Living Building Challenge: Living the Vision, Living with the Red List

The Living Building Challenge (LBC), the flagship program of the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), represents one of the most visionary, comprehensive and ambitious definitions of what it means to build sustainably. The architects and designers behind the standard have done impressive work transforming the impacts of the built environment from negative to positive. 

Interface supports the vision of ILFI. In fact, Interface has partnered with ILFI to develop programs in areas where we have deep expertise, including social impact projects, biomimicry and biophilia (Interface is a founding member of the Biophilic Design Initiative).

Inevitably, even two organizations as aligned in their transformational visions as ILFI and Interface, do not agree on everything. Seeking to set the bar high, LBC is not based on earning optional points like LEED, but instead on a long list of mandatory “imperatives,” including Net Positive Energy Use, Net Positive Water Use, Biophilic Design and avoidance of products that contain materials on the LBC “Red List.”

What the Red List Misses

As a responsible manufacturer, Interface comprehensively assesses the impacts and trade-offs of making a product. For example, Interface’s standard Americas products are managed in a certified Closed Loop system and feature:

  • at least 98% renewable energy
  • 66-89% recycled materials (including ocean plastics)
  • no regulated chemicals or fluorinated yarn coatings
  • zero net contribution to global warming

Despite this, these standard products cannot be used in a Living Building Challenge building because the current definition consists almost entirely of whether a product contains ingredients on LBC's proprietary “Red List” of materials. With a Red List approach, the fact that our standard backing contains a small amount of PVC plastic renders everything else meaningless.

Interface and the Living Building Challenge

Living Building Challenge project teams continue to pick Interface products, including the LBC-certified offices of both ILFI and Delos (developer of the WELL Building Standard). However, they use alternative LBC Compliant Interface backings with Red List Free Declare Labels.

This points to the limits of a Red List approach. Failing to consider the full range of factors, including whether a product offers closed loop recycling and considers climate change impacts on health, can introduce unintended trade-offs. 

Interface regards using safe chemistry in all products as an essential baseline requirement for creating better products. Addressing the full life cycle impacts of products to ensure that human and ecosystem health are protected is a much larger challenge that requires developing new business systems.

The implication of Red List-based systems like LBC and Cradle to Cradle is that we can simply replace all of the old, imperfect materials we’ve used in the past with new, “clean” materials. Though admirable in its intent to eliminate human health hazards, this strategy is not scalable on a finite planet where “new” materials must be extracted from an ecosystem somewhere­–whether an oil well, a forest, a field or a mine. At Interface, we aspire to create products that are not merely safe to use, but safe for all life across the entire product life cycle. Materials that clog the ocean with plastics or fill the atmosphere with greenhouse gases are not “safe,” even if they are “Red List Free.”

Do products made from waste materials need to perform impeccably and be completely safe to use? Of course. But that’s just good business. It’s not necessarily the Industrial Re-revolution that Interface and ILFI believe in so fervently.

So, as ILFI continues to expand into new areas of influence and certification, we will continue to applaud their vision and partner with them on our shared goals. None of us can do it alone.

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