Charlie Law of Timber Development UK (TDUK) explains why the organisation joined the Anti-Greenwash Charter.

Charlie Law of Timber Development UK (TDUK) explains why the organisation joined the Anti-Greenwash Charter.

Date: Nov 2023
Read time: 4 mins
Author: Charlotte Waters

Industry body TDUK aims to connect the timber supply chain “from sawmill to specifier, and all points in between”. Its other mission aims are to lead best practice, and accelerate a low-carbon future. We asked their Sustainability Director, Charlie Law, to explain more about that, and why joining the Anti-Greenwash Charter seemed like part of the solution.

Construction and climate change

The Government has set the UK ambitious net-zero targets. Nonprofit Architecture 2030 estimates that 42% of CO2 emissions globally come from construction and building operations, so the construction sector is under pressure to show it builds responsibly and creates efficient, low carbon structures.

This creates both opportunity and hazard. Sustainable approaches to construction should grow given these priorities. However, ill-thought-out communications can make even honest organisations look untrustworthy, especially since increases in scrutiny and precisely-defined regulation mean weak claims will be increasingly highlighted.

Timber has genuine sustainability advantages over traditional building materials (it stores carbon and is renewable, provided you plant to replace what you harvest). Messaging will backfire, however, if claims are not made honestly and carefully.

We became signatories of The Anti-Greenwash Charter to help shape guidance to our members in this area, and to formalise our own policies, so we could demonstrate best practice ourselves.

The importance of defining your terms

The heart of honest messaging is to define the terms you use, so that you and others have a basis for assessing whether they are true. The Anti-Greenwash Charter works with members to create a green claims policy that is consistent with wider standards, but also customised and useful for the new member and their stakeholders.

With their support, we created our own TDUK Green Claims Policy which has sections on our standards and practices, and the values we expect of members. The longest section, though, is a set of sustainability-related terms, each carefully defined. By committing to being a signatory, we have pledged to use language in accordance with these definitions, and are urging our members to do so too.

This glossary is a work in progress, incidentally. We may respond to government definitions, and have noted some areas that merit further investigation. In a changing world, refinement of these definitions may never come to a final close.

Pretending you’re perfect means you stop improving

Whatever materials and methods you use, erecting a building means preparing and transporting various products and then working with them over a programme. The embodied carbon within these products is attracting more attention as operational carbon emissions over the life of an asset are reduced.

We have seen that some construction products, and indeed projects, claim negative numbers for embodied carbon impact, suggesting that if only the governments of the world rushed to build more such structures, climate change would be reversed. Sadly, that would not work, as the production and delivery of all materials, including timber, have a carbon impact, however small.

The key reason for these  negative figures is the inclusion of sequestered biogenic carbon (i.e. the CO2 the tree has pulled out of the atmosphere during its growing cycle and locked away within the timber) in assessments, without acknowledging that this will be transferred at end-of-life to another product or to atmosphere. Older assessment standards did not require the whole lifecycle of the product to be considered. Likewise, some construction project assessments also only considered the Upfront Carbon impact.

However, it is now acknowledged that including sequestered biogenic carbon, without considering the end-of-life scenarios, is misleading. Therefore, the latest versions of standards such as EN 15804 and EN 15978 now require a Whole Life Carbon Assessment (WLCA) to be carried out. This requirement has also been included in the latest RICS Professional Standard on WLCA, however it does also acknowledge that Upfront Assessments are regularly carried out, in which case any biogenic carbon must be excluded from the assessment and stated separately to show the Stored Carbon benefit of the biobased elements. However, it also acknowledges that dynamic assessment (taking into account possible alternative end-of-life scenarios) may deliver alternative results that show an improved carbon balance due to the biogenic carbon content.

We therefore encourage all TDUK members to refrain from claiming their products or construction projects are Carbon Negative, Carbon Neutral, or Climate Positive (unless of course they can demonstrate this over the whole life of their product or project), and instead focus on the benefits of the product having a far lower carbon impact than like-for-like products in like-for-like applications and stored biogenic carbon overall.

We are leading by example here at Timber Development UK and urge all members who create case studies to maintain a careful separation of these figures. Our products generally have a much lower embodied carbon impact than other mainstream construction materials, without us having to resort to misleading claims.

Green claims should be made proudly where they are true and meaningful. Otherwise, we should refrain from making them.

If you think the Anti-Greenwash Charter embodies the values of your organisation, find out more here.

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Greenwash Webinar Feedback in Line With Research Findings

Greenwash Webinar Feedback in Line With Research Findings.

Date: Oct 2023
Read time: 2 mins
Author: Charlotte Waters

In our recent webinar with Futurebuild, we took the temperature of the audience on a number of topics to see how their experiences were reflected in the survey findings.

Investing in verified claims

The data says specifiers would pay more for a product with verifiable claims – how does that play out in reality?

  • 28% No, that’s not been the case in my experience
  • 59.5% On occasion, I’ve seen that to be the case
  • 12.5% Yes, I’ve often seen that to be the case

In this response, we can see that the data is backed up by people’s experiences. Specifiers are looking to include products that have verifiable claims. Whether those products stay on specification to the end is a question for a future poll!

Leaving greenwashing unchallenged

In the research, three-quarters said that there would be a loss of reputation ….. so we wanted to know, why aren’t we seeing more organisations doing more to stamp it out?

  • 8% Customers want products at whatever cost
  • 8% No commercial impact to being accused
  • 22% No legislative teeth
  • 62% No-one holding them to account

The majority believe that organisations will continue to greenwash until there is a robust method of holding them to account for the claims they are making. At The Anti-Greenwash Charter, we believe that a first step is in people creating a Green Claims Policy which shares how they make claims, and then being held to account for those by us as an independent body.

We aren’t looking to catch people out, but instead to encourage clarity around claims and then accountability in the face of a challenge. With too many conversations happening behind closed doors, it is hard to see how anything can improve.

Without universally accepted definitions of terms like ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘sustainable’, a Green Claims Policy is where you set out how you as an organisation define them. This offers clarity for customers and protection in the event of a challenge.

Getting clarity on definitions

Terminology is obviously an issue …. how could we reach universal definitions?

  • 11% Don’t know – it’s difficult to get universally agreed terminology
  • 19% Government-led definitions
  • 2% Not possible, we have to define it ourselves
  • 68% Sector-specific organisations to define for that industry

It’s clear that the audience felt that definitions have to be agreed within the sector rather than at a broader level. Which organisation would take responsibility for that is another follow-up question for future – would it be best from member organisations like RIBA or the Alliance for Sustainable Building Products, certification bodies like BRE or those focused on specific areas like The Sustainable Concrete Forum?

We’d love to hear your thoughts on these polls!?

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Greenwashing in the Built Environment – Unravelling Truths and Mitigating Risks

Greenwashing in the Built Environment – Unravelling Truths and Mitigating Risks.

Date: Oct 2023
Read time: 5 mins
Author: Charlotte Waters

In September 2023, we hosted a webinar with Futurebuild* at which we presented the findings of the recent research undertaken into the opinions of people in the built environment on greenwashing.

Greenwashing is clearly a topic that people want to know more about as over 1,000 people registered and, surprisingly for a webinar, around half turned up! Obviously the Futurebuild audience is an engaged one.

You can rewatch the presentation here but we’ll review the key points for anyone who would prefer to read it.

You can also view the polls that were taken in the webinar here.

The webinar was based around our recent survey report‘Greenwashing – what’s true, what’s not, and does it matter?’ – which includes data on how greenwashing impacts the industry reputationally and commercially, and how it stands in the way of achieving valid sustainability goals.

The survey, of 420 businesses, sheds light on green claims and key findings include:

  • Nearly 90% said that greenwashing is a problem.
  • 74% say it can lead to loss of reputation.
  • When asked what impression greenwashing can give, over 72% see it as dishonest and unethical.
  • 58% would remove a supplier from the supply chain if they are accused of or found guilty of greenwashing.
  • 72% would be prepared to pay a higher price for a product with verified green claims.

Introduction

The issue of greenwashing has gained significant attention in recent times, as sustainability and environmental concerns become increasingly critical for both consumers and businesses. In the survey, nearly 90% of respondents acknowledged greenwashing as a prevalent problem in various industries, with concerns about its dishonesty, unethical practices, and cost-driven motives.

This summary will delve into the survey’s findings, examining how greenwashing affects organisations across the built environment supply chain, its diverse manifestations, the impact of terminology, and why addressing it is crucial.

The Prevalence of Greenwashing

Greenwashing is pervasive in marketing materials and bid documentation, though to a lesser extent in the latter. It appears that companies tend to embellish their sustainability efforts to attract prospects, but these claims may not align with their actual practices.

Furthermore, visual elements such as imagery and colour choices often create misleading perceptions about an organization’s environmental commitments.

Half of the respondents reported encountering face-to-face encounters where they were presented with more positive information than could be verified, raising questions about trust and transparency.

Inconsistencies and Suspicious Phrases

The survey reveals that inconsistencies exist across different departments within organizations. Four in ten respondents reported hearing varying claims from different sources within the same organization. This may indicate poor communication governance or a lack of verified and defined sustainability claims.

Suspicious phrases like ‘offsetting,’ ‘environmentally friendly,’ ‘carbon neutral,’ and ‘sustainable practices’ were identified, casting doubt on their authenticity.

Without standardized definitions and publicly available explanations, the interpretation of such terms varies widely, highlighting the need for clarity in communication.

Why Greenwashing Matters

The consequences of greenwashing are far-reaching. It distracts from the goal of achieving net-zero emissions and securing a sustainable future for generations to come.

Customers need accurate information to make informed choices, supporting companies genuinely committed to positive change. Conversely, greenwashing erodes trust and hinders those genuinely striving for sustainability.

For businesses, it carries severe commercial implications, including damage to reputation, strained relationships, potential loss of business, and even financial penalties. A significant portion of respondents stated they would remove a supplier accused of greenwashing from their supply chain, emphasizing the importance of authenticity in business practices.

Verifying Claims

To protect themselves and provide truthful information, seven out of ten organizations are now more rigorous in requesting evidence to verify sustainability claims.

Nearly half of them seek a verified Green Claims Policy. If you don’t have one already, The Anti-Greenwash Charter can support you in creating one.

Clarity regarding verified claims and term definitions makes organisations more attractive to potential partners, as reported by nearly half of the respondents. While concerns about greenwashing haven’t substantially impacted the tendering process, the survey suggests that SMEs perform better in terms of claim accuracy compared to larger organizations.

Validating Sustainability Claims

To ensure robust claims, organisations are employing various approaches. These include referencing Environmental Product Definitions (50% of cases) and utilizing Lifecycle Assessments (46%). Additionally, many organizations have developed internal standards and processes for supply chain partners (nearly 4 in 10), or refer to the Product Environmental Footprint.

Some organisations employ independent sustainability consultants (25%) for added confidence, while others rely on BCorp certification (17%) to validate claims.

Notably, when asked if they would pay more for products with greater evidence of sustainability, nearly three-quarters of respondents expressed willingness to do so, indicating the growing importance of sustainability in purchasing decisions.

Greenhushing

Greenhushing, a term coined in response to greenwashing, emphasizes the importance of honesty and transparency.

Respondents stressed the need for organisations to acknowledge areas needing improvement, rather than claiming perfection. They recognised that immediate, substantial changes may not be feasible for most organizations and urged the celebration of smaller, genuine efforts and intentions for long-term sustainability.

This perspective encourages a shift away from solely applauding major changes that may not always represent the full picture.

Conclusion

The prevalence of greenwashing is a concerning issue that impacts organizations across various sectors, including the built environment.

Addressing this problem requires clear definitions of sustainability terms, transparent communication, and rigorous verification of claims. Businesses must recognize the far-reaching consequences of greenwashing, both in terms of reputation and commercial implications.

By fostering transparency and authenticity, organizations can build trust, support genuine sustainability efforts, and contribute to a more sustainable future.

* Futurebuild is an exhibition for the built environment which brings together more than 15,000 building industry influencers and decision-makers. It will take place from March 5th to March 7th London’s ExCeL. For more details and exhibitor inquiries, visit: https://www.futurebuild.co.uk

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Tools and Resources for Marketers

Free Tools & Resources for Built Environment Marketers.

Last Updated: January 2023

Influential Voices

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© 2023. The Anti-Greenwash Charter

Created with Gusto