We’ve had standards on assessing the sustainability of products for decades - why do so many people fail to acknowledge them?

John Tebbit

What makes sustainability standards invisible to so many people, especially academic researchers? I ask myself this several times a month as yet another research proposal or worse, research questionnaire, drops into my inbox.

The typical format is that a researcher has been given some money to develop a methodology for assessing the environmental sustainability of materials. Or another favourite is a list of the most sustainable materials and products – this is a request about as useful as a list of the best musical notes. “What about the context of their use” I mutter to my colleague Jane who co-authored the definitive guide to embodied impacts.

Going back to the invisibility of the standards, it cannot be said that standards on assessing sustainability of products are new.

When I was a lad back in the early nineties, the European Commission launched the Ecolabel. This was a scheme that looked at a particular product type such as tissues and worked out which were the best 10 or 20%. These got the Ecolabel, the rest got nothing. The aim was to help the consumer identify the best performers in that product type. Every so often, the exercise would be repeated and the Ecolabels re-awarded.

At the time I worked for a product manufacturer and sat on the environment committee for the association’s predecessor organisation. We heard that the Italians wanted to introduce Ecolabels into building products and in particular ceramic tiles. Even then, there was concern about this pass/fail type of label that offered no information to specifiers about the relative impacts of different types of products that could be used for the same function. We discussed this with the Department of Trade and Industry as it was then. Industry and BRE put forward a project under the Partners in Technology scheme to develop a scheme of informative labels for products that would allow specifiers and designers to choose between different types of products for similar functions e.g. walls, floors, roofs.

The methodology was published in 1994 as a proprietary standard, so the consortium could start developing environmental assessments of products as used in different building elements. These became the Green Book, first published in 1996. Other countries were also doing similar things in the late nineties so much so that the European Commission became concerned that these national schemes, sometimes private, sometimes public, would become trade barriers.

In 2004, a mandate was issued by the Commission to the European standardisation body CEN to develop European harmonised standards covering the social, economic and environmental performance of buildings. As I say to the researchers, “What part of ‘we have European standards covering this so do not need another research project’ don’t you understand?” You can buy the standards from BSI online so it isn’t exactly a secret.

Some say that standards are invisible to academic researchers because they are not peer reviewed and published in learned journals. Any other theories and suggestions on how to make them visible?

John Tebbit is deputy chief executive of the Construction Products Association