A couple of interesting things have happened the last few months in the green-building world revolving around addressing the reduction of harmful chemicals in our environment.
The first was the recent vote and approval by the USGBC membership on LEED v4. This is the new rating system from the U.S. Green Building Council that is the next generation green-building certification replacing LEED 2009. Notably absent from the balloted rating system is a credit involving the reduction of harmful chemicals. By harmful chemicals we’re talking about some of the nasty ones that we’ve known for a long time cause health issues in humans, including PVCs, brominated or halogenated flame retardants, and phthalates.
During the draft review period of the LEED v4 rating system, inclusion of a credit aimed at reducing harmful chemicals in our buildings was considered but ultimately tossed out because of industry pressure. Instead, a pilot credit was allowed for use in LEED certifications for a short time but is now closed. Pilot credits are the USGBC’s proving ground for testing out new credits and concepts. With the advent of LEED v4, this is now the second time a credit promoting the reduction of harmful chemicals has been proposed and removed from discussion; the first time was with the draft versions of the current LEED 2009. When a similar credit was proposed with LEED 2009 it raised such waves through the industry trade groups that it was effectively squashed.
The second interesting thing is the announcement by Walmart of a new policy regarding sustainable chemistry in consumables. Effectively Walmart is telling its suppliers they need to reduce 10 particularly nasty chemicals in the items that Walmart sells if they want to have shelf space at the store. Because Walmart is the world’s largest retailer, people stand up and listen to what it has to say.
Frankly, this is an industry game changer and puts the wheels into motion regulating harmful chemicals on a large scale—something USGBC tried but has been unable to do for more than six years. It’s interesting what can happen when a company of that breadth and scale decides it wants to do something meaningful. The truth is Walmart carries the biggest stick and companies want to do business with the retailer so badly that if they have to make their widgets without 10 chemicals they will figure out a way to make it happen. The good thing for the rest of the consumers in the world who don’t shop at Walmart is that there is a big trickle-down effect: Makers of widgets generally don’t make them two different ways. Thus begins the removal of these chemicals across the board.
USGBC had several opportunities to be a leader in this realm but ultimately it took a retailer with a big enough influence to put the brakes on and say, “we’re not going to do this anymore”. Kudos to Walmart.