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You’re Wasting Your Time

Materials Sustainability Progress Is Bottlenecked — But It Doesn’t Have To Be


I hate to be the bearer of bad news.

No, seriously. Writing this is awkward, as someone who has advocated for materials sustainability action for almost a decade. I’m not sure how it will be recieved. Still, I need you, your VP, your CEO, your CFO — whoever has the purse strings and is responsible for the KPIs —  to know that you’ve been wasting time, money, energy, and probably some sanity. And all of that wasting, to the detriment of our collective human and environmental health, will continue unless something changes.


If you already knew this, how’s your sanity? Yeah, I hear that.




If you didn’t, sorry for bursting your bubble. But if I don’t burst the bubble, no one will pay attention — to the challenges we’re facing creating as an industry, or to the solutions that we’ve been working with our amazing partners, engaged members and volunteers to build.


Before I go on, materials are critical — uh, literally foundational — to the sustainability of the built environment. This isn’t about whether we address materials toxicity, climate impacts, waste, etc. It’s about how. And what we stand to gain if we align.

OK OK, YOU HAVE MY ATTENTION. HOW AM I WASTING MY TIME, MONEY, ENERGY, AND SANITY?


I’ve worked in a few roles in the built environment — certification development, sustainability consulting, facilitation, communications and strategy. I’ve seen the same patterns over and over in each, and I get the same types of questions and each time I think “AAAAARGHHHH.” That’s not anyone’s fault I just know there’s a better way.


What does wasting time / money / energy / sanity look like, practically? Here are a few lot of examples…

  • You decide to define what “Material Health” means in your firm’s projects or your products.

  • Your firm builds a new sustainability data/tool/platform that has its own input and output of data and doesn’t pull from centralized systems.

  • You wonder, “How does a Declare label compare to an HPD?” and then you proceed to read both standards cover-to-cover and the FAQs to find out (bless you, though, I worked on those at one point).

  • You build a spreadsheet of the top 10 product standards out there comparing all the data point (eek!)

  • Your professional association publishes a Materials Pledge, then creates its own definition of Material Health and instructs participants to use that in specifying products

  • You submit ANOTHER spreadsheet to ANOTHER owner asking for SLIGHTLY different sustainability data.

  • You wonder “Where the heck did my C2C certification go? Why isn’t it showing up in this database??” and then you send 20 emails trying to figure out that your company name was just written slightly differently.

  • You re-enter your sustainability data in that tech company’s fancy new database, then re-enter it in that public database, then you clean up your data in the other other database.

  • You scour various manufacturers’ websites to understand their products’ sustainability attributes and write to them to ask whether they actually help you meet your project or organizational goals.

  • You’re a green chemist who wants to optimize product content, but you’re spending your time moving around spreadsheet columns and reaching back out to your suppliers for the same information.

  • You build an in-house library labeling system for product sustainability requirements (ahemmmmmm).


It doesn’t actually matter if you are a complete materials nerd, or you’re brand new to your job. If you’ve done any of these items listed above, or you’ve just accepted the sustainability data status quo, you've wasted your time, money, energy, and sanity.




For the record I HAVE DONE THESE THINGS myself. I’m not calling out anyone here. In wanting to make a difference, meet our goals, not wait any longer — we all have had to create independent, redundant solutions.


What’s important is that it doesn’t have to be this way. We can align our approaches and get on the same page. And we can build a shared, centralized system that gets everyone the data they need, and do more with it — now. 


OK IF THAT’S WHAT WASTE LOOKS LIKE, WHAT’S THE ALTERNATIVE?


Great question, fictional reader. So the waste is basically a ton of ‘reinventing the wheel’, confusion, redundancy and redoing of good work — because you KNOW that other intern did a project like this last summer at that other firm. What should it feel like to identify and specify more sustainable products?


Here are some vignettes of a more beautiful future:

  • Manufacturers: Enter your data once, it gets incorporated into achieving a certification/label/standard, and then that data and the label travel together to all the relevant platforms where designers find materials. No more lost data, no more re-sending spreadsheets, no more harassing suppliers for the same information.

  • Owners: Finding products that meet your company goals, commitments, and building standards is achievable in any major platform or your internal library. How? The sustainability data is trustworthy, even as its appearance, or filters change — because it’s pulled from centralized sources, and organized consistently.

  • Architects + Designers: Finally, a way to demonstrate accountability to the AIA Materials Pledge, measure your impact, and your commitment to build more sustainable buildings. Have better, more productive communication with manufacturers because the demand and supply signals are clearer.

  • Everyone: Comparing product standards and certifications, and their sustainability data is no longer a deep research exercise because that work has already been synthesized externally — now you just click a few buttons to see how a certification contributes to the AIA Materials Pledge, or to find a certification that meets your firm’s sustainability goals.

  • Literally…never making a spreadsheet of comparing certifications again (can you tell I have history here)

Understanding what you’re looking for, and where to find it, and getting that information needs to be a much simpler journey from A to B.

Right now this is so far from reality because:

  • We’re all defining sustainability attributes differently

  • Data isn’t being added to or pulled consistently from centralized sources

  • Demand is confusing, misaligned, and even conflicting for manufacturers

  • Data systems aren’t connected so data gets duplicated or lost


Inputting and pulling sustainability data should happen from a centralized source; otherwise, we’re redoing everyone else’s work. When you move from label to certification, database to library — the data doesn’t change, just the source, the the definition, organization, definition …


IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY (THIS IS THE OPTIMISTIC PART OF THE BLOG!)


We can have a centralized, connected data ecosystem. That ecosystem can support the success of product certifications and standards far beyond what’s been possible. Investing in building a consistent framework (the CMF), and that data ecosystem, with some education and a lot of collaboration, can save us all time, energy and sanity.

Imagine: every time Google asks for data on product transparency and material health it doesn’t just benefit them and their products, it actually feeds a collective repository of data.

Imagine: every time a sustainability certification is achieved by a manufacturer, that certification, and its granular data that you use to make decisions, flows to all of the systems you use at your firm.


How do we get there? 

  1. Aligning the Ask: Community/Education/Engagement. Get people together and on the same page.

  • As an analogy, it’s a great idea to invest collectively an energy efficient transit system in the city to reduce traffic (and headaches from honking), reduce emissions, reduce stress, and improve walkability and decrease time from Point A to B…but if no one uses that rail system, or they don’t know how to swipe their passes, what good will it do?

  • That’s why we’re convening community through Membership, Working and Engagement Groups, and facilitating our Leadership Forums — to build trust and investment in an aligned system that works better for everyone.

  1. Mapping the Data + Building Shared Sustainability Language — Community and alignment are great in theory, but we need something pre-competitive to align around.

  • That’s where the Common Materials Framework, giving us consistent, external definitions to align around. We don’t have to tackle sustainability in exactly the same way, but the data and organization should be consistent.

  • Plus, mapping certification data once allows us to build infinite resources on top of that, without redoing that work (i.e. compare C2C and a VOC Certification in the click of a button)

  1. Connecting Data Ecosystems — This is where things get really exciting and streamlined.

  • We have community, and a framework for understanding sustainability. Now mM is working with our partners to help build a streamlined data ecosystem where you input your data once in one location, manage it easily, and sustainability data flows seamlessly from point A to B.

  • Imagine: Harvard’s insights become your insights; Salesforce’s purchasing power gets combined with your own; Shaw’s product data suddenly supports every owner.




At mM, that’s the beautiful, efficient, effective tomorrow we’re building. We’d love (and we need) you to be a part of it.


If we are all more mindful, and curious about how our individual efforts can come together for collective good - we can all go further, faster, together. We all do this work because it’s important, and we want to have impact — no one wants to redo work or slam their head against the desk because they just got another Word Document request for data. We’re convening partners from all walks who interact with materials production and specification to build community, a common framework, and enable and adopt a connected data ecosystem.


There are 1,000 ways to join us — or you could just keep doing what you’ve been doing. Your choice :)


 

Intrigued? Reach out to us at hello@mindfulmaterials.com.

Want to get involved in the solutions we’re building? Join a Working Group.

Want to support our work, saving us all time, money, energy, and sanity so we can have more impact? Become a sponsor, member, or donate (we are a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization after all!)

Want more from Alex? Connect with her via email or LinkedIn.




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