Standardizing Sustainability for Today and Tomorrow
Sustainability has become a key concern across society, affecting how we think—and how we work. In the November/December 2023 issue of Standardization News, I spoke to Amy A. Costello, product stewardship and sustainability manager for Armstrong World Industries, about the work of ASTM International’s committee on sustainability (E60). During our conversation, Costello broke down the concept of sustainability and how standards relate to this important concern. She also explained how E60 is approaching key questions in sustainability and what the future of sustainability might entail.
The concept of sustainability is becoming more and more widespread these days. How would you define sustainability?
The classic definition people use is people, profit, and planet – making sure that you are addressing the social aspects, the economic aspects, and the environmental aspects. The idea is that you have three pillars that come together to form what I like to call the sweet spot. That’s really what sustainability is: moving forward and not comprising one of the other pillars. It’s the idea of balancing, where you’re truly able to sustain what you are doing.
Given the goal of achieving balance, how do standards fit into the story?
Standards are critical. Even the question you initially asked me is critical because what is sustainability? How do you define it to make sure that people are talking about the same thing? Someone recently said to me, “You have to name it to tame it.” Some of the things that seem simple are actually huge. If you don’t have the same idea about a concept or you haven’t defined it in the same way across the globe, it will be next to impossible to achieve whatever it is you are trying to do.
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As an example, operational carbon is a term you see people throwing out all the time. I was reviewing a document for Climate Week NYC, and the definition they had of operational carbon was different than the definition I have in my head. You might use the same terms, but if everybody does not interpret them the same way, it’s going to be challenging to meet goals. That’s the benefit of ASTM, where you have international, consensus-based standards where everyone agrees about the definition. It’s awesome that everybody is excited and wants to work on these issues, but standards help get us on the same page and move in the same direction.
Sustainability is a broad concept, and it seems that the committee on sustainability (E60) works on several topics. Can you tell us about the scope of what the committee does?
Sustainability is a part of everything. The standards we’re developing in E60 related to the circular economy are almost a subset of sustainability. Our newest subcommittee is working on sustainable healthcare standards. What does it mean to be a sustainable dentist practice? What are sustainable dental facilities? What do they have to do to achieve sustainability? Some of the work we are doing is on resilience, such as standard guides for designs of culverts and storm drainpipes exposed to flood events. We have a new standard for sustainable electric vehicle charging stations. Our subcommittee on buildings and construction works on standards for the built environment. They cover a wide gamut of standards from building location and proximity to public transport down to occupant exposure screening.
I’m glad you mentioned the public transit standard (E2844). Some of your work deals with manufacturing and materials, but E2844 struck me as a topic that could also be discussed in a field like urban planning or critical geography. You’re incorporating a lot of different questions.
Exactly. This year is our 15th anniversary. We’re one of the newer committees, originally a subcommittee under the committee on performance of buildings (E06). We realized we had so much to do that we decided to make our own committee. Now as a 15-year-old “teenager,” we’re looking at how we can work with the committees within ASTM. Our thought process is to develop more umbrella standards where we can develop the broad requirements, then a committee can use our broad information to develop it more specifically for their material type.
Beyond providing that sort of standard, where do you see opportunity for sustainability going forward?
In October, we hosted a workshop on decarbonization and lifecycle assessment and analysis (LCA), focused on the role that ASTM standards can play in helping industry with relationship to decarbonization. The goal of the workshop is to identify gaps that currently exist in the standards. There is a big opportunity to play a role, especially with the momentum around decarbonization and climate change. We will have an opportunity to play a bigger role in the future.
How did you become interested in sustainability, and what led you to a career in this area?
I love nature, and I grew up on a small family farm. I was fascinated with the farm, the creeks, and the land to roam. I was always outside. I went to school for conservation biology, but I started my first job as a bench chemist for a pharmaceutical company. I moved to working for the state of Virginia, spending 15 years doing environmental permitting, water-quality permitting, air quality – this was before anyone was talking about sustainability. I followed that by going to Armstrong World Industries in Pennsylvania, working as a research scientist, now as product stewardship and sustainability manager. It all connects logically to me. It’s supporting nature and the planet.
Do you feel as though you watched sustainability emerge during your career?
It’s not that sustainability is new. A lot of times, I point back to the way we used to do things. I had a funny experience: My niece was over at my mother’s house, and I had hung her clothes out on the porch to dry. Clearly, my sister-in-law is not hanging clothes outside, because my niece asked, “Why are grandma’s clothes outside?” There was logic to some of the things we were doing before.
What has changed is the terminology we’re using to talk about what we are doing, and there is greater urgency. Sustainability is more colloquial. You almost can’t read the paper without seeing an article about something related to climate change or greenhouse gases. People want to do the right thing, but they are looking for the best thing. That’s where standards can help. Even when you model, what energy data did you use? How did you assume you would dispose of this product at the end-of-life? Here is where there is a lot of opportunity to standardize. ■
Amy A. Costello is product stewardship and sustainability manager for Armstrong World Industries. She is chair of the committee on sustainability (E60) and a former member of the ASTM International Board of Directors.