Awareness of health risks from potentially harmful chemicals has grown exponentially in recent years. Consumers are demanding transparency regarding what’s in the food, personal care products and household items we use every day.
But did you know that many home and office furnishings contain chemicals linked to cancer, asthma and other ailments? These chemicals can create potentially toxic air that we breathe inside — where we spend 90 percent of our time — every day. According to the EPA, concentrations of volatile organic compounds in the air are consistently higher — up to 10 times higher — indoors than outdoors.
Healthy, environmentally friendly ingredients
Aiming to establish industry standards for reporting building product content and potential health impacts, the Health Product Declaration Collaborative (HPDC) created an “Open Standard” so manufacturing companies can be more transparent about building materials used in furniture and other products for homes and workplaces. The HPDC standard is based on scientific analysis, providing builders, architects, designers and consumers accurate information about chemicals used in the manufacturing processes of the furniture we live with, and how it might affect our health.
Many manufacturing companies are joining HPDC to demonstrate their commitment to greater transparency about the materials used. Included in HPDC membership are companies such as Armstrong Ceiling Solutions, GAF Roofing and Humanscale. Another nonprofit organization dedicated to materials transparency is the International Living Future Institute, which allows companies to “Declare” their products using an online platform, providing a resource for builders and consumers seeking healthier products.
Humanscale makes ergonomic and environmentally sustainable office furniture. Jane Abernethy, chief sustainability officer, describes the importance of materials transparency in their mission of sustainability: “We’re leading our industry in materials transparency with more Health Product Declarations (HPDs) and Declare ingredients than any other company. Inspired by what we’re seeing brands such as sustainability pioneer Patagonia do in apparel, we’re diving deep into our supply chain to create thorough and accurate disclosures. By understanding what goes into our products, we’re creating a healthier environment not only where we live and work but also for the world.”
Cooperation with these transparency and sustainability standards is voluntary, so as a growing number of manufacturers are joining the effort, there are still many companies making furniture and other products without revealing information about their possible harmful effects on the interior environment.
Abernethy confirms that it’s an ongoing commitment for her company, explaining that with ingredient labels on nearly 70 percent of products, “It’s not only a reflection of our commitment to avoid red-list materials and chemicals of concern; it’s proof that we’re prioritizing ingredients that are healthy and environmentally friendly.”
Learning about labels
What can consumers do to protect themselves? One step is to educate yourself about the issue. Learn about products you plan to bring into your home. Check with the HPDC or Living Future websites to see if the products you're buying or companies you’re purchasing from are listed. Ask about products and furniture at your workplace and help inform your employer about the issue of environmental health.
To learn more about product safety, you can take four new online courses available to everyone at the Parsons School of Design. Alison Mears, head of the Healthy Materials Lab at Parsons, explains the importance of education for consumers, saying, “If you want to understand more about the paint for your baby’s bedroom, you could actually start taking these courses and would be pretty well informed and know where to look for more.”
Becoming more educated about household products, furnishings and labels helps consumers concerned about everyday exposure to chemicals make smarter, healthier choices. Companies wanting to grow their business, particularly with the younger generation, also need to pay attention to these concerns. According to research from Nielsen, millennials and members of Generation Z are much more willing to patronize companies that demonstrate a commitment to a positive social and environmental impact. So what’s good for the consumer and the planet is also good for their bottom line.