Industrial goods made with processes that are socially beneficial and environmentally sound might sound unattainable. But this is the aim of the Living Product Challenge. It is the latest program developed by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), a nonprofit best known for its role in administering the demanding green building certification system, the Living Building Challenge (LBC).
To qualify for certification under the new standard, launched as a pilot program in April, products must be safe for human exposure at all stages of their lifecycle—from manufacturing through end of use. In addition, they must satisfy a host of other requirements, including being produced in a factory powered by renewable energy and with water supplied through closed-loop systems or rainwater capture.
So far, six manufacturers are participating in the pilot, including three in the building sector: Owens Corning, Teknion, and Sirewall. According to ILFI’s chief executive, Jason McLennan, the new program “is an opportunity to think big about how we make stuff.” McLennan’s remarks were made earlier this month in Pittsburgh, at the Living Product Expo—the organization’s first product-focused conference.
With about 21 exhibitors and 350 attendees, including architects, materials specialists, and institutional clients, the event was intimate compared to other industry trade shows. However, it lived up to its “inspiring a materials revolution” tag line with keynote speakers like Arlene Blum—a biophysical chemist whose research contributed to the removal of flame-retardants from children’s pajamas in the 1970s. More recently, her work helped revamp the standard that called for the same toxic chemicals in upholstered furniture. Blum, who is an accomplished mountaineer, also discussed her climbing feats, including leading the first all-women’s ascent of the Himalayan peak, Annapurna I.
The conference came at what might be considered a new era for ILFI, beginning just days after McLennan’s announcement that he would step down as CEO of the institute—an organization he founded in 2009—to focus on his own architecture, planning, and product design firm. Starting in January, he will serve as chair of the organization’s board, and Amanda Sturgeon, ILFI’s current executive director, will become CEO.
Under McLennan’s leadership, ILFI launched an ambitious set of programs that target different aspects of its mission to help create communities that are “socially just, culturally rich, and ecologically restorative.” In addition to LBC and the Living Product Challenge, these include an ingredients label for products, a tool for rating organizations on the basis of social equity, and a net-zero building certification.
Regarding her own goals for ILFI, Sturgeon says, she hopes “grow these programs deeper.” She also wants to attract new audiences and focus on the “intersection of health, poverty, and the environment.” Referring to ILFI’s three-pronged mission, she says, “We’ve been doing really well at ecologically restorative. Now we need to work on socially just and culturally rich.”