The emergence of green building as a wide-ranging, multibillion dollar industry over the past two decades has dramatically reshaped the day-to-day operations of many building product manufacturers. “There’s no question that the green building market transformation has had a huge impact on building materials,” says Scott Miller, director of sustainability and product affairs at Knauf Insulation. “Anyone that says it didn’t is lying to you.”

For some manufacturers, decisions are driven by a corporate sustainability mandate, while other manufacturers seek the financial benefits of more efficient processes that use fewer resources and raw materials. Some companies are driven by the demand for third-party certifications and more transparency as architects and builders seek in-depth information on material content and toxicity via lifecycle assessments (LCAs), environmental product declarations (EPDs) and Health Product Declarations (HPDs). 

Recognizing the complexity of greening the building product landscape, ECOHOME recently gathered a select group of manufacturers in Washington, D.C., for the Vision 2020 Manufacturers' Council to gain from-the-trenches insight on how some of the industry’s leading companies are working to improve their environmental footprints. Over the course of one day, sustainability representatives from the eight sponsor companies of ECOHOME’s Vision 2020 program (see sidebar at left for a full list of attendees) talked about the opportunities and challenges they face in moving the manufacturing industry forward on the path to a more sustainable future.


With no national green building product definition in existence, the manufacturing realm is many shades of green, with hundreds of product and project certifications on the market. “It would be great if there was just one solution, and we all got in the same boat, and away we went,” says Laura Dwyer, director of DuPont’s Building Knowledge Center. “But there are a lot of different opportunities and we’re still trying to assess how to participate.”

For the manufacturers who gathered in D.C., one constant is that the definition of sustainability is inherently linked with safety—safety of both company employees and the communities in which the manufacturers operate. “An environmental footprint is more than how much water you use or how much pollution you’re putting out. It’s also making sure that we reduce injuries and illness and have no incidents for safety,” Dwyer says. “[It’s also] that we reduce our emissions and we use our water and depletable forms of raw materials and energy in the best way.” 

Then looking at the playing field on a larger scale, would a national definition even be of use in a global market? Many manufacturers discussed the challenge of streamlining processes across a diverse portfolio of products that are produced by a mix of suppliers in an array of countries that have varying—and sometimes conflicting—requirements and standards. It’s a no-brainer for many manufacturers who regard it as their core business responsibility, but nonetheless requires diligent top-down management and ownership.

Also complicating matters is the inconsistent vocabulary used to define sustainable efforts and targets. As part of the Manufacturers’ Council, each participant spoke of his or her individual company’s reduction goals, and while some companies focus on percentage-based reductions (Sherwin-Williams, for example, is aiming to reduce its CO2 emissions 20 percent from a 2007 baseline by 2016), others identify specific measurements (such as Johns Mansville’s goal of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions by 26,000 tons by eliminating 30,000 mWh of electricity and 110,000 mmBtu of natural gas between 2010-2014). And others still track on physical measurements, such as GAF’s calculations and targets based on the amount of squares of roofing. There is, they noted, no standardized language for corporate sustainability reports regarding what companies choose to measure and how they measure each variable, and herein lies an opportunity for builders and architects. 

"It goes to the idea of being customer driven because if our mutual customer gets information from both of us, they drive us to consistent reporting because they need to compare one-to-one,” says Diana Fisler, environmental construction platform leader at Johns Manville. “We’ll be driven by customers’ demands for standardization.” Steve Revnew, vice president of product innovation at Sherwin-William adds, “A lot of our insights come from our customers. We follow the different green building standards out there and stay in touch with them, but we … really listen to the customer in regards to what’s most important to them and that’s where we focus our efforts. You can focus on all of [the standards], but then you’re really focusing on nothing because you can’t have your resource executing successfully in all those programs.”


Another area where consistency—and more specifically, regulation—is lacking is in the use of EPDs and the information they disclose. “What scares me is the fact that there are no rules for the use of EPD information that I know of,” Miller notes, and many manufacturers expressed a need for more dialogue with architects and builders as to how they process and use the disclosed information. Given the cost of creating these assessments for their entire product line (easily in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, some estimated), manufacturers are concerned that the information is simply being requested because it’s required—and not necessarily being processed.

“Users are looking for transparency and to see if people are following the rules, but most of them don’t know what to do with the information,” says Anthony Ruffine, vice president of sustainability and strategic marketing at GAF. Revnew adds that “a lot of people out there need education about what they’re asking for. They may be asking if we meet a certain standard but when you dial in deeper and ask what’s important to them in that standard so that you can understand what direction to go in the long run, they don’t really understand [the standard].” As an example, he recalls, “We had a situation where someone asked about the Red List chemicals and we asked them to tell us what they knew about the Red List and what was important to them in order to get a better understanding of what they really need. The comment that came back was ‘I really don’t understand the Red List, but I depend upon it being a standard and it’s important to me.’ I think it’s important to note that there’s an education process that needs to take place as to what’s truly important when it comes to green building products and not only as to what’s important, but also why it’s important.”

Touching on the Red List—a list of chemicals classified by the International Living Future Institute as harmful to living creatures—raised a conundrum for the manufacturers: conflicts between what’s allowed in some certification systems and what’s required by code, with a specific example being fire retardants and the emerging debate about their use in green buildings. To meet fire standards, you may have to put in a chemical that you don’t want to use, but you have to protect public health, and that can get you de-specified for a project, one manufacturer noted.

It’s a conversation that arose in 2012 with the launch of the Health Product Declaration Open Standard Version 1.0, which discloses the entire chemical make up of a product. The standard also raised concerns about the protection of proprietary formulas or processes—a challenge that manufacturers say they are willing to discuss. 


Manufacturers try to foster open, consistent discussion between themselves and specifiers, especially regarding the cost and value of green investments—and how to calculate and communicate return on green investment (ROGE). “When we want to implement more efficient homes or practices, there’s a lot of resistance to changing the way things are done,” Fisler says. “As we want to move to more sustainable products, the construction industry is very price-driven, so how do we get value from that? If we have a one-to-one product or a more expensive sustainable product, do builders really value that?” 

“A large swath of our customer base will not pay for sustainability,” says Martin Grohman, director of sustainability for GAF . He notes that resistance to change is a big obstacle. As an example, Revnew said when Sherwin-Williams first rolled out no-VOC paints and marketed them basedon this attribute, people shied away due to concern that the formulation had changed and they were unsure of how the paints would work. Likewise, Ruffine noted a similar challenge with contractors.

The challenge of leveraging cost versus value isn’t limited to consumers—it extends to the corporate boardroom as well. “It’s difficult to go after aggressive opportunities when you’re trying to control your costs, and environmental improvement projects requiring capital investment are a tougher sell during an economic downturn,” says Brian Cooley, global director of sustainability for ZIP Systems. “And when the price of power drops, it makes justifying energy reduction programs more difficult,” he says, and sometimes people are unaware of the benefits because their cost perspective is skewed. “Water-related capital projects, for instance, can be challenging to get approved because for the most part, the world doesn’t pay the true cost of water.”

All hurdles aside, the participants in the Manufacturers’ Council expressed optimism at the path ahead and at the potential collaboration with other industry professionals in moving green building forward. The opportunities extend from on-going conversation to demonstration projects, such as those being done by Velux (its Active House USA project in St. Louis) and at Panasonic (its  Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town in Japan).

In September, the Vision 2020 program will culminate with the exclusive Vision 2020 Sustainability Summit in Washington, D.C., which will be featured in the special Vision 2020 Winter issue of ECOHOME and ECOSTRUCTURE. Progress in the year-long program can be tracked at, and individual sponsors pages can be accessed here for more on each company’s green building efforts.