Sustainability is the ability to “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
“In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation, even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.”
- Iroquois Law
One might just as well ask why not green? Living sustainably is simply living smarter. By re-thinking the impacts we have on ourselves and our planet -particularly through resource use in our built environment- we are on the path to living smarter. For instance, when we consider what toxins and solvents are in our building products that we are putting in our home and find healthier, durable alternatives, we are taking charge of our own health and lives. That’s smarter. And why wouldn’t we want a healthy, green space to work in and come home to everyday? It is hard to imagine that we would voluntarily expose ourselves to hazardous solvents and chemicals that are known to cause cancer and birth defects. Yet, as we make our building envelopes tighter for energy efficiency reasons, we are still surrounding ourselves with toxic materials. What’s more, we are statistically spending more and more time indoors.
But what makes up a green product? Basically, the ideal green product has low life-cycle impacts, will be less toxic to humans and the environment in production all the way through installation and to the end of its useful life, will be made with recycled or rapidly renewable material, will be sourced and manufactured locally, and will have positive social impacts throughout its extraction and manufacture. Certifications and recognitions from third party organizations such as FSC, Green Seal, SCS and a few others that we look for here at INDIGOGreen can help to cut through the “green wash” and distinguish those truly green products from those that are not. At INDIGOGreen, we have researched and chosen our products to the highest standards of sustainability so you don’t have to. We hope that you’ll find that we exceed your expectations of what a green store can be for our future and our community.
We all know that the conventional method of constructing a building cannot sustain a planet with diminishing resources. According to the USGBC, buildings (particularly commercial) represent:
38.9% of U.S. primary energy use (includes fuel input for production), are one of the heaviest consumers of natural resources and account for significant portion of the greenhouse gas emissions that affect climate change. In the U.S., buildings account for 38% of all CO2 emissions and represent 72% of U.S electricity consumption.
When we consider particular materials, much of what makes a product green is the evaluation of its various environmental and health impacts on both the planet and humans at various points in its life cycle. The process of life cycle examination is known as its life cycle assessment or LCA which looks at a product from “cradle to grave”. When taking a product at the end of its useful life and turning it into something else useful it is known as “cradle to cradle”.
As mentioned, the ideal green product has low life-cycle impacts, will be less toxic to humans and the environment in production all the way through installation and to the end of its useful life, will be made with recycled or rapidly renewable material, will be sourced and manufactured locally, and will have positive social impacts throughout its extraction and manufacture. However, many products do not fit this ideal and have to be balanced in their green considerations. For instance, a product might be made of recycled material but release considerable levels of VOCs; another might be manufactured with rapidly renewable resources and formaldehyde-free adhesives but shipped from the Far East.
Many Americans suffer with allergies, approximately 38% resulting in a range of symptoms including fatigue and learning problems. Moreover, asthma which is linked to animal dander, paint fumes, pollens, and molds is on the rise from 11 million reported cases in 1980 to over 17 million in 1994. In recent years we have been concerned with energy efficiency which means a tightly sealed home. If that sealing does not consider proper ventilation then cabinets with formaldehyde, carpets with pesticides and formaldehyde, vinyl chloride in vinyl products, paints with VOC’s and solvents, and granite with radon can build up to unhealthy concentrations.
Houses and buildings should be healthy to live in since we spend so much of our modern lives in them. We look for products that help to ensure a healthy indoor air quality (IAQ) and are clearly the better alternative to conventional products. The materials to be concerned about are those with cancer causing formaldehyde in them such as flooring, cabinetry, paints and finishes, plyboard, countertops, carpets, cleaning products and adhesives. Beyond formaldehyde, materials can also be engineered and treated with bio-accumulative chemicals such as water repellencies, stain guards and brominated fire retardants (BFR’s)that have been shown to cause birth defects, disrupt reproductive hormones, and compromise our immune systems.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) are also something that the EPA uses to measure the amount of offgassing that contributes to smog and has set the term “low VOC” to mean less than 50gpl(grams per liter). Although this is helpful, this standard only measures those volatile ingredients (those turning from solid to gas at room temperature) that are smog contributors. It does not measure other offgassing chemicals that may also be irritants and may slowly offgas for up to 7 years. These other solvents containing other non-smog causing VOCs could lead to health problems in not only children and the elderly, but also otherwise healthy individuals over longer exposure times.
When considering whether a product has toxic chemicals we refer to the products’ MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) which can tell us a snapshot of what it contains. However, if a product has a toxic chemical that is less than 1% of its complete makeup, the EPA does not require it to be reported so we cannot tell everything we need to by this guide. That is why it is also important to look to see that the product has Greenguard (not Greenseal) as well SCS (Scientific Certification Systems) seals of approval which provide independent, verifiable, third-party certification of environmental and indoor air quality standards and achievements. We also refer to California’s proposition 65 which has a database of all ingredients that may be found in consumer products that are proven or suspected to be hazardous to human health. We can also look to see whether a product has been tested to meet European E1 or E0 standards for indoor air quality or the even more stringent California Air Resource Board‘s (CARB) standards whose newest regulations will eventually set particleboard and plywood formaldehyde restrictions to .09 and .05ppm by 2012.
Although some sustainable materials may initially cost more when comparing them to non-green building products, the true cost of those less sustainable choices is only revealed when we look at the bigger picture. Products which save the homeowner money on energy costs are much easier to define while materials that save the homeowner from potential health issues or save a communities’ livelihood by practicing sustainable forestry may not. How do we quantify the avoidance of environmental degradation or hospitalization? The city of Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development puts it this way when talking about the purchase price of a green home over one that is not:
“Initial price gives only a peephole view of the true cost of a product or design over the lifetime of your home. A low purchase price may mean a good deal, or it may signify a lack of quality or durability. Or it may mean that some environmental, health, or social costs are not included in the price. A higher purchase price can mean a better deal in the long run: you can actually reduce the cost of living in your home by choosing resource-efficient fixtures (lowering monthly utility bills) and durable materials (requiring less frequent replacement).” In the Story of Stuff (www.storyofstuff.com) , it is pointed out that many cheaper products are just so because the real cost of making a product is never really captured in the price i.e. the costs are externalized:
“Earth Economics (eartheconomics.org) defines an externality as:
“Externality: An unintended and uncompensated loss or gain in the welfare of one party resulting from an activity of another party.” Another way to explain this is that there are many real costs of producing things (like using water, dumping waste, contributing to climate change, paying sick worker’s medical care) which are incurred by producing things, but are ignored by the company owners. Since the company owners don’t pay for these real costs, but shift them onto the public and the environment, they are said to “externalize” them which means making someone else pay for them. That is what I mean when I say that the prices of many goods don’t reflect the true cost of making the things. Someone else is paying for the doctors bills, the longer hike to get water after local water is polluted or gone, the impacts of climate change, the cost of the asthma inhaler and more costs incurred from the extraction, production, distribution and disposal of stuff.”