In the sustainable renaissance of American cities, economic growth is both a monumental and individual experiment. On the macro level, governments and private developers are actively transforming the built environment, or what we observe as sustainably certified buildings, green stormwater infrastructure, and new public transit. For urban residents, the pursuit of a sustainable future lies in small enterprises and new ventures, and in creating locally made and locally sourced products which form the basis of their livelihoods.
In theory, these movements are mutually supportive, with greater investment driving larger markets for locally grown initiatives. However, as sustainable buildings become increasingly complex in their material and technological specifications, large scale projects often remain disconnected from neighborhood development, even as requirements for overall embodied carbon become more stringent. Indeed, the emergence of sustainable labels and certifications has created a new industry for transparent materials and components, complete with specific product libraries and platforms on which nearly all project teams rely. If cities are to create healthy places and spaces for all residents, how can these parallel advancements create unparalleled momentum? A program in Pittsburgh might have the answer.
IS LOCAL INHERENTLY SUSTAINABLE?
Bridgeway Capital, a community development financial institution (CDFI) serving Western Pennsylvania, formed a Craft Business Accelerator to support small businesses as they sustain and scale their visions, while creating positive economic and social impact. The resultant Monmade initiative has grown to a network of more than 60 producers in the greater Pittsburgh region, with 50 more to join in the coming months. Though CDFIs are an increasingly common model in cities across the US, targeting creative businesses to create a small-batch manufacturing sector is rare, notes Director of the Craft Business Accelerator Adam Kenney.
Craft production preserves methods that represent what mass manufacturing, in its scale and opacity, is not: artisanal, local, and custom. These producers have a close connection to their suppliers, and directly contact their materials on a daily basis. Their reliance on local distribution decreases their product’s life cycle impacts, and they often have a stronger personal connection to communities where they work.
But their intrinsic sustainability is equally a result of the their financial unsustainability, of the limitations in operations and capacity that prevent companies from reaching the scale necessary to fulfill large commissions. As a result, small-scale producers are mostly unable to consider and align their practices with emerging product labels and certifications, the very tools that would get their products more readily into the hands of the specifiers of green building projects. So when the Pittsburgh Living Product Hub, a program of the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), was introduced to Monmade, partnership seemed inevitable.
SUSTAINABILITY AT SCALE
Bridgeway Capital and ILFI identified four producers in the network with prime products for the green building specifier: Temper and Grit, the Pittsburgh Glass Center, Limelight Tile and Ceramics and Deep Greene Woodworks, all based within city limits.
These four producers began a process to pursue ILFI’s Declare label, a self-reported tool for manufacturers to share their products’ ingredient and material composition, final assembly locations, and end-of-life options. “The process of pursuing a Declare label taught us more about the technical aspects of what architects require for materials, and legitimizes our technical expertise. It’s ultimately up to the producers to market the design aspects that our clients ask for,” shared Temper and Grit’s Nicholas Volpe. Temper and Grit received a Declare label for its new Tantrum line of customizable steel and wood industrial furnishings.
At its heart, the Declare process requires discussion with suppliers, not only about what ingredient and hazard information is needed, but also why it is of importance. Many small producers have close relationships with their suppliers, and asking them for potentially proprietary information at times tested their trusted relationships. Jason Forck, Education & Creative Projects Manager at the Pittsburgh Glass Center, at first encountered resistance from one of its suppliers, but also found this exercise the most interesting and rewarding part of the process. The Pittsburgh Glass Center received a Declare label for its colored pendant lighting shades.
A Declare label not only guarantees a healthy product, but it just as critically lists products in multiple databases referenced by project teams. For the four Monmade producers, the exposure opens an unparalleled market for their products, with orders on a larger scale and frequency than in smaller commercial purchases. Scaled production also means the ability to hire dedicated production staff, which frees the founder to dedicate time to strategize on larger design and sustainability considerations. “This was never meant to be a production facility,” explained Forck. “But what if production takes off and we need to start looking into a new space? How can we expand and scale while maintaining our founding values? It opens an entirely new set of questions.”
With the spirit that drives the region’s entrepreneurs, imagine if every Monmade producer could pursue a Declare label. Bridgeway Capital and the Pittsburgh Living Product Hub could approach specifiers with an entire catalogue of healthy, locally produced materials, and the network could effectively create an entire economy based on sustainable manufacturing. For all the promise of success and opportunity, it is equally important to remember who isn’t included in the current wave of development. Adds Volpe, “The critical mass and the influence of the network is only as broad as the people who participate. We need to include people from all backgrounds, paying special attention to those who are outside traditional business circles. We aren’t creating real economic opportunity if it isn’t accessible to all.” It’s a founding premise that economies are built on.