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Jun. 20--In 2002, Kaiser Permanente, the country's largest non-profit health-care system, issued an unusual mandate to a longtime supplier: Create a quality carpet without the controversial chemical polyvinyl chloride, or forget about winning any more contracts.
"We don't want products that contain carcinogens, mutagens--chemicals that cause a mutation of the genes--or reproductive toxins," said Kathy Gerwig, Kaiser Permanente's director of environmental stewardship.
Last week, a carpet manufacturer, Dalton, Ga.-based Tandus Group Inc., said that it had met the challenge.
Tandus made the announcement in Chicago at the NeoCon conference, North America's largest trade show for office furniture and a prime venue for manufacturers to tout technological and design breakthroughs.
The achievement earned Tandus a $5 million-a-year contract to cover floors in most of the 20 new hospitals--with 30 million square feet of floor space--that Kaiser Permanente says it will build in the next decade.
Health and environmental concerns increasingly raised by the health-care industry, which are spurring development of healthier equipment and furnishings, are likely to have a ripple effect on consumers and the workplace as a whole.
"The health-care market is starting to educate other markets about the long-term impact of a wide variety of products on people's health," said Jamie Harvie, who works with Health Care Without Harm, a coalition of 437 organizations in 52 countries.
Hospital purchasing organizations, including Schaumburg-based Consorta Inc. and Premier Inc. of San Diego, pledged to purchase hospital equipment and supplies free of mercury, if a substitute was available, by the end of 2004.
"It's worked--manufacturers are phasing out these products," said Gina Pugliese, vice president of Premier's Safety Institute in Oak Brook.
The market power of the purchasing groups is extensive, with Consorta ordering about $3.3 billion worth of products a year on behalf of 475 acute-care hospitals nationwide. Last year, Premier bought $17 billion in supplies for the roughly 1,500 hospitals it serves.
Now the purchasing organizations want to reduce the use of harmful materials in computers, such as certain flame retardants that have been found to cause neurological damage in mice.
Jean Livingston, Consorta's director of organizational effectiveness, said that imposing higher environmental standards can raise the threat of higher costs. "That's the fallback for manufacturers--they will always say: 'Sure we'll do this, but it will cost more,'
" Livingston said . But "we need to really start pushing on this cost issue, because people aren't taking into consideration the true costs of these potentially toxic materials, especially when they are so widespread--as they are in computers." Apple Computer Inc. already is replacing the plastic exterior casings on its laptop computers with metal, negating the need for a flame retardant.
Still, Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente is perhaps the most dramatic example of a company dictating to a manufacturer how it should make its product.
"Kaiser Permanente's commitment to avoid PVC due to its environmental health hazards is helping drive a growing market demand for safer alternatives that are competitively priced and superior in performance," said Tom Lent of the Healthy Building Network, a group that advocates "green building" techniques.
Kaiser Permanente's contract also was unusual in that it retained the non-profit Healthy Building Network as its adviser. Representatives of Kaiser Permanente and the network assessed the carpetmaker's progress on a quarterly basis.
"From a building materials perspective, we'll be in a great position to use this strategy with other suppliers," said Kaiser Permanente's Gerwig. "We think that because of the enormous building program that we have and because of our unique position within the health-care industry, we are in a position to create a significant change in the marketplace," Gerwig said.
And as an integrated non-profit health-care provider with a health insurance arm and hospitals and medical buildings across the country, Kaiser is in a position to apply pressure to its suppliers.
"Kaiser Permanente's mission is to improve the health of the communities we serve, and one of the ways we can do that is by changing the market," Gerwig said. "Our business works best the healthier our members are," she said. Tandus is the latest among a growing group of building materials manufacturers to make PVC-free products at the behest of customers.
Shaw Industries Group Inc., a unit of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. that already sells mostly PVC-free carpeting, plans to make only PVC--free carpeting by the end of the year, said Steve Bradfield, Shaw environmental director.
"There's a growing market of architects and designers that were asking for it, even though, at this point, the concern is more emotionally based than science-based," Bradfield said. Window treatment manufacturers, including Nysan Shading Systems Inc., Lutron Shading Solutions by Vimco, and MechoShade Systems Inc., have introduced PVC-free systems, while several upholstery products without PVC have come onto the market.
Construction Specialties Inc. and InPro Corp., two of the largest wall-protection manufacturers, have produced PVC-free rail and wall guard systems. Upscale furniture maker Herman Miller Inc. eliminated PVC in its latest eco-friendly office chair.
But the Tandus approach is unique. Its new carpet is made with a cushion backing from reclaimed polyvinyl butyral, PVB, a film found in used-car windshields and other safety glass.
Up until now, the PVB film has been lying unclaimed in piles at glass recycling centers. Tandus has a patent pending on the process and has entered into long-term contracts to guarantee its supply.
An added benefit of the carpet is that it is made of 96 percent recycled materials, which conserve petrochemical, and thus petroleum, use.
Tandus is having an independent audit conducted on the amount of energy savings in the process.
Tandus declined to discuss the costs involved in creating the carpet, which was developed in its laboratory.
In introducing the product, Tandus was merely adhering to the "triple bottom line," reflecting that "companies are now evaluated on environmental, social, as well as economic performance," said Marc Bridger, chief executive.
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