Warning: Walls May be Hazardous to Your Health
"Peter Syrett, an architect, and Chris Youssef, an interior designer, believe that building materials should be labeled, just like cereal boxes and soup cans, so consumers can avoid ingredients that might be harmful."
In an article published Wednesday, The New York Times spoke with two members of architecture firm Perkins + Will about an online database they've created to track building products. Their website, transparency.perkinswill.com, provides a compendium of common materials used in construction, cross-referencing them with government warnings and component substance lists.
Homeowners won't like what they read. PVC, the third most commonly used plastic in the world and one found in most modern plumbing systems, is a known carcinogen. Particle board contains formaldehyde. Natural wood is treated with pesticides and hardeners. Nearly everything manufactured has been chemically altered at some point. As Youssef said, "People need to understand: no material is pristine these days. Even if it starts out natural, it ends up being transformed through industrial processes."
The Transparency website was created to convince manufacturers to label their products with ingredients lists, but what Syrett and Youssef have done is more than that. They have created, without government mandate or intervention, a system to ensure safety and compliance in their industry. They saw what was happening with children's products, saw the overall trends among consumers, and created a way to address the issue before there was a media firestorm about it.
Their database is not a safety and compliance program in and of itself. Particle board and PVC are perfectly legal to use in construction. Perkins + Will simply put the information out there, available to the world. What do you think will happen when John Q. Public reads that the boards in his cabinet were treated with formaldehyde?
The same thing that happened to BPA. "People stated asking about BPA, and soon manufacturers were labeling products as BPA-free," Syrett said. Consumers will complain, and manufacturers will be forced to remove the chemical from their products. It doesn't matter if the chemical is realistically harmful, because the PR absolutely is.
It seems inevitable that similar databases for materials that affect promotional products, such as plastics, fabrics and inks, will become available in time. Not because the consumer demands it, or because the government requires it, but because the free market will encourage it. If consumers want safety, someone's going to sell it first. Perkins + Will understood this, and now the firm is sited in The New York Times as an authority on safe construction.
The move toward promoting safety has been happening in or industry for years. As Rick Brenner mentioned in his blog this week, some suppliers voluntarily list those products that are CPSIA-safe even if the item doesn't require it, and the Quality Certification Alliance is set up to promote those companies that choose to go above and beyond when it comes to product safety.
At some point, whether the pressure is coming from buyers or from politicians, everyone is going to need to sell the safest products possible. Those suppliers getting ahead of the wave will be better prepared when the trend becomes tradition, and distributors who anticipate what buyers will want five years in the future can start selling it now. In 2017, when every client places safe products as a priority, you'll have a portfolio showing years of experence.
Whether it's to increase your sales, or decrease the chance of a lawsuit, it makes sense. And business aside, selling safe products is simply the right thing to do. No matter how you look at it, your safest bet is to sell safety.