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How the Living Product Challenge Seeks to Revolutionize Sustainable Manufacturing

During NeoCon, the annual furniture and interiors trade show held within Chicago's gargantuan Merchandise Mart last week, those touring the floor looking at the latest in workspace design hear plenty of promises. Tables, chairs and workstations are offered up as the latest and greatest ways to improve worker happiness, health and productivity. But if any attendee happened to get a few moments with James Connelly, Director of the Living Product Challenge, they would have heard an even bigger vision; a complete re-imagination of the way we manufacture furniture and products. Connelly, who works for the International Living Future Institute, the group behind the groundbreaking Living Building Challenge and the cutting-edge Bullitt Center, a zero-energy building that changed the conversation about what's possible with green construction, wants to extend the same concept to furniture and product manufacturing. But this time, he may be raising the bar even higher.

"We want to create a program where you will have to change everything about the way you make your product," says Connelly. "Set a bar that's an ideal. Can you create a product that's net-positive on energy with a socially adjusted supply chain that's gorgeous and beautiful? It's never been done before."

Like the previous Living Building Challenge, which was created in 2006, the Living Product Challenge sets a standard for creating net-positive products that, at first, hasn't actually been met by anyone. To obtain this standard, products must meet a series of requirements for sustainability and social justice, which among other things, include: being net-zero on energy and water, not including any toxic chemicals or materials, using materials sourced locally and being equitable to workers. The program also asks that certified products demonstrate beauty. If that seems a bit heady and philosophical, Connelly says that previous generations of green architecture, derided as just ugly and functional, set back the sustainable building movement. Looking good isn't just for aesthetic reasons, it's also about adoption.

"Getting the sustainability team at Herman Miller to make a change in a product that costs $3 a unit is difficult," he says. "But if one of their designers comes up with a new gorgeous chair design that's expensive to make, they'll figure it out, because that's what sells a product, great design. That's where we can shake up the industry; getting designers and sustainability teams working together."

Similar to the Living Building Challenge, which set a bar that many thought was too high at first, but has spurred on innovation and hundreds of new building projects, the introduction of the Living Product Challenge should, the organization hopes, inspire the same kind of change in the interior and consumer goods industry. (It took seven years after the Living Building standard was introduced for the Bullitt Center to open in 2013). Many companies and making great gains in sustainability, says Connelly, and many are interested in having the first Living Product, but nobody has put it all together holistically.

"The purpose of the project is to create something nobody has done before," he says. "It's interesting, you put a bar out there, and people will go for it."

Currently, the group is meeting with companies and holding design charrettes over the summer to help share ideas and spur on the development of new products and manufacturing processes, and will hold a Living Product Expo this September in Pittsburgh. Pollution and resource shortages, such as the California drought, suggest we don't have time to wait for innovation, says Connelly. He doesn't want incremental change, he wants a game changer.

7 New Green Projects Taking the Living Building Challenge [Curbed]
Complete Bullitt Center coverage [Curbed Seattle]