The purge, which began in July 2015, was part of a
firm-wide Red List-free campaign spearheaded by
Mazurek, MCG’s first full-time interior designer.
Every employee signed a letter that stated MCG’s
intention to avoid building products that con-
tained Red List chemicals—chemicals such as
formaldehyde, polyvinyl chloride, and phthalates—
that have raised health concerns. The letter alerted
suppliers that as of October 1, 2015, “only manufac-
turers that are pursuing a ‘Declare’ label or HPDs
[Health Product Declarations] will be allowed to
both present their products to staff informally or
at Lunch & Learns.”
MCG’s efforts are part of a larger transpar-
ency movement throughout the industry. Red lists,
Declare labels, Environmental Product Declarations
(EPDs): Each of these tools is intended to help
designers avoid the many toxic chemicals often
embedded in building products, from paint to floor-
ing to furniture. The Red List maintained by the
International Living Future Institute
(ILFI) is one of several resources clas-
sifying certain products as hazardous.
Textiles, in particular, are inimical. More than 2,000 unique chemicals,
many of which are harmful to humans,
might be used in the production of a single fiber. Although a majority of those
chemicals are rinsed out in the production process, a percentage typically
remains, to be off-gassed into homes and
workplaces or absorbed by people’s skin.
According to one estimate in Textile
Chemicals: Environmental Data and
Facts, by K. Lacasse and W. Baumann,
chemicals make up one-quarter of the
weight of a yard of cotton fabric.
Among the more egregious chemicals is a class called phthalates, which
are used to make polyvinyl chloride
(PVC) more pliable. “Everybody’s
excited about Flint, Michigan, but as
nasty as lead is, phthalates are as nasty.
You want to keep your kids away from
lead, and from phthalates,” says Patty
Grossman, the president of Two Sisters
Ecotextiles, a Seattle-based textile
manufacturer that offers organic fabrics mainly for residential applications.
But to avoid these chemicals,
designers have to know they exist.
James Connelly, who joined ILFI
in 2012 as the director of the Living
Product Challenge, says avoiding toxic
chemicals was by far the most difficult
aspect for early participants in another
of ILFI’s certifications, the Living
Building Challenge. To be certified as
a Living Building, a project must meet
a series of ambitious post-occupancy
You would think that “net-zero energy, or net-
zero water” would be the most difficult requirements
to meet, Connelly says, “but [those] are really just
technical engineering challenges.” Ensuring a proj-
ect was free of Red List chemicals “was an entirely
different challenge.” The infrastructure simply
wasn’t there. Many of the tools designers rely on
today, such as HPDs, didn’t exist. It was like trying
to achieve net-zero energy in a world where solar
panels hadn’t been invented. To move forward, he
says, “required a fundamental transformation of the
MCG’s campaign and others like it are attempt-
ing to usher in that transformation. Mazurek, the
incoming president of ASID’s Alaska chapter, gave the
firm’s materials library, which had become a dumping
ground for product samples and literature, a complete
makeover. “I threw away stuff from ’87,” she says.
But things got uncomfortable when she began
asking reps to remove products that didn’t comply
with the firm’s new standards. A rep from a major
carpet supplier was among the first to be summoned.
“He’s looking around, and everyone else’s stuff is still
on the shelf, and he’s being asked to take [his prod-ucts],” Mazurek remembers. The hardest meeting
was with a flooring company whose various sustainability initiatives didn’t adequately address toxicity.
Mazurek and the company’s reps talked in circles for
an hour, she says. “It was an argument up until things
were taken out. And I haven’t seen them since.”
Designers can no longer pretend that the products
they specify—and those products’ component parts—
don’t have serious implications for the health of a
user, the planet, or both. But until recently, reliable
information about a product’s environmental performance was difficult to find and quantify. Today,
first-party claims have given way to a variety of third-party certifications that can help interior designers
make smarter, more socially responsible choices.
At the same time, interest in certifications has
begun to wane, replaced by a desire for full disclosure.
Beyond labels like Greenguard, specifiers want EPDs,
which present data that a designer can compare
across products. “The real trend that we’re seeing, as
it relates to health and environmental impact, seems
to be toward transparency,” says Scott Steady, product
manager at UL Environment, a business unit of safety
science company Underwriters Laboratories, where
he works with the Greenguard program.
Caroline Ollivier, the marketing director at
Knoll Textiles, reports that clients most often request
HPDs. And Mazurek typically looks for a Declare
label, an easy-to-parse ingredients label for products that was developed by ILFI. This demand for
transparency has been driven, in part, by the certifications themselves, whose proprietary protocols
and opaque scorecards have come under scrutiny
over the years. In 2010, for instance, to allay conflict-of-interest concerns, McDonough Braungart Design
Chemistry relinquished Cradle to Cradle certification to an independent nonprofit organization, the
Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.
But complete transparency is a long way off
in the textile world, and certifications are useful.
Among the most trusted standards for textiles are
Greenguard, Cradle to Cradle, the Global Organic
Textile Standard, and the recently launched Living
Product Challenge. Some are specific to textiles,
while others cover everything from pens to playground equipment. Methodologies also vary, and
some certifications—known as single-attribute
certifications—only measure one aspect of a product’s performance. OEKO-TEX and Greenguard
are both single-attribute certifications and focus
on human health.
OEKO-TEX tests fibers and fabrics for potentially harmful substances, with a focus on direct
skin contact. (The certification got its start in the
apparel industry.) Greenguard, on the other hand,
Cara Mazurek, ASID, LEED
AP BD+C, had been at her
new firm for just a few hours
when she began purging the
office’s materials library.
Flooring. Fabrics. Anything
with even a trace of toxic
chemicals. “I came in like a
tornado,” says Mazurek, the
director of interior design
at McCool Carlson Green
in Anchorage, Alaska.