"For every complex question, there's a simple answer, but it's wrong."
These words, which were posted in my professor's office many years ago, often still come to mind as they ring just as true today as they did when I was an environmental graduate student.
As a stewardship coordinator, I review many questionnaires from designers trying to evaluate the "greenness" of office furnishings for their clients. Much of their clientele want an attractive workspace, at a good price, with environmentally friendly furnishings. The designer, a busy person, probably didn't focus on toxicology in college and doesn't have time to do research in an unfamiliar field, so stress and urgency levels run high. The appeal of simple answers for complex questions is understandably strong under such circumstances.
But what do the answers really tell you? Are they true? Will the answers improve our environment or just occupy shelf space? How can designers make good choices? Do questionnaires (and their answers) add value to business or the environment?
Yes and no. (How's that for a simple answer?!) Questionnaires and their responses have serious flaws but they just might ultimately be doing something positive for the planet.
Let's Review the Problems
Many questionnaires demand simple 'yes' or 'no' answers to complex questions about environmental impacts. Perhaps the question itself could be answered simply, but the way it is structured often makes a simple answer misleading.
For example, a common question is, "Does your product contain formaldehyde—yes or no?" A company could assume that the question really means "Is the product's emission level low enough to meet the requirements of LEED®?" Or an organization could assume that the question wasn't meant to include naturally-occurring formaldehyde. Such interpretations could lead a manufacturer to answer 'no' but if the question is accepted at face value, the honest answer is more likely to be 'yes.'
When comparing answers from different companies, a designer may avoid products from a company answering honestly and select from a company that interpreted the question to fit the situation. In reality, the products may be basically the same but the company that answered the direct question suffers.
"Is your _____ sustainable?" This frequently asked question prompts my inner teacher to jump up. The blank space may contain the words "office furniture" but the same question is asked about other interior design products. That question deserves an entire EnvironDesign Notebook column to address it properly, but let me offer a word of warning to designers for now: If a manufacturer answers yes to that question, be suspicious … be VERY suspicious. For any product to achieve sustainability, important changes must occur in our consumer/post-consumer habits.
Next, how would a designer evaluate the credibility of the answers, assuming that the questions are well reasoned and carefully crafted? There is no third-party certification process for answers to questionnaires. Are the answers complete? Are they factual? Important decisions and selections are likely to be made, based on the answers to these questionnaires with no assurance of accuracy.
And finally, assuming that the questions are well written and the answers are correct, how many readers really understand the answers provided? (Pop quiz: If a product emits 0.0065 mg/m3 of 4-phenylcyclohexene, do you recommend it to a client or stay away from it?) What about the electromagnetic radiation (electric and magnetic fields) from the product? When a manufacturer agrees that its product emits this radiation, do you need to worry? We're surrounded by these fields in our daily life—electric wiring, a microwave oven, your hair dryer (especially when set on high), even in your cell phone.
And Now for the Positives
Questionnaires are beginning an environmental awareness and education process that is rippling through the design community. I tend to believe knowledge is power and revel in those "teachable moments" when a designer isn't sure how to interpret an environmental issue, but is willing to ask the question. As an environmental steward, my greatest dream is to put myself out of business—to no longer need to teach because all the students have graduated with environmental knowledge that has been integrated into their culture. The visibility and impact of designers' work makes them well-placed green messengers.
Questionnaires are helping to drive manufacturers toward better products with the potential of driving products toward true sustainability. LEED is the most influential environmental change motivator in the building and commercial interiors industry and provides a base from which to build. Many questionnaires are LEED focused, but a few are pushing beyond LEED's current boundaries by asking about the postconsumer fate of products, environmental impacts of raw materials and transport, and other product life-cycle questions.
Public attention has historically motivated environmental change. In the 1960s and '70s, environmental change was driven by citizen groups who were impacted by damage to the air and water from manufacturing practices. The resulting environmental regulations (pollution control), was demanded by citizens, resisted by industry, and sadly, often driven to enactment by a disaster. Environmental change shifted gears in the late '80s when a few smart manufacturers recognized that pollution was wasted raw materials, so they looked for ways to become more efficient and cut waste (pollution prevention). However, these improvements still didn't accomplish the ultimate environmental goal: sustainability.
The next round of changes might eventually get us there. Change is being driven more and more by the marketplace, as citizens become aware and demand it. The Earth Summit of 1992 set the world stage for the vital movement toward sustainable development with its call to action: Agenda 21.
What About the Missing Questions?
Well-designed questionnaires can play a valuable role by informing manufacturers of the market's future demands. I mentioned my concern about the question "Is your [product] sustainable: yes or no?", but there is another category of questions that concerns me: those that are not being asked in questionnaires. There aren't easy answers to these questions nor are there easy ways to evaluate answers. The best answer may be "we're working on that" because the next steps we need to take must include a discussion of what is possible and how to achieve it over the next few years. They are questions that go to the heart of a company, its practices and motivations, its "Triple Bottom Line" (TBL) of environmental, social and economic impacts. It's part of the road to sustainable development.
So what might some of these questions be? There are many possibilities:
- How durable is your product? (This question is at the top of my "ask now" list since ultimately, the continuing use of existing products means fewer natural resources are harvested.)
- What were your environmental policies and practices 10 years ago?
- How do you set and review working conditions in your plants?
- What is your environmental direction for the next five years?
- How can we guide the infrastructure and cultural changes needed to return used product constituents to new products or to biological nutrients?
- What is your economic and social impact on your community?
- How do you publicly report your TBL impacts?
Creating a Common Practice that Encourages Sustainability
Before anyone rushes to incorporate the aforementioned questions into new questionnaires, we should confer on a well-designed and unified effort. As someone who answers a multitude of varied questionnaires, you can bet I don't want to create an avalanche of new ones!
I would like to highlight some encouraging efforts that should lead us in the right direction:
- One is the possible creation of a Sustainability Assessment Standard (SAS) for office furniture by the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA). BIFMA previously tackled the challenge of creating a better way to evaluate indoor air emissions from furniture so it's encouraging that they are considering this new task. I am hopeful that BIFMA will design a new tool for designers to access credible answers and encourage the use of life-cycle assessment. If this new tool eliminates the need for questionnaires in the furniture industry and allows designers to compare "apples to apples" when evaluating choices, perhaps it can set a useful template for other parts of the interiors industry.
- Another highlight is the effort of the U.S. Green Building Council to move LEED to a system based on life-cycle assessment—a challenging but important task. In addition, USGBC recently announced dramatic goals to address global climate change head on.
- Third is the commitment by a core group of designers who are investing their time to learn the science behind environmental change and seriously evaluating what's needed. As an environmental expert with a long career of educating for change, it does my green heart good to see others step outside their profession's usual boundaries to bring the environment in. I recently visited with one such firm and was thrilled with their commitment and the depth of knowledge.
As a newcomer to the commercial interiors industry, I would like to offer the following suggestions for designers and manufacturers, and I invite you to offer your own:
- Work together on one version of questionnaire that provides useful information to all designers for the near term and responds to the BIFMA SAS tool in the future.
- Work together to coordinate and expand the environmental education process for both designers and manufacturers to engrain that knowledge into our culture.
- Recognize that sustainability is a goal that will take many steps, much discussion, and a lot of dedication to achieve.
In the meantime, I plan to use this column to teach and demystify concepts relating to the environment and sustainable development. Suggested topics for future issues are welcomed.