Too much greenwashing, not enough meaningful change. Christian Mabey of Optima Products considers the industry’s progress on the path to net zero

It feels like only yesterday that heads of state were descending on Glasgow for COP26, yet COP27 is already upon us.

Christian Mabey

So, what has changed since global leaders and climate influences met in Scotland 12 months ago? And is the architectural and construction community any further down the path to achieving net zero targets by 2050?

Judging by the tone and content of marketing collateral and company websites you would be mistaken for thinking the sector is well on track. Unfortunately, greenwashing is still much in evidence within the industry and manufacturers are, knowingly or otherwise, using unsupported or exaggerated claims to boost their green credentials.

>> Also read: How construction can help to save the world

Probably the most common form of this is the abuse of carbon offsetting, where an organisation prioritises this practice without addressing their own in-house emissions. Now, it is fair to say that there is nothing wrong with offsetting in itself. In fact, a lot of good can arise from these practices. However, it needs to be done in addition to other efforts to reduce direct emissions across business operations.

For those product manufacturers planting trees in developing nations yet doing nothing to drive down their own carbon footprint, it is an incredibly short-sighted strategy. Especially when specifiers are now acutely aware of the importance of sustainability within the contemporary design brief.

I believe failure to act now will also have a knock-on effect. Manufacturers considered unreliable or disingenuous in their green claims might see other questions raised around general product performance, such as durability and safety. Ultimately, “honesty is the best policy” should be the approach for all involved.

However, to achieve this most assertive and transparent approach, we need to be realistic. Complete change won’t happen overnight but playing into the current catastrophising narrative is actually creating barriers rather than removing them.

Instead, we should be starting with “easy wins” that lead into bigger sustainability targets. If architectural product manufacturers are serious about meaningful change, and doing the right thing by their clients, then it starts with baby steps, setting realistic goals and deadlines that can help build momentum.

It is an approach that has been working for us as we seek to drive down emissions throughout our operations, from the raw materials we purchase to the machinery and transport we use. Starting with the performance evaluation of our supply chains, it is helping us to become transparent and accountable so that audiences can see for themselves which products achieve the lowest lifetime embodied carbon.

Recent research has shown that those who switch to a circular economic model can expect less demand for new materials. In turn, less energy is needed in extraction, resulting in further savings

Reviewing supply chains has also been an important measure in creating a more circular production process which, given the climate emergency, I believe needs to be at the heart of all building product manufacturers’ businesses. An ethos of “recycle” and “reuse” is just one part of a multi-faceted approach to encourage more sustainable working practices.

It isn’t just our own business that can benefit. Recent research has shown that those who switch to a circular economic model can expect less demand for new materials. In turn, less energy is needed in extraction, resulting in further savings.

Furthermore, new regulations, particularly Part Z, can help to guide this more open and responsible approach. For example, keeping product information as detailed and up to date as possible – be it carbon performance or safety data – and leaving no stone unturned is essential.

Specifiers have their own role to play to effect change, calling out greenwashing when they see it and demanding more of their suppliers. This will all help to raise the bar.

Ultimately, greenwashing is a persistent problem which needs to be stamped out of the construction sector for good. However, it will require a degree of systematic change, not just from the industry, but also at the highest levels of policy, creating a more nuanced framework for carbon reduction, understanding that different businesses will need to go at different paces.

We have a bad habit in this country of comparing apples with oranges and it needs to stop if we want to turbo-charge carbon reduction in a meaningful, tangible and transparent way.

Christian Mabey is managing director at Optima Products