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Don't become "jaded" by Greenwashing

29 June 2022

I had the pleasure of speaking at the All Energy/Decarbonise Conference in Glasgow in May on the topic of greenwashing within the construction and infrastructure space. If the UK and Ireland are to meet its green pledges, it must act soon to stop these bogus or inflated claims of how "green" a company's practices are, or the carbon footprint caused by the physical works carried out.

So what is greenwashing exactly?

So, if my pun in the title was enough to get you to read this far without being bored, what do we meant by "Greenwashing"??

Essentially, Greenwashing is the practice of businesses making "green claims" regarding their internal or working practices relating to their carbon footprint that are false. These claims are made in order to make themselves appear more environmentally conscious, often in the hopes of improving their chances of winning work or promoting an ESG conscious agenda.

So why should I care?

A recent report from the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction revealed that the construction industry is the largest contributor to CO2 emissions in the UK. According the recent WWF Carbon Footprint report, Construction as a sector contributes more CO2 that agriculture and air travel.  

This is further put in stark focus after alarming evidence from the CMA at the start of the year that suggested that over 40% of green claims made within the UK are misleading. Now whilst the majority of these claims are not captured by construction companies, there is a proportionate correlation that can be garnered. Within the UK there is an endemic problem relating to greenwashing generally, and this is no different in the built environment.  

How this reads, is that the largest contributors of CO2 emissions may not being held to account, and could actually be continuing as big a carbon footprint as before, but claim to have policies and procedures in place to tackle this.  

However, the problem with the construction industries footprint is not going to be solved by Contractor's deciding to go paper-light and give everyone tablets to work from; it is about looking at how projects are being designed and built.

Why does this affect me?

Not least because we live on the same planet with the same finite resources and owe it to the future generations to leave the planet in a better place than we found it, if you are in the public sector procuring, or in the private sector and are tendering for works, looking at the sustainability of your project or the ESG initiatives of your supply chain, this may be incredibly important.  With the UK's Net-Zero initiatives, project bids are now putting much more of a focus on just how "green" a business is; or just how carbon neutral a proposed method of construction is.As we start to level up and continue to build back better, the importance of whole life costs is incredibly important. Where green claims are made that turn out to be false it is fundamentally detrimental to the success of any project, and the UK's contribution to global carbon output.

How do I stop greenwashing or spot if someone is engaging in these practices?

Prevention is better than any cure. At tender stage, it is all about asking the right questions and assessing them in the right way. It is no longer enough to say "do you have an ESG policy" or "do you subscribe to green initiatives"; it is about genuinely assessing the quality of someone's bid by assessing "how" something will be done. Put in place KPIs in relation to carbon monitoring. Award points for ingenuity and making project greener. Value cost on the basis of "whole life" and remove the race to the bottom on pricing. Levelling up funds must be used to make our society more sustainable, not just to make sure there is another coffee shop on our local high street.

For live projects, the answer is monitoring throughout the course of any project and asking the right questions. Do not just take any policy handed over as gospel. Spot check and use the power of audit to ensure that green claims are being adhered to.

There is some strides being made in the industry. The NEC is introducing a new Secondary Option clause X29, with a view to stamping out greenwashing (or at least monitoring green claims) with a view of putting in mechanisms to monitor what is being done on Site and at head office.

The greenwashing charter/anti-green wash charter has also been established in order to stamp out or attempt to minimise the harmful impact of greenwashing within the built environment; but we based on recent statistics, we are a long way behind, with an even longer way to go.

For more information on the topic, please contact David McNeice. 

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