Sustainability for Beginners: Lessons Learned from 2017’s Living Product Expo

Sonya Myers

There’s no better way to learn a new subject than to immerse yourself in it completely, right? And if you’re on your second week of the job, it makes sense for your employer to just throw you in headfirst.

Before I started at Interface, I thought I knew some things about climate change and sustainability. The 2017 Living Product Expo in Pittsburgh, hosted by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), proved me very, very wrong.

2017 Living Products Expo in Pttsburgh

“Hello from beautiful Pittsburgh!”

What’s nice about going to something of an “insider” conference is that everybody already gets it. People attend the Living Product Expo because they want to find practical, sustainable solutions to their problems. They’re talking about how to build better buildings. They’re introducing innovations in sustainable products and materials. They’re taking on ILFI’s Living Product Challenge or Living Building Challenge.

As I am not a designer, builder, manufacturer nor sustainability enthusiast, I attended the Living Product Expo to get an education in all of the above.

What I learned was eye opening. There are tons of organizations and companies working to make positive impacts on the environment and tackling sustainable solutions to global warming worldwide. Some were obvious; some were not. Let’s dive in, shall we?

Reversing global warming

Paul Hawken’s keynote gave plenty of reason reasons to be optimistic on the climate change front. And he laid out a new goal of working to reverse global warming completely. The Paris Climate Accord was a good first step, but aiming to simply reduce is not enough.

“When you believe something, you believe it into existence and it becomes your experience.”

Having a goal of reducing global warming implies complacency. It says that we’re okay with letting harmful pollution go unchecked if we can possibly offset it elsewhere. Therefore, we have to reverse global warming if we want to do any good for the earth and the people who live on it.

(For the record, Hawken’s Project Drawdown has compiled a list of scalable, sustainable solutions to global warming to look at and support if you’re interested.)

How chemicals affect human health

It’s crazy how many chemicals we are exposed to simply because of the materials that make up our built environment. And given that we spend the vast majority of our lives indoors, this is something that affects everyone.

Living Products Expo: Slide on C02 in the atmosphere

A visualization of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere over time.

Several panels centered around how we measure our chemical exposure, how that affects our health, and what we can do about it. One of the major barriers to change? There have been no major environmental protection laws passed in 20 years. And, government regulation in general has slowed compared to science.

From an industry perspective, the compounding effect of chemical exposure and how to address it is a difficult but necessary discussion. Just look at the debate about PVC and whether it can be a responsible, sustainable material. It’s clear that industry needs to change, but it’s a slow and difficult process.

Making more noise about how built environments affect our individual health could spur change that much faster. And that’s not just at the manufacturer level, but also at the legislative level.

What can we do about it?

I’m not the person with all the answers—that much should be clear. And, my education in these topics is far from over. But one of the Living Product Expo’s recurring themes was the power of individual action to create change.

We as individuals have more power than we think. Beyond recycling more and driving less, we can make the biggest impact by leveraging our position as consumers. If we can’t get the government to pass stricter regulations, we have to give consumer feedback to the companies we buy products from. In a society where money talks, monetary support (or lack of) can really create change.

If consumers pushed back more on industry, it would force a perspective shift from simply focusing on profit to focusing on corporate responsibility. That impact would spread outward, adding to all the other countless efforts to find sustainable solutions to global warming and really do some good.

 

As I reflect back on my few days at the Living Product Expo and get immersed in life at Interface, I’ve started to change my own personal habits. It may be my small contribution, but it’s nice to be part of a company that’s tackling the tough questions and really making good on its mission to address global warming head on.

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The True Cost of Noise

Julian Treasure

Dead silence can be an intimidating working environment.

Some sound in any workplace is generally desirable: pleasing background sounds like the gentle, indecipherable babble of colleagues speaking, one’s own choice of music or perhaps the sounds of nature coming through an open window. However, much of the sound in typical workplaces is undesirable: ringing phones, electromechanical noise, other people’s music and so on. We call this undesirable sound “noise”.

It’s important to have a thorough understanding of how this unwanted noise affects people in working environments and how best to improve those spaces with optimal acoustic adjustments.

Understanding how sound works

Sound wave

Sound is simply audible vibration conducted through a medium. In built spaces, there are two forms of conduction.

Airborne sound comprises sound generated within a room and transmitted through the air. Typically, this includes people talking, typing, walking and moving objects; phones ringing; noise from heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment; printers; and sound/music systems.

Structure-borne sound comprises sound generated by any physical impact on the building and transmitted through the structure itself, which typically includes footfalls in the office above, vibrations from heavy equipment such as an HVAC plant, and impact sound like drilling or hammering in adjacent rooms.

We measure the quantity of sound in decibels (dB), a logarithmic scale where an increase of 10 dB is perceived as a doubling of the sound level, or a reduction of 10 dB as a halving. 30 dB is very quiet – for example, a bedroom at night. A typical office is around 50-60 dB.

Open office layout

A poorly designed open office is a recipe for bad acoustics.

The problem with noise

People spend a lot of their time in office spaces, where noise negatively affects worker productivity, health and satisfaction. To put it simply, this means that noise is bad for business.

Noise disturbs concentration.

According to Gensler’s 2013 Workplace Survey, people spend over half their working time in offices doing tasks that require focus. Most workers struggle to concentrate in open plan environments that were designed purely for collaboration. While people can habituate to constant, unvarying noise, interruptive noise severely detracts from worker productivity. According to Professor Gloria Mark of UC Irvine, it takes people 23 minutes to regain their focus after every significant interruption!

Noise damages health.

There are well-established links between long-term exposure to noise and coronary illness and stroke, as well as stress, high blood pressure and other conditions. The noise in question does not have to be overwhelmingly loud: research shows that the danger level is just 65 dB, which is often achieved in lively offices and especially in social spaces like cafés and canteens.

Noise damages communication.

Most people are familiar with the cocktail effect, where it’s impossible to understand the person talking to us in a group because of the noise of everyone else talking. Bad acoustics create more noise and thus impede people’s ability to understand one another.

For more information on the negative effects of workplace noise, take a look at the video below:

Solving the noise problem with good acoustics

All too often, modern architects and designers use hard materials because they look clean and stylish, and are durable and easy to clean. However, because the designers often have little or no training in acoustics, they don’t understand the effects of this kind of design. Bad acoustics increase noise levels dramatically – and the louder the noise, the greater the negative impacts.

In contrast, research shows that well-designed acoustics improve effectiveness, well-being and happiness for the people in working and living spaces. Good office design that takes into account visual aesthetics, sustainability, value for money and acoustic effect can achieve the perfect balance for the health, effectiveness and happiness of workers.

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Sustainable Plastics: Oxymoron or Responsible Approach?

Mikhail Davis

A new vision for plastics: green chemistry, the circular economy, and a climate fit for life.

When reviewing recent news about plastic waste filling the oceans, toxic additives leaching from plastic products, and the impacts of fossil fueled global warming, making a plastic product – like Interface’s modular flooring – sustainable can begin to seem like an impossible task. But resolving that contradiction has been at the heart of Interface’s sustainability mission for over 20 years. As Ray Anderson often said, “If we can do it, maybe anyone can.”

In this spirit, Interface convened a group of stakeholders at a Sustainable Plastics Symposium in San Francisco this summer, including experts in green chemistry, the circular economy, and life cycle assessment (LCA). Symposium participants came together around a shared goal of creating a set of criteria to define sustainable plastics in a holistic way that goes beyond a Red List approach.

If only making a plastic product healthy and sustainable were as easy as making sure it had no Red List ingredients!

Sustainable Plastics Symposium: Intro to Sustainable Plastics

Green Chemistry

Dr. Lauren Heine of Northwest Green Chemistry, known for developing the GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals and the EPA’s Cleangredients database, started off the expert panel by showing three NGO efforts to define sustainable materials. Each effort uses different terms, but all agree that in addition to using safer chemicals in products and processes, we need to consider the ability to reuse a product at end-of-life and its overall environmental impact or we’ll have exchanged one problem for another.

Circular Economy

Dr. Mike Biddle, known for developing the world’s first at-scale mixed plastic recycling technology as founder of MBA Polymers, emphasized that plastics are often the best material choice for lightweight and durable performance. However, unless the disastrous impacts of plastic waste filling the oceans can be solved, plastic products can never be sustainable. Biddle pointed out that while most plastics are technically recyclable, very few actually get reclaimed or recycled in a circular economy. According to Biddle, using recycled plastic not only keeps it out of the oceans, but also allows us to have all the performance advantages of plastic with 80-90% less energy use (and 2-4 tons less contribution to global warming per ton of recycled plastic).

Sustainable Plastics Symposium: It's All About the Carbon

Embodied Carbon

Kirsten Ritchie, Sustainable Design Principal at Gensler, shared her pioneering work using LCA data from Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) to guide product selection. She emphasized that EPDs allow designers to understand the contribution the products they select have to global warming. According to the Centers for Disease Control and other experts, nothing is more important to public health right now than stopping global warming. Ritchie’s analysis showed that carbon footprints of carpet tiles vary by over 2X within a single manufacturer’s line and by as much as 5X between manufacturers.

Connie Hensler, Interface’s Director of Life Cycle Assessment Programs, then used the type of criteria described by Heine, Biddle, and Ritchie to demonstrate that once we look at plastic products holistically, we may come to new conclusions. As an example, Interface’s standard GlasBac carpet tile products contain 9-10% PVC plastic in their backing, which is one of the few petrochemical plastics included on the Living Building Challenge Red List. But after more detailed analysis, well-managed PVC turns out to be the best choice for modular plastic flooring.

Sustainable Plastics Symposium: Responsible LVT

Interface carpet tiles on GlasBac backing:

  • Green Chemistry: Interface has eliminated all formaldehyde, phthalates, heavy metals, and fluorocarbons from these products while reducing the amount of virgin PVC consumed to make a tile by 57%.
  • Circular Economy: Interface has designed a 3rd party-verified closed loop system for this backing. We process millions of pounds of vinyl backing every year into new GlasBacRE carpet tile backing. Products on GlasBacRE contain 80-89% recycled content and no virgin PVC.
  • Life Cycle Assessment of Environmental Impact: Interface products on GlasBac and GlasBacRE have the lowest average carbon footprint of any standard carpet tile platforms in the US as a result of very high recycled plastic content and the use of 96% renewable energy in manufacturing.

A New Approach to Sustainable Plastics

The goal of the Sustainable Plastics Symposium in San Francisco was to begin to engage subject matter experts and other stakeholders in creating an approach that moves the marketplace past outdated ways of product assessment that can create unintended and regrettable trade-offs. If an entire “system” for determining how healthy and sustainable a plastic product is consists of single question (“Is it PVC or non-PVC?”), a product may end up being selected that contributes to other types of toxicity, will never be recycled, and contributes disproportionately to global climate change. At the end of the day, this product’s only “green” claim will be “PVC-free” or perhaps “Red List Free.” Those who participated in the Symposium aspire to see plastic products do much, much more.

We’re committed to developing tools that will help our customers choose the best plastic products. This commitment will lead us to host other symposiums and participate in other forums. Recently, Interface joined a historic panel discussion at the Living Product Expo in Pittsburgh, Pa. to discuss the future of PVC plastic with leaders from Perkins+Will, Healthy Building Network, Tarkett, and Construction Specialties. We’re working to identify a path for improving PVC production and use today while looking toward a future where products are made without virgin petrochemical plastics.

Interface shares the vision of the Living Product Expo: a future where products make the world better, not just less toxic, less wasteful, or less polluting. And we have confidence that products like ours can be part of that positive future. If Interface can make a plastic product that is free of petrochemicals, removes plastic from the oceans, and helps create a climate fit for life, maybe anyone can.

 

To see an illustrated summary of the topics discussed at the Sustainable Plastics Symposium, please reference the slides below:

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Design Trends of 2017 from NeoCon, Clerkenwell Design Week, and More

Gretchen Wagner

From Milan to New York to London to Chicago, spring and summer mark some of the busiest months of our calendar. We sent designers to the Milan Furniture Fair, NYCxDesign, Clerkenwell Design Week and NeoCon this year! So in an effort to capture the essence, I’ve compiled our most notable design moments and trends of the season below.

Well-intentioned and thoughtful approaches to design and color seemed to be at the front of everyone’s mind. Attention has been directed toward creating experiences within environments versus focusing on output, the result being well-designed furniture pieces in delicious materials and color palettes that are simple, beautiful and functional.

Moving Beyond the “Corporate” Look

We continue to see a blending of environments when it comes to commercial interior trends. The boutique hotel and corporate office look more similar than different these days. Neighborhoods for different work styles continue to be the focus of major brands, while smaller brands drive attention toward bespoke and limited production pieces.

Haworth Showroom NeoCon 2017

Office space configuration at the Haworth Showroom at NeoCon 2017

All of this rolls up into a common theme of work choice, providing options for the quiet introvert and the social extrovert. Office furniture has moved well beyond the workstation to incorporate lounge seating and low surfaces. Furniture as interior architecture is delineating space with high backs and collaborative configurations. Systems are designed to match an intended function; not the other way around.

Buzzi Space

Courtesy of BuzziSpace. Photographer: Chris Bradley

Embracing Color

After Milan, I thought it was something in the Italian air, but both NeoCon and Clerkenwell showed an overall deepening of color palettes. The omnipresent neutral wash to which we’ve grown accustomed has shifted into emotional rich shades of color that quickly approach black, often shown as monochromatic settings. These deeply saturated darks, in malachite, garnet, inky indigo and rust, create a moody palette that compliment neutrals rather than accent them.

Knoll

Courtesy of Knoll, Inc.

This earthy palette is bringing about a wide range of textures and natural materials. Everything from brassy bronze and oxidized metals to smooth marble and velvety upholstery. The overall tone, showed an affinity to luxury finishes and material palettes in yummy colors.

Natural materials trends

Emerging Trend: Natural Materials
1. Louise Tucker, 2. Pinscher, 3. Friends Founders, 4. Hand Eye Studio, 5. Devol Kitchens, 6. Par-avion Co, 7. Lozi, 8. Resound by Camilla Lee

Pantone Color Kale trends

Pantone Color Spotting: Kale
1. Moss, 2. Connection, 3. Hand and Eye Studio, 4. Moss Wall, 5. Poliform, 6. Connection, 7. Dare Studio, 8. Connection, 9. Urban Live Picture

We are about to dive head first into our favorite Fall shows, so stay tuned for trend updates from design weeks around the world. Next up, London Design Festival, Maison Objet, Fashion Week’s around the globe and BDNY.

XOXO

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Actions Speak Louder than Labels

David Gerson

Sustainability isn’t easy. Although some product labels claim to be an indicator of health and/or environmental performance, many have little or no evaluation of the ultimate environmental or health impacts of a product. So, a label with a few check boxes does not necessarily mean that one product is more “sustainable” or “healthy” than another. For example, did you know that at the basic levels of Cradle to Cradle or Living Product Certifications, there are no requirements for renewable energy use or carbon footprint reductions, or even recycling? We need more than what these labels provide.

At Interface we have recently achieved a new third-party certification from GreenCircle Certified, LLC called the Certified Environmental Facts Label. This provides the highest standard and best product evaluation tool we know of in the industry. Recycled content, water usage, renewable energy and carbon footprint are listed in a simple format akin to USDA nutrition labels. Only when we know the facts and science, can we make good decisions for our health and our planet.

Interface Factories to Zero GreenCircle label

Interface Products to Zero GreenCircle label

But for all of the data and numbers in GreenCircle, one metric rises above the rest: Carbon Footprint. If you focus on carbon, everything else falls into place – recycled content, toxicity, renewable energy, water usage, health and safety through the entire value chain, etc. AND, it addresses the most important issue of our time, climate change.

Our comprehensive approach to sustainability on all fronts has enabled us to achieve the lowest carbon footprint in our industry. In fact, it is over three times lower than another flooring product in our industry that has achieved the Living Product Certification.

Interface carbon footprint

So, while achieving sustainability and keeping business as usual may not be easy, it is easy to see who is doing the most to halt climate change and reduce their carbon footprint. If we are all successful in this fight, then we’ll be well on our way to creating a more equitable and healthy future for everyone.

Ask every manufacturer for their third party verified Certified Environmental Facts Label.

For more on how we’re looking at taking the carbon footprint from 7kg to -2kg, view our Proof Positive tile, part of our new Climate Take Back mission

To learn how climate change affects human heath, go to: https://www.cdc.gov/climateandhealth/

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