Approaches to Sustainability: the Carrot or the Stick?

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015
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In the 14 years since Sydney’s green Olympics and the subsequent establishment of the Green Building Council of Australia, there has been a significant change in approach to building and construction in Australia.

In large part, this has been driven by the development and recognition of tools such as Green Star which, through their adoption by government and key stakeholders, have generated market-based incentives to advance sustainability in the built environment.

The GBCA promotes the development of sustainable buildings and communities using best practice sustainability benchmarks – ‘carrots’ – to encourage the market. The organisation says that since their introduction in 2003, Green Star rating tools have challenged the industry to improve environmental performance by going beyond building codes to minimise life cycle impacts of buildings. Green Star has facilitated a market shift which continues to encourage industry to take an integrated, holistic approach to building design and construction. [1]

The growing acceptance of Green Star, LEED, BREEAM, DGNB and other building certification schemes has created the market pull to raise standards and innovate. This is naturally spilling over into the consideration of how building products contribute to sustainability, although currently with a less uniform approach in how to assess products and materials to achieve improvements in the environmental footprint of a construction project.

The GBCA has understood that markets respond better to encouragements than to penalties, and therefore focuses on approaches to incentivise manufacturers and builders to adopt best practice, which in turn, fosters innovation in the industry. Some would argue that this focus on best practice benchmarks is not adequate, particularly in the context of building products and materials, and advocate a more absolutist “stick” approach such as red lists to dictate what can and can’t be used.

Building certification schemes have been grappling with this debate for several years. Back in 2007, the US Green Building Council’s Technical and Scientific Advisory Committee’s (TSAC) Assessment of the Technical Basis for a PVC-Related Materials Credit in LEED report specifically explored such policy questions, including: Should LEED offer credits for avoiding less desirable materials, or create credit incentives for the use of preferable, often innovative materials or processes?

Based on its evaluations and findings, TSAC recommended rewarding development and use of improved materials by creating an ongoing market incentive for continuous development and improvement of building materials, rather than using a “blunt” stick approach that encouraged avoiding certain materials.

Locally, the GBCA has moved to use an incentive-based approach to some materials, including PVC, in order to drive industry change forward more rapidly. This has had a number of positive consequences. The Best Environmental Practice PVC (BEP PVC) criteria developed for Green Star has led to significant change in the vinyl industry, ensuring PVC building products are being manufactured to the highest environmental, health and social performance standards. It has driven product innovation and raised the bar in manufacturing to provide construction products that positively contribute to a more sustainable built environment.

The benefit of the best practice approach is that it incentivises continuous change as it is both measurable (verifiable) and achievable. For the building industry, it enables negative issues to be addressed while still allowing the proven benefits of the product or material – durability, affordability, low maintenance etc – to be accessed by building designers.

The risk of the ‘stick’ approach of negative credits or red lists is that it is usually overly simplistic and partial. It can lead to rash, less informed decisions about alternative products, resulting in worse environmental outcomes. It has also been seen to encourage ‘greenwash’ – witness, for example, “PVC-free” claims made which have no substantiated life cycle benefit over PVC. It can often be an emotional response to sustainability based on preconceived ideas – something eco-designer and social scientist, Leyla Acaroglu has termed “environmental folklore” – rather than a systematic, scientific approach.

Ideally, programs to incentivise improved environmental outcomes for the built environment would instead provide a consistent framework – a level playing field – for the assessment of all materials and products. Criteria would be holistic, objective, consistent and most importantly, horizontally applied.

The TSAC report recommended the use of comprehensive whole-of-building approaches to addressing environmental impacts rather than material-specific.

Today we are seeing a welcome, growing adoption of life cycle assessment and use of Environmental Product Declarations enabling project designers to estimate the environmental footprint of the building, and to use the products best suited to the project at hand. The carrot clearly works.

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