Transparency Key for $u$tainable Change

Just what is in that slab in your shop?

You, your customer and all of us need to know.

by Paul "Max" Le Pera

As surfacing options abound in breadth and innovation, there is a growing need for clear, well-defined, proven and published standards. We all want to know what we are buying to aid in the best and most-informed purchase decisions.

One of the strongest fibers in the fabric of sustainability is transparency; the very element that facilitates integrity in decision making by exposing undesirable elements and/or spotlighting elements worthy of high favor.

The surfacing industry has lacked a backbone of standards, designed and published by a neutral authority who can sufficiently research and develop a range of norms and expectations for a defined category.

This need has indeed been emerging over the past decade and appears to be nearing climax given the recent market response to the U.S. anti-dumping tariffs placed on Chinese quartz surfaces.

Some Chinese quartz manufacturers have increased a change in formulation by adding a significant amount of fine granular glass in lieu of the finer quartz crystals. For a short time, this formula change seemed to side-step the defining language for the new anti-dumping and countervailing duties.

An article in Stone Update this February stated that, “Cambria initially sought to include slabs with a “predominantly silica” mixture of materials solidified by a resin binder in its initial unfair-trade petition to the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) last April.

The article goes on to state that, “Cambria Company LLC is asking federal regulators to widen the field of Chinese-made hard surfaces subject to unfair-trade tariffs.”

When Cambria filed the suit, it would seem apparent it studied some of the past responsive behavior on the part of some Chinese manufacturers, which included finding a way to manipulate products to circumvent tariffed classification. Cambria’s initial scope to handcuff circumvention-strategies were extensive.

That scope also addressed another strategy by Chinese manufacturers to trans-ship goods through another country, either in whole or as work-in-progress, to then be completed there and shipped into the United States from the contract manufacturing country.

Given all these gyrations, I can only wonder if substituting a material that is virtually exclusively silicon dioxide (quartz) with a material that averages 70% silicon dioxide (glass) is merely a superficial game of semantics.

By dropping the quartz content to, say 40% (instead of the historical 88% to 93% content) and using glass as the majority balance, Chinese quartz manufacturers can say the product they are sending to the United States is not, by Cambria’s technical definition, quartz.

However, if even 55% of the raw material used is glass -- which is 70% silicon dioxide -- the grand total of effective silicon dioxide content is approximately 78.5% (calculated as: 70% of 55% plus the pure quartz @ 40%). What is the end result? Regardless of what you call the raw material filler, it remains effectively quartz (by the definition of silicon dioxide).

The surfacing industry has lacked a
backbone of standards.

However, If the Chinese -- or anyone, really -- would want to change the formula and make a new product:

  • Should the word “Quartz” be allowed to appear in the new surfacing category name?
  • Have the performance characteristics of the re-formulated material been thoroughly tested? If so, by whom?
  • Has there been transparency on the part of the manufacturers to disclose the formula change, the details of the new formulation and documentation of new performance characteristics?
  • If the original quartz-based product was GREENGUARD- and/or NSF-certified, have manufacturers re-certified the “quartz glass?”
  • Can largely glass-based products that are inherently vulnerable to micro-cracks still qualify for any of the three levels of NSF certification?

I feel reasonably confident that scratch resistance, tensile strength and a host of other qualities of the new product will not fall within the historical averages we accept as reasonably standard for standard quartz surfaces. These changes will affect the product’s performance; in my opinion, the net changes will compromise performance, not enhance it.

The pre-tariff performance of Chinese quartz surfaces is already cloudy. I’ve already seen compromises because of surface roughness, hydrolysis, water absorption and product density, along with significant gloss-meter deviations within the same slab surface – and these problems appeared at an increasing rate alongside the explosive import growth of Chinese–made quartz surfacing.

Whether these compromises are a function of the “press” process, the raw materials used, the level of quality control over the entirety of the production process, or some combination of the above, I see a positive correlation between the increased number of occurrences and the level of Chinese imports in the 2010s. And, yes, I am suggesting that correlation does imply causation in this case.

I feel that the consumer may largely be the ultimate casualty in this category re-formulation if thorough and substantial disclosure is not with these new products, along with new performance characteristics. In fact, all businesses in the enterprise chain, from importer to end-user and everyone in between, assume a hazardous element (i.e., a condition that increases the probability of loss) without a set of well-defined standards and some onus placed on disclosure and truth in reporting.

As with any buying decision, there’s the concept of caveat emptor (buyer beware). However, there is no cereal-box-like ingredients label on the side of a quartz slab. The buyer must rely on the integrity of the selling establishment and/or fabricator that these professionals are thoroughly and appropriately informed about the performance characteristics of this “glass-quartz” product.

I would not be as concerned about this issue if this glass-quartz category was launched because of an identified niche-need, or an “as-equal” solution to existing products at a much-lower cost. The emergence of this new flow of goods happened at a time and in a way, that should be met with reasonable concern.

Cambria, incidentally, succeeded in convincing federal officials to broaden the definition to include “glass-quartz” as effectively, a “quartz product” and therefore be subject to the adjudicated tariffs. It's included as part of the final decision by the USITC to impose China quartz tariffs as of early July.

I am an advocate for the fabricator and the consumer. It is the responsibility of consumers to do their research on what they are buying; but in the case of glass-quartz, there is not enough history for substantial empirical data and reviews. Without transparency in communication and representation in the change of formulation, changes in performance characteristics (or if they have even been exhaustively tested at all) both the fabricator and consumer remain vulnerable, and it is indeed wise advice to remain buyer-beware.

Fabricators will be affected by the whole of the anti-dumping dynamic on imported Chinese manufactured quartz surfacing and we may not know the final story on how and to what extent for a little while yet. One thing I am certain of is the strong and the flexible will survive and will change accordingly to adapt.

The consumer is equally vulnerable. Today’s leading brands have enough of a track record in providing quality and enterprise support to offer safety in reversion here. However, the leading consumer brands cannot afford to damage their brand equity by overly surreptitious manufacturing behavior.

I maintain that the quartz-surfacing category is still very much alive and has countless more years of growth and innovation ahead of it. Weeding out the marginal is part of everyday business and strengthens that which remains. I am all for new products and innovation; however, I am an advocate only when it is done with integrity and transparency.

The KBIS event this February revealed some very nice innovation; however, I feel that, as a group, an industry and as professionals with a business conscience, we need to stay focused on transparency, quality and protecting the interests of the consumer who remain quite vulnerable.

As an industry, we absolutely need to continue to research options on establishing industry standards on performance, labeling, testing and -- to whatever extent possible – the raw materials to provide a solid benchmark. Ideally, these standards should eventually encompass all surfacing materials … and benefit everyone in the distribution chain, from processor to fabricator to consumer.

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