David Baggs knew he had to act on the economic fallout of employee ill health. With an estimated loss to Australian businesses of $28 billion annually, the outcome is no meagre figure. Baggs, who is both CEO and program director of Global GreenTag (GGT), was further compelled by studies that concluded the supply chain was in need of firmer risk mitigation to help prevent toxic products being used in workplaces and homes.

“We already know from studies that product toxicity found in buildings is [the] very real cause [of] a range of human health problems – even to unborn babies – including cancer, hormone disruption, asthma, allergies [and] chronic fatigue,” he says.

“Even an ‘indoor environment’ study, published last year by the American Chemical Society, found a concerning combination of chemicals present [that were] leaching or gassing off from [indoor] products that people take in daily through their skin and airways.”

A number of workplace studies – such as Employee Productivity in a Sustainable Building: Pre- and Post-Occupancy Studies in 500 Collins Street, a study commissioned by Sustainability Victoria and the Kador Group – demonstrate that employees become healthier when toxic products are removed from the vicinity. Sustainability Victoria have themselves retrofitted their offices with low-toxicity products, resulting in a 30 percent reduction in sick leave and a 45 percent increase in productivity.

“Ethically, Global GreenTag did not want to sit on worrying statistics much longer without doing something about it,” says Baggs.

GGT’s subsequent Product Health Declaration (PhD) tool is the “first system globally to assess the health impacts of the final product – and not just the hazards of the ingredients,” according to Baggs. The end goal of the new declaration is to disclose risks and hazards posed by certain products and to rate their ‘healthiness’ in an easy-to-understand way. 

The PhD, which focuses exclusively on material health and toxicity, is an optional addition to the GGT certification. GGT also covers criteria such as life-cycle assessment, corporate social responsibility, material optimisation, material sourcing, environmental management and biodiversity impacts.

To achieve a GGT PhD, Global GreenTag requires manufacturers to provide 100 percent transparency, to 100 parts per million, of the toxicity contained in each of a product’s individual ingredients.

GGT PhDs are only issued to products that have passed GGT standards’ certification requirements. The levels of assessment (BronzeHEALTH, SilverHEALTH, GoldHEALTH and PlatinumHEALTH) relate only to GGT toxicity assessment, and differ from the overall GGT certification levels. The new certification reflects the relative health profiles of individual products. For example, a product with ingredients that have no toxic impact at any stage of its life cycle would achieve PlatinumHEALTH, the highest level of PhD certification.

Not only does the GGT PhD encourage product manufacturers to do “the right thing”, Baggs says it will also help to mitigate risk and increase awareness more broadly.

“[The declaration will reduce risks [so that] building professionals [can] confidently make distinctions between products [based on what is] safer for human health. It will make it easier to communicate health-related product decisions to clients and building occupiers.

“It will also [facilitate] the rise of conscious consumers. [Studies show that consumers] want healthier choices and greater access to more authentic product information [that] they can trust, because ‘absolute transparency brings total peace of mind’.

The first PhD certificate was awarded to manufacturer Weathertex for its natural flat sheets and weatherboards. However, others are already in the pipeline.

While the new PhD certification doesn’t contain as many areas of assessment as the original GreenTag label, what it does add to the equation is an enhanced level of transparency for all stakeholders – from consumers to specifiers to designers and architects – regarding the toxicity and health impacts of the final product. By disclosing individual ingredients and their relative impact on workers and the environment, the plain-language guide affords stakeholders greater autonomy and authority to make decisions.

The PhD health system also makes clear whether any given product meets indoor air-quality and VOC-emissions requirements for Green Star, LEED and BREEAM ratings, as well as other standards such as the WELL Building Standard.

“I think organisations like GreenTag and their PhD initiative are ahead of the curve. [The] issue of product and material certification is rising in visibility, understanding and importance,” says Robin Mellon, CEO of the Supply Chain Sustainability School.

“We are seeing more and more greenwash out there in the industry. What we need is more supply-chain transparency, accountability and education so that we have the ability to really look at where construction materials are coming from.

“With [the] introduction of the PhD [certification] into the building and property market, we should also start seeing a difference between leaders and laggards. Leading companies in the construction and infrastructure sectors will [start including] elements such as occupant health, materials certification, product risk, modern slavery and human rights into more and more of their specifications [and] procurement and development [processes]. I think we'll be seeing greater transparency and declaration around a whole range of issues.”

Deborah Singerman runs her own writing, editing, proofing and project managing consultancy specialising in the urban built environment and community. @deborahsingerma; [email protected]