What Does Good Look Like?
The Living Product Challenge Reinvents Manufacturing
Photo by Nix Lehoux, Courtesy of the Bullitt Center
By Ren DeCherney, Business Development Manager for Manufacturers and Interiors, International Living Future Institute (ILFI)
The question, “What does good look like?” guides everything we do at the International Living Future Institute. We help designers, product manufacturers, and organizations to create buildings, spaces, and products that give back more than they take.
Our programs provide a framework to create places and products that work with and are inspired by nature, that rely only on renewable energy, replenish our waterways and aquifers, eliminate exposure to toxins, generate opportunities to engage with one another in community, and restore our relationships to nature and to one another. ILFI believes that what we need is a positive, hopeful vision of the future, and our programs like the Living Product Challenge provide that—a tangible example of what a Living Future looks like.
Imagine if everything we used in our daily lives, no matter how small, helped create a better world. Clothing, tools, electronics, building materials, toys—every manufactured good—could contribute to a healthier future. Imagine if even the packaging of everyday products wasn’t discarded without consideration, but designed to create value and abundance over time. Why should we accept environmental and social degradation as a consequence of all the trappings of a modern society? As Paul Hawken has said, “Doing the right thing should be as easy as falling off a log.” The average person shouldn’t have to be a toxicologist or a life cycle expert to understand if the purchases they make support their values.
The Living Product Challenge, developed by the International Living Future Institute, is a philosophy, product certification, and advocacy tool all in one. It provides a revolutionary framework for manufacturers to create restorative products, and it fundamentally shifts the way products are designed and manufactured, while giving consumers the information they need to choose better products. The Challenge seeks to dramatically raise the bar from a paradigm where simply doing less harm is laudable to a world in which doing good and giving more than we take becomes the standard. It aims to transform how we think about every single act of design, production, and purchasing as an opportunity to positively impact the greater community of life and the cultural fabric of our society.
Over the last 20 years, awareness of green manufacturing has grown alongside awareness of green building. Just as there have been huge steps forward in the design, construction, and operation of buildings, progress has been made in the manufacturing realm. Still, compared to the rate of change necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change and other environmental challenges, our global progress in this regard has been minute and barely recordable.
Every major ecological system is in decline and the rate of that decline is increasing. Global temperature increases mean shifting rainfall distributions, acidified oceans, and potentially catastrophic sea level rise. Nothing less than a radical change in manufacturing is required. Indeed, this focus must be the great work of our generation. We must remake our cities, towns, neighborhoods, homes, offices, and all the goods we use within them as part of the necessary process of reinventing our relationship with the natural world—re-establishing ourselves as part and parcel with creation. Since we launched our flagship challenge, the Living Building Challenge, in 2006, it has inspired and motivated rapid and significant change. Projects have cropped up all over the world: currently there are more than 18 million square feet of Living Building Challenge projects underway in more than two dozen countries, each project showing it is possible to create regenerative buildings in any community.
The Living Product Challenge reinvents product manufacturing in an equally revolutionary fashion because we believe the materials used to construct our buildings must be held to the same high standard as the buildings themselves. The things we place within and around them shouldn’t undermine our health and well-being; they should instead create positive social and environmental change. In turn, designers and consumers need a mechanism they can use to compare products so they can select products that are healthy and sustainable.
Incremental change is no longer a viable option.
Sometimes the amount of change we need to tackle seems unsurmountable, and that the choices you make as a single individual make no difference. However, taken together, the amount of power the design community wields is impressive. Every year, through their specifications alone, designers and architects control billions of dollars of the US GDP and billions of square feet of construction. They have the power to literally transform the world around us, and we’re starting to understand the impact these choices have on our bodies and in our communities.
Take for example, “Little Things Matter” project by Bruce Lanphear for the Simon Fraser University and the Artemis Fund. This was a national study of 5,000 children in Canada which found heavy metals and pollutants are present in young children’s blood. This included finding mercury in 89% of the kids, Organophosphate (OP) pesticides from food in 80% of the kids, BPA in 96% of the kids, PCBs (a persistent pollutant banned in the 1970’s) and PBDE flame retardants in 100% of the kids, and lead in blood of 100% children regardless of race. This upends the narrative that once installed, products and materials do not affect us. We are finding that they have such a profound effect that we are passing these effects down to our children before they are even born. Designers and architects have not only a direct impact on this, but a responsibility to mitigate the potential for harm as they select the materials that go into our buildings.
In addition, as we begin to better understand the direct correlation between the chemicals in building materials and the effects on building users and inhabitants, designers and architects may start to be held liable for those effects. On August 9, 2018, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) wrote a letter to EPA regarding the Asbestos New Use Rule where they stated “historically, architects and other design professionals involved in a construction project strive to avoid liability for hazardous construction materials such as asbestos, lead, PCBs, mercury, etc. Recent lawsuits and regulatory citations have pinned responsibility on design professionals and building owners who seemingly had nothing to do with the exposure that caused, or could cause, a crippling illness.”
In this letter, the AIA recognizes the power designers have to make an impact and the potential liability if they do not take this responsibility seriously. It’s time to harness that power! Until recently, designers have been limited in their efforts to select sustainable products by a general lack of transparency and reporting on the ingredients in a product and the manufacturing process required to make them. Enter the Living Product Challenge!
The Living Product Challenge label takes complex, multi-attribute information about a product and provides it to consumers in an elegant, easy-to-understand format. Like everything we do at ILFI, the certification is performance-based, which means it relies on performance data and continuous monitoring rather than modeled or anticipated performance. Manufacturers must provide proof that they are complying with the standard on an annual basis to an Institute-approved, third-party assessor. This means consumers can be certain they are selecting products that don’t just say they’re sustainable, but have the data and performance to prove that they are truly sustainable and regenerative.
It’s time to wield your collective power, as designers and as individuals. Whether you are working as a designer, or simply selecting new home office furniture, you can transform not only our built environment, but also the way we design and produce materials around the world.
The Living Product Challenge comprises seven performance categories, or Petals: Place, Water, Energy, Health + Happiness, Materials, Equity, and Beauty. Petals are subdivided into a total of 20 Imperatives, each of which focuses on a specific sphere of influence. This compilation of imperatives can be applied to every conceivable product—of any size and manufactured in any location—whether it is a new innovation or a reinvention of an existing item.
The Living Product Challenge incorporates the Declare label, also developed by ILFI, which allows manufacturers to publicly disclose the chemical ingredients that make up their products. Products with a Declare label and Living Products must disclose this chemical information down to 100 parts per million, so consumers can see what is in a product, much like a food nutrition label. Not only that, but a Living Product must contain no chemicals on The Red List—a list of the worst-in-class chemicals in terms of destroying the environment and ecosystems and are detrimental to human health, both for factory workers and end users.
Living Products must also disclose how much carbon, energy, and water is used to create the product as well as how much waste is created during the manufacturing process. This radical transparency not only informs consumers about a product, but it is also meant to inspire other manufacturers to make positive change by showing that it is possible to design truly sustainable products.
Products that succeed in this challenge can claim to be the greenest and most socially responsible on the market: their manufacturing processes are restorative, regenerative, or operate with a net positive impact, and they have made the proof available to consumers.
Handprinting: measuring positive impacts
Unique to the Living Product Challenge is the concept of handprinting, which is our way of measuring the positive impacts a company has on the earth and their community. The Challenge is the only of its kind to measure both Footprints and Handprints.
The Footprint of producing a product is the sum total of negative impacts caused by the processes necessary to produce that product. In the Challenge, these are represented by the carbon, energy, water, and waste impacts of the manufacturing process.
To qualify for the Living Product Challenge, manufacturers must evaluate the manufacturing process from “cradle to gate:” by including not only the manufacturer’s operations, but all the processes of their suppliers such as the energy, materials, and equipment needed to extract the raw materials. This makes up their Footprint. Often, most of the product’s Footprint happens upstream of the manufacturer, through supply chains of energy and raw materials. The problem with only measuring Footprints is that smaller Footprints are still Footprints. We can never achieve a Footprint of zero, and in solely focusing on Footprint reductions, we face diminishing returns.
It is often said that you can only change what you measure. So far, sustainable manufacturing has largely focused on measuring and reducing our Footprints. While this is a critical place to start, it is a tragic place to stop, since it does not account for the positive impact a product or company can make in the world. Through the Living Product Challenge, manufacturers can not only measure and reduce their negative impacts — but they can now also grow and expand their positive impact with clear, measurable actions.
We call these Handprints. The Handprint of a product comprises all the positive impacts we cause to happen across the life cycle of a product and can be created anywhere and everywhere outside of the supply chain and in our communities. The only requirement is that the Handprints be real and measurable, and there are myriad ways to create them. Some Living Product manufacturers have invested in the energy retrofit of a school, installed rainwater catchment systems in a nearby community, or protected a key ecological habitat. There is no limit to the potential of businesses and their employees to create positive impacts, and such impacts can count as Handprints as long as they can be measured.
Making a big impact, together.
Using Handprinting, designers of Living Products can go further than is typical when designing a product. They use human creativity and ecological inspiration to design products and business models that create positive Handprints as they shrink their negative Footprints. In turn, designers can use the Challenge to specify products that they know are truly sustainable. Living Products contain no toxic chemicals to factory workers or end users, are regenerative, and have measurable positive impacts in their communities. What’s not to like?
It’s time to wield your collective power, as designers and as individuals. Whether you are working as a designer, or simply selecting new home office furniture, you can transform not only our built environment, but also the way we design and produce materials around the world. Start asking for products with a Declare or Living Product Challenge label, so you can see what is in a product before specifying or purchasing it. Talk to the companies whose products you are considering about the positive impact they can have through their products. Seek out healthy products in every project. Every small step you take contributes to a larger transformation. Let’s do it!