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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Looking at the ‘Brightside’ of Material Health & Sustainable Design

Brightworks’ materials scoring methodology distills existing product sustainability standards and attributes into holistic, comparable, numerical scores — making it easier for manufacturers, the design industry and design clients to create and select more sustainable materials.

Brightworks, one of the first sustainability consulting firms in the US, is one of nine organizations selected as part of Shaw’s sustain[HUMAN]ability® Leadership Recognition Program — which recognizes a diverse slate of organizations working on innovative projects and initiatives that support the wellbeing of people and the planet.

Brightworks developed a materials scoring methodology that distills existing product sustainability standards and attributes into holistic, comparable, numerical scores. Shaw’s Tim Conway recently spoke with Brightworks Project Manager Jeff Frost and Marketing Manager Billy Ulmer to learn how the firm’s Brightside product scoring system makes it easier for manufacturers, the design industry and design clients to create and select more sustainable materials.

Tim Conway: Tell us about Brightworks.

Billy Ulmer: Brightworks Sustainability is a group of green building consultants and technical specialists who support companies to improve their sustainability performance. We’re almost 50 now, and located all over the country. Our major practice areas are green building and wellness consulting; sustainable and healthy materials; energy analysis and optimization; building performance, operations and maintenance; and sustainable organizations — the “E” in ESG.

Brightworks was founded in 2001 in the really early days of green building, and we really grew out of that green building space. But in the last five years or so especially, people have realized that sustainability is a lot more complicated than it used to seem. People are realizing that the problems we haven’t solved yet in green building are really tough nuts to crack, and they take a new kind of technical specialty to make progress on.

So, now we have specialists in material sustainability — like Jeff Frost. We’ve found that the material sustainability space is challenging because the industry still lacks a super clear direction or language for what “better sustainability performance” is. That’s why all of our materials work is particularly exciting.

TC: What led you to create the Brightside tool?

Jeff Frost: When I came to Brightworks, we had several clients who were in search of a way to compare products to help them make procurement choices. They were interested in changing things for the better and wanted to have a framework for doing that. At the time, a lot of what we were doing was “binary scores.” You had a Declare label, you got a point. You had a Cradle to Cradle Certified® label, you got a point. If you had emissions testing, you got a point. It was just accumulation of points that got you higher scores. But the reality is not that binary, right?

An HPD is different from a Cradle to Cradle certification. They have completely different purposes. If I wanted to make a comparison defensible, we needed to unpack the details underlying each to find the variables that were common and those that are different.

There's so much complexity and so much nuance. We started really small — just looking at the comparable features across all of the certification programs.

For example, a certification that requires disclosure of a hundred parts per million as compared to one that requires disclosure of a thousand parts per million is a huge order of magnitude difference. And I can put value to them. So, pretty quickly, we were able to assign value to how things were different — allowing us to tease out bigger differences as we dove deeper into each of the certifications. And the process of assigning values, even at a rudimentary stage, resonated well with our clients. The clients appreciated the scoring because it was a lot better than looking at a list of certifications and still having to ask, ‘Well, which one do you recommend?’

Brightside helps our clients make decisions — and allows us to effectively tease out the details between the certifications. We knew that we were onto something that the industry had been fighting to figure out.

TC: Please tell us about the Brightside methodology. How does it help users select products designed for people and the planet?

JF: We started off small with a larger focus on health — one or two categories in carbon, a few in materials and a couple for social — all with a simple, straightforward, 10-point system. At this point, we had proof of concept that scoring was working and the methodology continued to develop over time as we learned to unpack more of the certifications and standards. Today, we're up to 104 different factors that are spread across six different impact categories: human health, carbon, water, waste, social and circularity. Within each of those factors, there are multiple variables, or criteria, that contribute to the scores. In addition, we’ve moved to a 100-point system that allows for easy comparison.

We have attributes that apply to both the product and the company, so we can evaluate either aspect to help our clients make decisions. A product that scores 100 would have to be perfect across all of those categories with zero impacts; and in that way, we are more scoring how far along on the journey towards perfection is the product/company and daylighting the progress compared to others.

TC: We're seeing an increased demand for customers to have a tool — and when possible, a score — to evaluate product attributes related to impact on health & wellbeing. What demands are you seeing from the marketplace? And ultimately how does this help get this work to scale?

JF: I think there's demand still emerging. I think we are building the foundation in some regards for what we anticipate will be the future demand from a client perspective, to report this information more effectively to their shareholders and stakeholders and to ESG frameworks. On the A&D side of things, I think the demand is extremely urgent because we — as an industry — have been pushing education, prioritizing these topics verbally, [advocating for] policy and making public commitments to try and improve what we're doing from a healthy and sustainable material selection perspective. But we haven’t really had a way to demonstrate how we're doing, or tracking any of that progress, or even being able to benchmark that progress in any way. Scoring is going to start to become an effective way for teams to see how they're doing with this work and hold themselves accountable to making those improvements and potentially even putting more pressure on manufacturers to see those improvements come to fruition — to make [manufacturers] responsible for being part of this journey, as well.

This article is part of a series of articles recognizing the second slate of organizations to be honored by Shaw’s sustain[HUMAN]ability® Leadership Recognition Program. The nine organizations selected for this year’s recognition program have displayed tremendous effort and progress to support the wellbeing of people and the planet amid the unprecedented challenges of 2020. To read more about the other organizations recognized by Shaw, visit the landing page for this blog series.