It’s not easy going green, but it is essential

Christian Mabey
7 November, 22

Net Zero should be the ultimate goal for all commercial office fit out contractors but to get there it’s going to take a healthy dose of realism. Carbon emissions aren’t a problem that can be solved overnight, and the challenges for the sector are particularly acute due to traditionally high-carbon materials like metal and glass.

However, the climate change issue is not one which can be swept under the carpet and manufacturers, as well as those who use these materials in their products need to directly address their operations to shrink their carbon footprints. The worst thing that businesses can do is resort to greenwashing, making big claims, but taking little to no action on decarbonisation.

The temptation to greenwash are obvious. Clients and legislators are turning the pressure up, but actually going green is hard. It’s an environment where corner cutting and distortions of the truth are becoming all too prevalent. The truth is that building product manufacturers face unique issues which makes cutting emissions a huge challenge. It’s time to face up to them, rather than engaging in fantasies that may help CEO’s sleep at night, but ultimately take sustainability goals backwards.

Long term solutions over quick fixes

The first step in committing to sustainability is to realise that there is no easy solution. There are all kinds of roadblocks to Net Zero in every industry, and that’s particularly true for building product manufacturers. Whether it’s the costs involved with measuring energy use, key materials which lack an eco-friendly alternative, or technology failing to keep pace with the demands of the climate crisis, there’s an abundance of reasons why decarbonisation can’t just happen overnight.

That hasn’t stopped some businesses from reaching for quick fix, greenwashing non-solutions.

The prevalence of carbon offsetting is particularly problematic. It’s a simple, off-the-shelf option, which can offer part of the solution once all other avenues have been addressed or as an interim measure whilst companies deal with the difficult problems they face. It should not be undertaken in isolation!

Similarly, the claims some make about their use of recycled materials are misleading.

Often, companies will claim a product is made from recycled content. The problem is that, unless they explain whether that recycled content is pre- or post-consumer, they’re falling down on transparency. Pre-consumer recycled content has not been reused and is instead the by-product of manufacturing processes that rely on virgin materials. To describe it as ‘recycling’ at all is generous.

And even with post-consumer recycled content, there’s no guarantee those materials won’t be down-cycled. An office specification may use partitions made of wood, but at the end of the fit-out lifecycle those partitions could be down-cycled into a lesser product. Eventually it’s likely the wood will be composted or burnt, with its carbon released into the atmosphere once again.

Circular Sustainability

The good news is that genuinely sustainable principles are becoming more commonplace within the sector.  Manufacturers measuring energy use and producing Environmental Product Declarations are bringing greater transparency to the supply chain.

Better still, circular manufacturing principles are coming into play and making reusability a key consideration for design. By choosing sustainable materials with low levels of embodied carbon, different elements of an office fit-out can outlive the lifespan of a specification, and businesses can make real progress in reducing their carbon footprint.

For example, aluminium has long been one of the most carbon-heavy materials to produce, generating up to six times more carbon emissions than steel and contributing to 2% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally. However, it’s strong, versatile and infinitely recyclable, making it among the most sustainable materials available, and innovation is helping to decarbonise it. Recent innovations in the aluminium industry means there are now recycled aluminium options such as Hydro CIRCAL 75R which contain more than 75% post-consumer recycled content, offering a low-carbon aluminium product.  

We’re currently interrogating our supply chain, looking at ways in which we can reduce emissions realistically, meaningfully and tangibly. Our goal is to eventually be the first net zero system partitioning manufacturer in the UK, one of a number of forward-thinking building product and architectural component manufacturers thinking about how to use more carbon efficient materials.

It is possible to cut emissions within the office design space, but it takes a clear-eyed, long-term approach. Instead of looking for quick-fixes, businesses should be transparent about their processes and thoughtful about their designs. A focus on reusability and sustainability may not be the quick PR win businesses are looking for, but it will stand them in good stead for achieving their decarbonisation aims.

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