‘Doing’ Product Sustainability with UL Environment’s Mark Rossolo

July 13, 2015

 
John Shegerian: Welcome back to Green Is Good. This is the GoGreen edition of Green Is Good, and we are so excited to have with us today Mark Rossolo. He is the Director of Public Affairs of UL Environment. Welcome to Green Is Good, Mark. Mark Rossolo: Thank you. It’s my pleasure to be here. John Shegerian: You know, Mark, we are in beautiful downtown Seattle today at the GoGreen Conference. Talk a little bit about why you are here and why this is important to showcase what you are doing at UL Environment. Mark Rossolo: Sure. Well, we are here because we support green activities in general. We operate globally, so we have got offices in China, we have got offices in Europe and then clearly we have got offices in North America. And we really support the use and application of green building practices, green purchasing, green electronics. We have got some hybrid vehicles here. All of these things, UL works behind the scenes to help test, certify and really provide the trust that these products, these activities are delivering on the green promises that they make. And that’s really what our role is. Is to ensure that when somebody says that this green purchasing practice, this green building, this green product will get you an environmental benefit, we are there to try to make sure that actually happens. John Shegerian: You are the Public Affairs Director there. Before we get talking about all the great work you do there, share your journey a little bit. Where did you get interested in green along the way and how did you get to this position to start with? Mark Rossolo: Sure. Well, I have got a little bit of a unique background from most of the people who are involved in sustainability. Mine comes from the policy side. So one of my first kind of “real” jobs was working for the Oregon State Legislature just as a legislative aid. John Shegerian: Ah. Mark Rossolo: And in that job working in the Oregon State Legislature, you can’t but get involved in green issues. Oregon is a very green state, and there are a lot of sustainability related things that come up throughout the legislative cycle. One of our big issues, for example, is urban growth boundary, which is a very political and a very policy-related issues but at its core it’s designed to ensure there are plenty of green spaces, plenty of parks – that sort of thing – and that our growth is being responsibly managed. So from there I really started to get into sustainability. I moved on and eventually started working for a very small public affairs firm, which also did some nonprofit management, and in that role, I helped run a green building nonprofit, where we tried to drive green building practices in the U.S. and we did that quite successfully. Then, from there, I moved on to a couple of other positions and eventually ended up with UL. John Shegerian: And where did you grow up? Mark Rossolo: I grew up in Elko, Nevada. A little mining town in northeastern Nevada. John Shegerian: Were your parents or was your family atmosphere or community green at all? Talk a little bit about that. Mark Rossolo: Yeah. I’m not sure I would call Elko the greenest place. I don’t even think we have recycling still. But we try. My parents are school teachers. My dad teaches high school and my mom teaches elementary school, so we were always as engaged as we possibly could be in a rural Nevada town. Now things are getting better, and there are people there that are trying hard, but there is still a long ways to go there and here and really everywhere. But it wasn’t a tent pole for me growing up. Gold mining was our big thing. John Shegerian: UL is out or Georgia, but you live yourself now in Portland, which is a very green and sustainable community. Mark Rossolo: It is. Actually, so UL itself is out of Chicago, Illinois. John Shegerian: Oh. OK. Mark Rossolo: And then our UL Environment, which is the business I work for, is out of Georgia. John Shegerian: Got you. Mark Rossolo: Then, yeah, I live in Portland, which we like to think we are one of the greenest cities, if not the greenest, in the world. We’ve got a lot of things, like our unique mix of public transportation is pretty revolutionary. We’ve got everything from light rail to buses to trains. We’ve got incredible bike paths and entire bike boulevards now. We are a very walkable city. When you move into a Portland city apartment or home, you get a compost unit to help you compost, taking care of your food scraps and your waste. So yeah, Portland has done a lot and I’m really proud to be from there because they have done a lot of great things. John Shegerian: Now we are going to talk a little bit about UL Environment. Can you share what UL Environment exactly does and then interrelate it with some of manufacturers that you work with? Mark Rossolo: Yeah. Absolutely. So as a step back, UL as a company was founded over a century ago to provide safety and protect human health. John Shegerian: OK. Mark Rossolo: At the time, it was really founded when electricity was just coming into usage, and it came around about the time when people were starting to get nervous about this newfangled technology, and “Oh boy, if I am sitting in a room with the light bulb on, is it going to burn the room down?” John Shegerian: Right. Mark Rossolo: So our company got started by helping develop test procedures that would in fact ensure safety within those buildings so that insurance companies could actually develop policies. John Shegerian: Ah. Mark Rossolo: Fast-forward a century now. We no longer worry when we are sitting in the room that these lights that are here, our cell phones when we plug in, we don’t worry that all of a sudden a fire is going to break out. John Shegerian: Right. Mark Rossolo: And a lot of that is because of the testing and the protocols and the standards that we have put in place to ensure that we are identifying products that could potentially malfunction and we are getting the products that perform into the marketplace. Now we have got a new generation of safety and that new generation of safety is looking at things like volatile organic compounds that are in the air. Chemicals. What kinds of chemicals are going into a product? What kinds of chemicals could my baby potentially be exposed to if they put something in their mouth? Is my water safe to drink? Where does my food come from? When I put on this jacket where did it come from? Did the factory that it was built in – did the workers have adequate working conditions? Are they taken care of in a way? These are now the expanded definitions of safety, and so when UL as a company looked at kind of where the market of safety was moving, one of the big areas you identify is sustainability and is green. Now people are saying, “It’s not just enough for this to be safe from a fire perspective, but this product truly has to be safe from a ‘OK, are the chemicals in it not harming the indoor air of the building?’” For example, if I am sitting in here. am I going to be exposed to potentially asthma-inducing conditions? If I am eating something, I am potentially putting something bad in my body besides just the fat and cholesterol? John Shegerian: Right. Mark Rossolo: So UL what we do is we do a lot of certifications. We developed standards. And what the goal is – as I kind of mentioned in the beginning – we are trying to ensure that if somebody says, “OK, this product is certified for low chemical emissions” that it has actually been tested and it actually has low chemical emissions. If somebody is going in and saying “this cell phone is green, this is a sustainable cell phone” that there is actually a standard behind that, we’ve certified to it so people can say “it’s green because of X, Y and Z.” John Shegerian: Ah. Mark Rossolo: And so what we are trying to do is reduce the clutter around what is and what isn’t green and give people really the confidence of knowing that if I am taking this for this green attribute, it is what it says it is. It is going to perform like it says it’s going to perform. John Shegerian: So it’s not linear anymore. UL has basically become an ecosystem of certifications around all sorts of different products and services. Mark Rossolo: Absolutely. Yeah. We think of ourselves as the mark of trust, so that is really what UL seeks to provide is trust and credibility that if there is that mark on there, then whatever that mark represents you can make trust that that product is going to have that performance metric. So whether that is fire safe and it’s been tested for fire safety or whether that product has had a VOC emissions testing – for example – or a more multi-attribute green certification. And a lot of things in between. We do a lot of things around life cycle assessment, which is kind of looking at the cradle-to-grave aspect of a product so everything from raw material extraction to disposal. John Shegerian: Got it. So what are some of the challenges? If you are a manufacturer that is approaching you for certification around the issues of sustainability that you just mentioned, which are much broader now than they were 100 years ago, when the company was founded, which was much more lineal – “Let’s create a product and get it certified so it doesn’t burn the place down” – how, now, challenging is it for a manufacturer to have something certified in the sustainability arena? Mark Rossolo: Well, “challenging” is an interesting kind of way to phrase it, because there are a number of different things that can make it a challenge. John Shegerian: Yeah. Mark Rossolo: So one thing that could make it challenging is that if a manufacturer comes and says “we think our product is green because of these attributes.” John Shegerian: Right. Mark Rossolo: And then if we go through a rigorous testing process, sometimes we will say, “Actually, it’s not.” John Shegerian: Right. Mark Rossolo: “We need to change these things.” John Shegerian: Right. Mark Rossolo: So then oftentimes the challenge is you have to go into your either manufacturing process and oftentimes into your supply chain and fix something in your supply chain to actually make it perform like you want it to perform. So that can be one incredible challenge. John Shegerian: Sure. Mark Rossolo: It’s figuring out where your issues may be and how to fix them. And we see this with a lot of companies where they genuinely want to do the right thing. John Shegerian: Right. Mark Rossolo: They really do. They come to you and they say, “Look, we realize that this is the future.” You mentioned the Millennials flocking. We know Millennials are making purchasing decisions based on sustainability and green. And just wait until they’ve moved into later in life when they actually have buying power. Now that is going to be a big shift that companies see and so they want to do the right thing, but when you find something and you have to get into your complex supply chain, that can be really difficult. So that is one challenge. Another challenge is focusing on what the environmental attribute is that is most important to you and your key constituent or your consumers. John Shegerian: Great point. Mark Rossolo: And that is another area where it’s not “challenging,” but it can be confusing because what is important for, say, young mothers from sustainability or green-related is not the same as a Millennial. If you asked a young mother, “What is the most important attribute that a product must have,” she is going to say “safety.” “It keeps my baby safe. I don’t have to worry about if he or she accidentally puts that toy in their mouth that something harmful is going to come off. Or if the little bunny sleeping in the bed with them at night, there are not these chemical emitting.” So we’re talking about San Francisco. If you asked a young person in San Francisco “What is the biggest challenge in sustainability?” “Water.” They will say “water” all day long, because they are in the midst of a huge drought. John Shegerian: Right. Mark Rossolo: The Governor of California just came out with a 25 percent water restriction. John Shegerian: That’s right. Mark Rossolo: So you are going to have a big water thing. Now if you go to somebody a little bit older, they may say “energy” because energy is forever. Then you’ve got climate change and all of these other factors. John Shegerian: So it’s knowing your client that you are marketing the product to in terms of finding their hotspot and what matters to them. Mark Rossolo: Absolutely. John Shegerian: Wow. Mark Rossolo: Understanding what is important. And really this gets to the other challenge, which is making this economically feasible and that’s one of the key challenges we see. In the past, we’ve almost seen this fight between environmental groups and business groups or corporations. John Shegerian: Right. Mark Rossolo: This almost natural “you’re going to say one thing and I’m going to say another.” And we have got to get to a point where we are all working together as one. John Shegerian: Right. Mark Rossolo: And we can’t treat a company saying, “Well, this has to be profitable for me” as a bad thing. It has to be profitable. John Shegerian: Right. Mark Rossolo: If long term a company is doing all the right things but losing money, well, they are going to go out of business, and at the end of the day, we have done nothing to fix the problem. So we have to focus on, OK, targeting your constituents, what is most important? Eventually, do we want to do everything? Absolutely, we do. John Shegerian: Right. Mark Rossolo: But we know from experience that that is not the best way. John Shegerian: Realistic. Mark Rossolo: That’s not realistic right now. So knowing what you are trying to do, marketing and being very specific about what it is you’ve done, having that credible mark behind it so that you can point to it and say, “Look, you are a young mother, chemical emissions are important to you. This was UL Greenguard-certified for low emissions,” drawing those lines. And then, hopefully, so you can see an increase in sales, so that your bottom line is lifted up, so that then you can go to your Board or CEO or whoever and say, “Hey. Look, when we got this certification this happened, let’s go do a water footprint now.” John Shegerian: “Let’s continue.” Mark Rossolo: “Let’s continue. Let’s work on waste” or something like that. John Shegerian: And for our audience that has just joined us, we have got Mark Rossolo. He is the Public Affairs Director for UL Environment. To find all of the great work that UL Environment is doing, please go to www.ul.com. Mark, so first of all as you described it so well, it’s an integrated relationship between you and the manufacturers that you work with. It’s a give and take. You are constantly giving them feedback. They are constantly trying to come back and – in theory – improve their products so they can meet your certification standards. Then, once they hit certain standards and certifications, then they want to continue the journey because they see the economic benefit for being green and being sustainable and go into other certifying opportunities that you offer. Mark Rossolo: Absolutely. Absolutely. It has to be a partnership. This whole thing has to be a partnership. Another thing that we do in addition to just the certifications is we actually help with the messaging in the marketplace. So we offer training. We go out and do a lot of education for architects and designers to help them understand, “OK, what do these certifications mean? How can they help me if I’m building a building?” We do a lot of work with purchasers. For example, I am on the Board of Directors for the Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council, which is a group that was formed – it has got a very long name, but SPLC was formed to increase green purchasing practices among institutional buyers. When you think about the huge footprint that an institutional buyer – so somebody who buys, let’s say, for a college. Somebody who buys for a city, a county, a state. Somebody who buys for the federal government. Somebody who buys for a large corporation. John Shegerian: Right. Mark Rossolo: Just thinking about the millions of dollars at their fingertips of consumable good that they buy every day whether it’s chairs, paper, carpeting, vehicles, gas. John Shegerian: Unbelievable. Mark Rossolo: Yeah. John Shegerian: They are the people one the front end of this change. Mark Rossolo: They are the frontlines. John Shegerian: Wow. Mark Rossolo: And they are the ones with the [inaudible]. John Shegerian: So you give training for them on sourcing. Mark Rossolo: We do. Absolutely. John Shegerian: Wow. Mark Rossolo: And we try to be a partner of them, so with our customer who are the manufactures who come in, it’s “Let’s work together to get you a product certified. We have got standards and we have got a very rigorous certification process, and you’ll have to go through that.” But ideally once we get that, then “Let’s help you take your message to the marketplace.” John Shegerian: So someone can get certified, they can earn a certificate from you as being certified as a certified UL buyer or something of that nature? Mark Rossolo: No. So we don’t certify buyers. John Shegerian: OK. Mark Rossolo: We don’t certify buyers. What we do is we go to the buyers and we just say, “Hey. Look you’ve got a purchasing policy that says this.” John Shegerian: Right. Mark Rossolo: “If you add this language in, it will help you buy better products. It will help you ensure that.” John Shegerian: You just offer the training but you are not actually offering them some sort of certification. Mark Rossolo: Exactly. We don’t do buyer level certification. John Shegerian: Right. Mark Rossolo: What we are trying to do is get them to understand the differences in a certified product with a certified green claim based on a credible standard or assessment process or whatever to just somebody who is coming in and saying, “Hey. This is green, because I say it’s green.” And that is a problem we’ve seen now. Since I’ve been involved in the sustainability movement, it’s been one of the biggest problems we’ve seen is unsubstantiated claims. People just saying, “This green because I say it’s green” or “We do this internal process so that makes it green,” but in reality we find that oftentimes that’s not the case. John Shegerian: Right. Mark Rossolo: Whether they are intentionally misleading or not is one thing, but getting purchasers to understand that difference is a key tenant of what we try to do. John Shegerian: But once something is certified, do they have to keep coming back to you to have it recertified or is there a decertification process if someone changes their practices and you find out along the way? Mark Rossolo: Sure. John Shegerian: OK. Mark Rossolo: Yes. There are certainly recertification processes. It’s going to depend on the standard that the certification is built on. Typical recertifications are going to be anywhere from one to three years, so you would have to get your product recertified, let’s say, every year. John Shegerian: OK. Mark Rossolo: For some standards. John Shegerian: OK. Mark Rossolo: Now if you fundamentally change your product – so let’s say there is a three-year recertification process, but you do a fundamental shift. That automatically triggers a new certification process. John Shegerian: Wow. Mark Rossolo: If you change your product, you have to get recertified because if you think about it – so one of our major certifications I mentioned earlier is called “UL Greenguard.” John Shegerian: Right. Mark Rossolo: Which simply is a VOC emissions certification program. So we can take everything from a full table and chairs to a small piece of rug or carpet, paint, anything that would inherently emit VOCs, we put them in a chamber and we test the chemicals that come off of it. John Shegerian: Right. Mark Rossolo: So that certification takes a year to get a Greenguard certification. Now if you get your certification and then four months later you come up with a new innovative way to design your product but you have to change, let’s say, the adhesives that go into your piece of furniture well then you would have to come in and get that product retested because when you change a product’s substance like that it could change its profile of the VOCs that emit. So now you could be in a scenario where somebody could be saying “Hey, this is certified for low emissions,” but in reality it might be pretty high emissions, because they’ve changed something along the way. But all of that is going to be defined. The parameters are all defined in the standard that the certification is based off of. John Shegerian: And then when someone gets certified UL, then your logo is what they get to put on it right? Mark Rossolo: That’s right. John Shegerian: So this UL logo, which we all grew up with. Mark Rossolo: That’s right. John Shegerian: And this is what it means. Mark Rossolo: That’s right. Most people are very familiar with our logo but don’t actually know it. John Shegerian: That’s right. Mark Rossolo: The average U.S. household, I believe, the last study I saw that we did had about 80 to 85 UL-certified products in the house today. John Shegerian: Wow. Mark Rossolo: So everybody watching this or listening to this, you are inherently familiar with us. Just some people don’t know. John Shegerian: That’s right. Mark Rossolo: Unless you are in the building industry or the architect and design industry or the manufacturing industries, you don’t tend to know. But you do realize, “Oh yeah. I’ve seen that little U in the circle.” You just didn’t know what it meant. John Shegerian: And on our electronic products, most of them have ULs on them also? Mark Rossolo: From a traditional business of UL, absolutely. John Shegerian: Right. Mark Rossolo: Pretty much all of them in the U.S. do because they have gone through some sort of fire, electrical shock testing and certification program. John Shegerian: Right. Mark Rossolo: So for clarity’s sake, when you do see a logo on a product, that is indicating more of the traditional fire/shock safety test. John Shegerian: OK. Mark Rossolo: The UL logo, you would not see a UL Environment logo for sustainability on a product. You would see it on the packaging or the marketing materials, and it would be very clearly marked that it is an environment label. It will say “UL Environment” with the standard that it’s based off of. John Shegerian: Got you. Mark Rossolo: Because we have to be careful that people don’t get confused about what this UL certification means versus what this UL certification means, so there is no confusion in the marketplace. We are trying to make things more simple not more confusing. John Shegerian: Great. And, Mark, your job is to continue to message us and get the word out on what you do? Mark Rossolo: That’s right. John Shegerian: And that’s why you’re here speaking today at the GoGreen Conference here in Seattle? Mark Rossolo: That’s right. Yup. Speaking a little bit later today on best practices and sustainable purchasing. John Shegerian: Are you alone or do you have a panel today? Mark Rossolo: I am actually moderating a panel with a woman from King County, which is going to be fantastic and then a gentleman from the waste recycling group here. John Shegerian: Got you. And so we have about a minute and a half or so left. What does the future hold for UL? What are some of the goals that you are looking at accomplishing in the future? Mark Rossolo: Sure. Well, our goals are quite ambitious. What we ultimately want to do is become for the sustainability movement what we were and are and continue to be for the fire, shock and casualty testing. John Shegerian: Got you. Mark Rossolo: So when you think of UL today, most people think of “Oh yeah, I get that tested so that it’s safe and it gets a UL stamp so that people know that it’s not going to burn up” or something along those lines. John Shegerian: Right. Mark Rossolo: They now have that trust because UL is behind the scenes doing the work from a sustainability perspective. We have that same ambition. We are hoping in 100 years from now when people see “Oh, this chair has a UL Environment certification to it,” they’ll say “Oh good, it’s low chemical emitting, maybe it has gone through a multi-attribute certification process” like level. There are a lot of different things that it could mean. But that really is the big ambition and getting into the supply chain is really what we are hoping. John Shegerian: So to become the good housekeeping seal in the sustainability world? The seal of approval in sustainability. Mark Rossolo: Somewhat. Yeah. Somewhat. Essentially, what we are trying to do is provide the credibility and trust that makes it easier for people to purchase green products. That’s the simplest way to put it. John Shegerian: That’s wonderful. Well, we hope so and we hope you come back and share more of the journey with us. Mark Rossolo: Absolutely. Happy to. John Shegerian: As you continue to evolve your brand. For our audience members out there, to learn more about what Mark is doing with his colleagues at UL Environment, go to www.ul.com. Mark, you are an inspiring sustainability superstar and truly living proof that Green Is Good. Thank you for being with us today. Mark Rossolo: Thanks John. Thanks for having me. John Shegerian: Thank you.