to considering other design aspects, like colour, material and application.”

– Ross Dight, Technical and Sustainability Director at Tarkett UK 

Such is the firm’s commitment to indoor air quality, that 92% of Tarkett’s products can contribute to meeting the requirements set by WELL v2. A staggering 98% of their raw materials (that’s over 3,000 ingredients) are third-party assessed for their impact on people’s health and the environment, and 97% of their flooring is low VOC. Furthermore, The British Allergy Foundation has also granted several of their linoleum ranges the Allergy UK Seal of Approval, used in 135 countries worldwide.

“All products are assessed regarding VOC emissions,” explains Ross. “They meet thresholds that are 10-100 times lower than BREEAM requirements, and up to six times lower for formaldehyde.”

The business has also blazed a trail by producing 100% phthalate-free products. These compounds, commonly used to make plastics more pliant, are often found in flooring. However, they are classified by many countries as possible carcinogens, as well as endocrine disruptors.

“In order to further improve transparency in the supply chain, we’ve also launched Material Health Statements (MHS) across our product portfolio,” adds Ross. “The document describes the composition of each product and provide information on the ingredient concentration, their role in the product and any health or environmental risk in case of exposure. By screening every material thoroughly for hazard risks, we can help create greater transparency and improve building sustainability.”

Researching the supply chain

Of course, it’s essential to remember that toxicity doesn’t just impact the end user – what about those involved in the manufacturing process too? This is an issue that Humanscale, the US-based office furniture giant, has been getting to grips with, researching its supply chain in order to rid its products of potentially harmful chemicals and materials.

For example, the business has worked scrupulously to eradicate Chromium VI from its manufacturing processes, to ensure its employees aren’t exposed to the chemical, made famous in film Erin Brockovich.

Chromium VI – which has been used in the production of stainless steel, as well as leather tanning, electroplating, and in anti-corrosion coatings – is notoriously dangerous when ingested, touched or inhaled. Not only can it cause skin irritation and ulcers, it’s also linked to kidney damage and lung cancer.

“Our efforts equate to hours of emails, evaluating materials, engineering work, quality testing, negotiating with suppliers and personally reviewing our suppliers’ factories,” says Humanscale’s chief sustainability officer, Jane Abernethy. “It had to be done across 296 components for the Diffrient Smart Chair alone.”

Over half of Humanscale products also carry Declare labels and Health Product Declarations (HPDs), in order to give customers a clear, honest view of exactly what goes into them. Essentially nutrition labels for furniture, the Declare system is a publicly accessible online database, which gives customers insight into what has been used in the making of the product they’re thinking of specifying. Importantly, it highlights any ingredients that are found on the Red List, a list of “worst in class” materials and chemicals. These include asbestos, mercury and p

“We look at all stages of product design and manufacture to adhere to the Declare label standards,” explains Sustainability Ambassador Hani Hatami. “This means looking at the full list of ingredients used to make our products, where they were made and assembled and what happens to them at the end of the product life cycle. Over 90% of first-tier suppliers work with us to improve material transparency and our vendor network is closely vetted as well.

“Through the Declare scheme, we are showing how we avoid materials such as formaldehyde, PVC, PFC stain resistant coatings and HFR flame retardants. All of Humanscale’s seating will be available in our new line of premium, chrome-free leather upholstery. Unlike traditional tanning processes, which require chromium, our new collection of leathers come from a carbon neutral tannery, which means it’s a healthier choice for end users and is better for the environment too. We now have 13 chrome-free leather options and our aim is to become the first company to exclusively offer chrome-free leather going forward.”

The obstacles to transparency

Both Tarkett and Humanscale’s efforts are admirable, so why are some manufacturers taking time to catch up? Martin Brown is a Living Building Challenge Ambassador and founder of Fairsnape, a strategic consultancy specialising in built environment improvement and sustainability. He believes one of the obstacles to material transparency is an unfounded fear of divulging insider information.

“Some manufacturers are reluctant to get involved because they are wary of revealing trade secrets, but the idea of Declare is that they reveal ingredients, not recipes,” he explains. “They are also reluctant to expose any toxicity, because it may open issues that would then need to be addressed. Then there’s the lack of knowledge and awareness too, around what is toxic and what is healthy.”

Encouragingly though, leading developers are starting to see the Declare label as key to responsible material sourcing. And Martin believes that over time, an emphasis on transparency will change the economic landscape, making healthy alternatives both more widely available and affordable.

“If you cut out all the nasty things, you give a market share to the start-ups producing products made from natural materials,” he explains. “Long term, that should drive the price down.

“As clients, designers, builders and as individuals working, playing and living in buildings, we should have confidence that all materials used are non-toxic and cause no harm in production, installation, use or at end of life. In my view, prohibiting the materials on the (ILFI) Red List would be a sound approach. Had we taken the same step decades ago with asbestos, lead and VOCs we would have avoided many human and planetary tragedies.”

To find more content on material transparency, click here

With thanks to Zoë French, Environmental and Sustainability Manager at Overbury, Ross Dight, Technical and Sustainability Director at Tarkett UK, Hani Hatami, Sustainability Ambassador at Humanscale and Martin Brown, founder of Fairsnape.

Photo Credit: Tarkett UK 

Sophie Barton

Sophie Barton is our Features Editor. She a journalist and editor with 20 years’ experience in the national media, specialising in wellbeing and lifestyle.

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