image of a worker in a factory
U.K.-based manufacturer PurOptima made a switch to Hydro CIRCAL for all of its glass and aluminum wall partitions and doors this past July. Hydro CIRCAL is a sustainable aluminum made with at least 75 percent postconsumer recycled content. This gives it an embodied carbon footprint of 2.3 kgCO2, compared with the average footprint of 16 kgCO2 for U.S.–produced aluminum.

Manufacturers Catch Up on Embodied Carbon

Interiors manufacturers are recognizing the need for greater material transparency and responding to the demand for information on their carbon emissions.

Embodied carbon is a hot topic these days. An ever-increasing number of players in the building industry are now assessing what’s getting built in terms of how much it contributes to decarbonization, i.e., reductions in carbon emissions. As the thinking goes, lessening the embodied emissions stemming from materials and construction lessens the long-term impacts measured over the entire life cycle of the building as well. Indicative of this thinking, certification programs like LEED and the newly amended California Green Building Standards Code (CALGreen) will soon roll out codified benchmarks for embodied carbon tracking and reductions. 

One facet of our built environment where this hasn’t truly taken hold is interiors. So-called “hot spot” products such as furniture, flooring, and ceiling materials, among others, comprise a veritable trove of embodied carbon emissions. Only a small percentage of these products currently disclose their carbon emissions through Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs), so even if building owners elect to use one of several innovative carbon trackers like the CARE Tool or EC3 (Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator) for their project, the findings are only as good as the available data. Indeed, without transparency there can be no accountability. 

Daltile, the largest manufacturer and marketer of tile, natural stone, and countertop products used in North American residential and commercial spaces, has worked to reduce its carbon footprint by 17 percent since 2018. The company offers product-specific environmental product declarations (EPDs) for many of its goods, including (clockwise from left) SaddleBrook XT, Kintsugi, and Zebra Calacatta.
image of a lobby
Mecho released EPDs for all its shade cloths on September 13. It took ten months to get to this point—adapting the rules to assess products in its category; gathering data on material, water, and energy use for every part and supplier; and then combining all of the information to calculate its impact per square meter of cut and finished fabric.

Last September, window shade manufacturer Mecho unveiled EPDs for its entire line of shade cloth products. This represents one of only two sets of EPDs in this product category currently on the market. Interestingly, “there isn’t a product category rule for shading systems,” says Amy Bohnenkamp, a sustainability product specialist with Mecho. Product category rules are the “recipe” that determine how the carbon emissions are calculated for each type of product. “From the very beginning we worked with an assessor to figure out a methodology that made sense for our products. We ended up using a construction products category rule but modified it for a shade,” Bohnenkamp says. 

This kind of corporate altruism isn’t new to Mecho. Back in 2004, it became the first in its category to achieve Cradle to Cradle certification for a manual shade. Bohnenkamp confides, however, “We hadn’t done much research on what the climate impacts of our products have been. Creating EPDs is the way to do it.”

image of a room that uses Hydro Circal
U.K.-based manufacturer PurOptima made a switch to Hydro CIRCAL for all of its glass and aluminum wall partitions and doors this past July. Hydro CIRCAL is a sustainable aluminum made with at least 75 percent postconsumer recycled content. This gives it an embodied carbon footprint of 2.3 kgCO2, compared with the average footprint of 16 kgCO2 for U.S.–produced aluminum.

Operating well within the scope of hot spot categories is U.K. company PurOptima, a global leader in the manufacturing of high-performance glass wall systems. The company only recently entered the U.S. market, partnering with distributors, but in doing so it effectively raises the bar for all regional competitors. “Sustainability projects [in the U.K.] are driven by carbon budgets,” says Ruth Parkinson, PurOptima’s head of marketing; these have spurred its investment in lower carbon emissions. For starters, the company has taken the bold step of transitioning its entire line to include Hydro CIRCAL, a new brand of aluminum made from at least 75 percent recycled postconsumer scrap, scaling down the carbon emissions in its supply chain.

“We’ve designed for reuse. No silicones, no adhesives; it’s a dry-joint system,” says Andy Stammers, PurOptima’s HSQE manager. “Rather than have [materials] go to landfill, which has been the dark side of the interiors market for many, many years, we’re wanting to pioneer a stop to that and bring the circular economy into play.” 

The kind of policy incentives that motivated PurOptima in the U.K. will soon apply in the United States as well. Many designers and manufacturers will have to reckon with the amended CALGreen, which goes into effect in July 2024.

image of a library
Johnsonite Rubber Tile released a new EPD on September 14 that demonstrates that its rubber tile has a carbon footprint up to 20 percent lower than equivalent products on the market. All of Johnsonite’s tile collections are Cradle to Cradle certified, and the company offers to recycle or repurpose its products through its ReStart program.

What was already the country’s first mandated green building code—applying to a state that is itself the world’s fifth-largest economy—will soon require measurable reductions in embodied carbon for all commercial buildings larger than 100,000 square feet and schools larger than 50,000 square feet. (This applies to new construction and major renovations.)

“In order for us to really make an impact, all buildings need to be held to a certain standard and it cannot be voluntary,” says Avideh Haghighi, sustainable design leader with ZGF and a steering committee member of the AIA California Climate Action Committee, which advised on the recently adopted amendment to CALGreen. Haghighi stresses that high-embodied-carbon materials like drywall are ripe for greater oversight, and third-party verification in the form of an EPD is a good first step. “We’ve hit a point where there are enough EPDs; now we need to optimize them. Now we can ask [manufacturers] to meet actual thresholds and make reductions. CALGreen is really at the forefront of taking that leap.”

CALGreen specifies three possible pathways for reducing embodied carbon: whole-building LCA, building reuse, or a prescriptive approach—and only the latter two may apply to interior products. With limited avenues and slow release of carbon emissions data in the form of EPDs, leveraging interiors to achieve low-carbon goals will require real vision, at scale. And until more high-performance standards become legally enforceable, those visionaries will have to continue to self-regulate. 

Wherever there’s an “initiative to lower impacts on environments, reduce embodied carbon, or have a sustainable level of legislation, that’s music to our ears,” Stammers says. When asked what California’s green building code potentially means to his business, he replies, “Bring it on!”

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