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Selling the sustainability message

Romilly Madew, Chief Executive Officer
Green Building Council of Australia

Is sustainability dead? 

I’ve been asked this a number of times in recent weeks, as people come to grips with a challenging construction market, shifting public attitudes to climate change, claims of ‘green fatigue’ and a changing political landscape.

We are facing tough times. This is true for all segments of the economy, and all segments of the construction industry.

But despite these short-term speed bumps on the road to sustainability, the signposts all point in one direction.

Globalised workforces and supply chains and the rise of new world powers, particularly China and India, have intensified competition for natural resources.  In this climate, it’s not about peak oil, but peak everything. Businesses are ‘doing the math’ and realising that adding value means doing more with less. 

Harvard Business Review has called sustainability a ‘megatrend’ akin to the industrial and information technology revolutions because it is dramatically refashioning the way we do business. And it’s not just happening in the construction industry. At Intel, for example, a new chemistry process used in the manufacture of smart chips has reduced waste by 84 per cent, or four million litres, saving US$45 million a year. At Marks & Spencer, the solution to the massive volume of garments ending up in landfill has been a partnership with Oxfam which has raised £2 million and recycled four million pieces of clothing a year, while also increasing customer traffic and brand ‘stickiness’. These examples reinforce that sustainable solutions are sometimes just smart business decisions.

Trendwatching’s most recent briefing has identified ‘eco-superior’ as a long-term trend, arguing that these days even “carbon-neutral won’t cut it”. “The only real sustainable future will be rooted in products that are not just ‘better’ than (polluting) alternatives, but products or services that are truly eco-positive.” This is not about being green – it’s about being superior. Think superior functionality, superior design and superior savings.

From the billboard that generates water by extracting humidity from the air, to ‘throw and grow’ biodegradable confetti which grows wildflowers long after the wedding’s over, eco-positive products are emerging across the world. In our own industry, zero carbon buildings that produce more energy than they consume, green walls that look great and scrub the air of harmful VOCs, and design elements made from recycled materials once destined for the scrap heap are all good examples.

Survey after survey has found that consumer sentiment for sustainability is not on the wane – in fact, it continues to grow. UK supermarket giant ASDA’s 2012 survey of 6,000 customers found that 95 per cent really do care about green issues – irrespective of gender, age, location or income level. Bain & Company’s recent survey of employees across industries in Brazil, China, Germany, India, the UK and US found that a third of respondents care more about sustainability now than three years ago, with almost that many saying sustainable business is extremely important to them.

In the context of our own industry, the World Green Building Trends report, released in March 2013, finds that green building is accelerating around the world as it is recognised as a long-term business opportunity. The report surveyed professional services firms in more than 60 countries, with 51 per cent predicting that they’d be dedicated to green building by 2015. This is up from 28 per cent of firms in 2012 and just two per cent in 2005.

So, if all the trends point towards a secure future for sustainable construction, why was ‘green’ recently voted one of our industry’s most despised buzzwords?  And why is it that consumers in the wealthiest nations, who demonstrate some of the least sustainable behaviours, are also the least likely to feel guilty about the implications of their choices on the environment?

I think the reason for this is that some of the common language we use to communicate green and sustainable issues has been de-motivating, de-powering and has made people feel guilty about their lives and their choices.

In a recent issue of British Vogue, fashion icon and ‘It Girl’ Alexa Chung explained why sustainability isn’t sexy. “’Ethical Fashion’: surely the least sexy words in fashion. Sustainable, ecological, organic … the language of conscience-free shopping is a clunky vocabulary that instantly brings to mind images of hemp kaftans, recycled tin-can bags, and other things I’d rather not swathe my body in, thanks.”

Over the last decade, the green building movement has developed its own vocabulary to describe a complex set of issues. While sustainability is in everyone’s interests, the way we speak about it is not.  Whether we like it or not, words like ‘green’, ‘sustainable’, ‘eco-conscious’ and ‘ethical’ make consumers feel like they are losing something. Our language is focused on images of reduction.  Phrases like ‘low carbon’, ‘zero emissions’ or ‘waste minimisation’ immediately draw our brains to what’s lacking. Our conversations around sustainability must shift to what people are gaining.

Trendwatching says that “serious eco-results will depend on making products and processes more sustainable without consumers even noticing it, and, if necessary, not leaving much room for consumers and companies to opt for less sustainable alternatives to begin with.”

Serious ‘eco-results’ – or the real benefits of our choices – will come when we can demonstrate that sustainability is simply about quality. With this in mind, it’s not about ‘reducing pollution’, but having access to fresh air and water. It’s not about ‘minimising energy consumption’ but about having more money to spend on things other than utility bills. It’s not about ‘reducing motor-vehicle dependence’ but about gaining a healthy lifestyle.  We all want health, happiness and to live in harmony. That’s the aim of sustainability – and that’s the message we need to sell. Sustainability is not dead – but it is time to breathe new life into it.

What do you think? Is sustainability dead? Let us know on LinkedIn!