If I asked you what was in the muesli bar you regularly eat, you would probably just shrug your shoulders and offer me the wrapping.
Asking for the ingredients that go into the making of building materials is not so easy. The process of getting the information from suppliers is interesting, frustrating, enlightening and surprising. Like off-road driving there is often no track, no signage, no map and even worse - no one else with you knows the way. So what do you do?
The first step; ask the question that no one is asking, what ingredients are in your product? Asking this question you get varying degrees of reactions. From Why do you want that? To Do you know how many components are in my product? You really want me to list all the ingredients? All the way through to Do you know how long that would take?
Step two is the explanation; making suppliers to understand why we are asking the question. For us at Frasers Property Australia, sustainability is integral. Initiatives like the Living Building Challenge (LBC) challenge us to make a building that actually improves the surrounding environment, for both the community and nature. Part of the difficulty in achieving LBC accreditation is a prohibited list of 22 hazardous chemicals that cannot be present in any materials used in the building. Additionally, the LBC also requires documentation listing exactly what ingredients are in each product used. In practical terms for a development the scale of Burwood Brickworks this means a ridiculously big excel spreadsheet. Naturally, this invokes a variety of reactions from suppliers. Some have welcomed the concept and were more than happy to get involved. Others were understandably overwhelmed by the amount of work that it would mean but were willing to come to the table. Unfortunately, some just say no.
The third step is actually getting the information. For me, this must be the most interesting stage. It has been amazing to see how many ways the same question can be interpreted and how much the explanations can vary. Suppliers have given me everything from a drawing to an invitation to their factory. I have been the subject of email ping-pong around a company because no one wants to answer the questions. I’ve been asked whether a chemical that is bonded and not free within the product is still included on the red-list? Despite the technical and difficult, you never know what to expect in stage three, and because of this, you’ll probably never stop learning.
I call the fourth step working with the supplier’s decision. Our ultimate goal is to obtain a compliant ingredients list for all products, but as an industry, we are just at the start of creating demand. Therefore the supply is not all there yet. Sometimes we have to be a bit flexible and accept we are not going to get a Declare label for every product. These labels identify a minimum of 99% of the ingredients in a product. As good partners, we have to consider the exceptions that have already been accepted and request our own.
I’m proud to say we are creating the demand so that in the future people will be able to roll their eyes and say look at the label. But we are just not there yet. This means asking for all of the information we can get, and a little motivation. After all, ‘the most transparent wins’ is a game we can all enjoy.
Ultimately, if we can create an amazing space with non-toxic, sustainable products, we can change the market and the way people think about what surrounds them every day for the better.