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This week’s interview introduces a new series of interviews with AASHE’s Business Leader Members and select other businesses. These members have contributed generously to support the advancement of sustainability in higher education, and are making efforts to transform their own companies and industries to meet customer demand for sustainable products and services. We thought you’d like to meet a few of them.

In this first interview we hear from Harrison Murphy who works as the President of Ventex, Inc a company dedicated to providing a distinguished line of fire barrier fabrics and other highly engineered fabrics. Continue reading to learn more about the company’s dedication to sustainability, goals for the future, and more.

Describe your company’s commitment to sustainability, and how it came about.
Several years ago, we realized that our sole focus had been working to improve fire safety in University Housing environments in mattresses and furniture. I began to monitor articles and research that focused on Chemicals of Concern—so labeled because of their aquatic, terrestrial or eco-toxicity with their potential for human reproductive and genetic damage. The alarm bells rang as I began studying research on “top of the food chain” animals including polar bears, dolphins, birds, and of course, human beings. I realized right then that we had to take action to reduce and work to eliminate these Chemicals of Concern from the purchasing cycle.

Harrison Murphy Head ShotHow has your company been involved in campus sustainability?
We first took baby steps by eliminating chemicals like PBDEs long before they were banned. However, it took several years of work and research to develop technologies that are free of lead, mercury, BPA, chlorine, melamine, bromine, and antimony. When we completed our work, we decided the best thing to do was to become the first AASHE Business Leader and take a leadership role in changing the purchasing behavior of universities. We then sought out a third party certifier for our program in the CFPA, the Chlorine Free Products Association to back up our claims.

Why did you go in the direction of limiting Chemicals of Concern versus other potentially realizable sustainable goals?
While there continues to be debate on many aspects of what is “truly” sustainable, we found profound agreement that eliminating “bad actor” chemicals and human exposure to these chemicals was a good idea. No one wants to spoon phthalates or bromine on their breakfast cereal. We are also working with our customers who manufacture the finished products that universities buy to optimize design to enhance other sustainable goals including life extending design elements, and enhanced and certified recyclability.

How do you see your company contributing to the campus sustainability movement in the future?
The biggest opportunity is provide a mechanism to change specifications to reward companies for removing problematic chemistries and also provide more information about what is in the products that institutions purchase. Ironically, for example, many universities that had adopted TCF (Totally Chlorine Free) or PCF (Processed Chlorine Free) paper to limit aquatic damage by chlorine or chlorine dioxide processing by paper mills were buying mattresses and furniture that were literally soaked in chlorine and bromine content. The big lesson was very few people understood what was in the product they are purchasing from a chemical profile standpoint. For example, two coated nylon mattress tickings might look the same, but one has one thousand times the lead or arsenic level of the other. You can’t tell which is which by simply looking at the product. You need data.

Does your company report its sustainability progress? Where can people find that information?
We publish a magazine called Green Bear in which we detail the program’s benefits and attributes and it is basically a call to action for individuals that believe in the right to shape their institution’s chemical policy and exercise their fiduciary responsibility to limit the exposure of their students to these chemicals.

Is there a particular insight (learning experience or “ah-ha” moment) you have had while working at Ventex that relates to sustainability?
The key day was when we coined our “Content Counts” program. It captured the essence of the entire program and the idea that you can still buy open flame resistant mattresses and furnishings that meet code but are devoid of the migratory flame retardants and certain toxic chemicals. The path that led me there was a series of insights. I first discovered the intriguing fact that everything around us is dusting off its chemical payload through a process of micro-abrasion. What that literally translates to is that our homes are filled with microscopic dust. That dust is a toxic mixture of the chemical profiles of all our everyday purchases—our computer monitors, our sofa, our clothing, and our televisions. That was pretty alarming. That’s when I realized we had to begin to redesign our products from the ground up. However, the last piece of the puzzle was an understanding of the full impact of the bioaccumulative nature of many of these chemicals on human beings. I found studies of healthcare professionals and others who had volunteered to have the chemical profile of their blood and tissues sampled and measured. The results were shocking. This whole field of measuring the “bio-burden” borne by all of us as these chemicals collect in our blood streams and tissues changed the way I saw the world.

What sustainability initiatives (or goals) does your company have planned for the future?
Our goal is to communicate the benefits of specifying our Green Bear program that limits the damage to our environment by simply removing the chemicals from the products we buy right at the start of the manufacturing process. If the lead or chlorine is not in the product we buy, it won’t find its way into recycled material, or into the landfill, or potentially create dioxin in an incinerator. We feel that we can have a major positive impact as institutional purchases of furnishings and mattresses can lead the way towards better consumer purchasing behavior. This is a revolution.

What advice would you give to other companies that want to get involved in sustainability (or campus sustainability)?
Sustainability is not a fad. Sustainability is the future because human beings need clean drinking water to drink, unpolluted air to breathe, and untainted land in which to grow our food. Our very lives depend on it.

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