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Are we making progress?

There’s lots of ‘green talk’ but the question is, within the flooring and construction sectors, is real progress being made?

AT the present time companies in our industry are adapting in different ways and at different rates to the need to reduce global warming and changing to more sustainable ways of working. These differences are largely due to competitive pressures, access to investment and the availability of new technologies and alternative raw materials.

We could ask if some of those companies that are struggling to change are in that position because of an ‘accident of birth’. Are they perhaps victims of circumstance simply because the rest of the world has changed its collective mind about the acceptability of their activities?

Conversely, have some companies benefitted by just having the sheer good luck (rather than the gift of foresight) of having used sustainable products long before we started talking about global warming? I think we can answer ‘yes’ to all of these and there will also be many examples in between.

It should be remembered that the environmental discussion has been ‘out there’ for a very long time. Some companies are indeed lagging behind unnecessarily. An extreme case can be found in the oil industry.

If we look at the oil companies in the ‘70s and ‘80s we have the story of Exxon, the largest company in any sector in the world at the time. A documentary series on BBC TV earlier last year showed Exxon had carried out research decades ago that conclusively showed fossil fuels were causing global warming and they predicted a climate crisis. Instead of mitigating the damage they kept their findings under wraps and instead chose to protect their markets and embarked on a PR campaign, employing prominent climate change deniers to discredit the global warming movement.

Some companies implemented sustainable policies early on for ethical reasons, but also because they saw competitive advantages. Others are waiting until they’re forced to change. The latter group might say their company is just doing what it was created for- ie, to provide value to its shareholders, and that they cannot afford to do otherwise because it would make them uncompetitive.

The centre ground is populated by organisations that are willing to change but the technology enabling them to do that just doesn’t exist yet. In the airline industry for example, investment in design research has resulted in more fuel-efficient ‘planes, and more recently they have announced developments in hydrogen fuelled aero engines for which the exhaust gases are only water vapour.
Change will undoubtedly come but as of today right now the industry is wholly reliant on crude oil derived fuel.

In our own industry the same could be said for manufacturers of synthetic floors that use plastics as their main raw material. Bio derived plastics exist but aren’t yet ready for use in volume manufacture of flooring. However, it is often possible to substitute synthetic floors for more sustainable alternatives.

What to do with the waste generated from redundant floors is an area where a lot of work is being done but we’re far from a truly sustainable solution.

As the sustainability debate matures, we appear to be moving into a phase where the creation of shareholder value is highly dependent on the company’s ability to operate on a low carbon, sustainable basis.

The wind, that once powered Greta Thunberg across the Atlantic (incidentally in a boat made almost entirely from plastic!) has changed.

Clients are often the main driver for sustainable building projects. Large corporations who cause environmental damage are easy targets for environmental lobbyists and many companies have realised the competitive advantages of being a sustainable company.

In terms of actively reducing their environmental impact the most well-resourced and influential clients are likely to be the largest global corporations, so how do large UK based global companies rank against the rest of the world in terms of their commitment to reducing global warming?

There are some online sources that use specific data to rank companies by their sustainability credentials. One such is Corporate Knights, who report annually on the top 100 global companies with turnovers greater than $1bn.1

In the 2022 report the highest UK company is ranked 8th and the next one is found in 78th place. Among the top 100 global companies for 2022, five are UK-based. The majority of top 100 ranked companies are from the Nordic countries, the USA, Canada, France, Germany and Japan.

The same website reported in 2015 that 11 of the top 100 companies were based in the UK, so it looks as if larger UK organisations are losing ground compared with those overseas.

This may of course also be influenced by other factors such as the performance of the UK economy and its appeal to investors over the past seven years, but this may show too that overseas companies are improving their sustainability at a faster rate than those in the UK.

The more proactive clients are adopting environmental tools for their property development and building work, eg, WELL, BREEAM, LEED and Passivhaus being among the schemes being adopted.

Government hasn’t yet imposed specific global warming reduction targets upon the construction industry other than the existing rules relating to energy conservation which are found in Building Regulations Approved Document L. Beyond that it has taken a broader approach with commitments to overall reduce the UK’s effect on global warming. Here is an extract from government’s website.

December 2021 UK government website announced:
Prime minister announces ambitious new emissions target setting the UK on the path to net zero by 2050, leading the way in tackling climate change globally new plan aims for at least 68% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the decade, compared to 1990 levels.

In the next few years there could be changes to the building regulations in the form of ‘Approved Document Z’. This document is currently in the form of a proposal made by building professionals from the world of architecture, surveying, building services engineering and academia.

If adopted, it will set out defined ways of measuring embodied and operational carbon in buildings and at a later stage will set mandatory limits for the maximum whole life carbon for the building, and therefore its effect upon global warming. The proposed scheme appears to use a similar data format to EPDs, which are becoming a standard feature in most manufacturer’s technical libraries. I haven’t yet seen any indication of what the carbon limits may be or how they will be set.

Specifiers and designers, from my experience are among the most willing adopters of sustainable practices and often ‘sell’ the idea to their clients. They are of course influenced by the needs of their clients and also recognise the commercial benefits of being seen as low carbon building design specialists.

Companies such as Perkins and Will for example, are very active on social media in this respect and publish reports and opinion pieces on construction related environmental issues. In the UK the Royal Institution of British Architects (RIBA) created the RIBA 2030 climate challenge to set targets for their members relating to embodied and operational carbon, indoor air quality and water consumption.

Prior to this a group of prominent architects published ‘Architects Declare’, a manifesto to tackle climate change, and this prompted similar declarations from other groups of construction professionals.

Being personally involved in the flooring manufacturing sector I can see many companies at different points of the change process depending on their ability and willingness to work in a more sustainable way. There are definitely cases where current technology is restricting the pace of change because of the non-availability of substitutes for crude oil derived materials.

Let’s look at the various stages of change that companies might go through as they adopt more sustainable practices.

The first part of the change process is awareness. In our industry I can safely say we are largely past this stage. What company or individual doesn’t know we need to reduce global warming?
What follows is a stage where the company puts together its environmental objectives, they will look at their current practices and form a strategy to implement the changes they will need to make.

That all looks very simple and methodical. The manufacturer’s own systems and resources may need to change. This requires planning and investment and time. First in line for change will be all the things the company can change easily, straight away or in the short term.

This could include switching to renewable energy, reducing waste, reducing fuel use, contributing to short term carbon offsetting schemes and the like. The environmental debate has been here long enough for most organisations to have completed this stage, provided they have the resources.

In recognition of competitive forces and to head off criticism they will also portray themselves as fully sustainable companies. This is an area where there are still many ‘red herrings’, otherwise known as ‘greenwashing’. The general level of awareness of detailed environmental arguments among non-specialised people is not yet sufficiently developed to see through the more questionable claims being made. Some organisations are putting a lot of resources into trying to show they ‘own’ the environmental debate by publishing reports that appear scientific but in fact say nothing specific about what action the company is taking. It is also worth noting that the RIBA, in their 2030 Climate Challenge, only accept carbon offsetting as a temporary measure to allow manufacturers time to get their house in order, rather than a long-term sustainable measure.
There’s also a debate about the validity of using recycled plastics for manufacture of carpets and synthetic sheet flooring such as vinyl. It appears that many types of plastic cannot be recycled twice and if this is the case you may ask how sustainable is the one-time use of recycled plastic?

The next stage is one where the UK flooring industry appears to be showing small signs of change. This is the stage at which companies voluntarily make changes to the raw materials and technologies they use. I say ‘voluntarily’ because unless a particular material is banned or restricted under legislation companies can make their own policies. If they don’t change, they risk losing competitive advantage or being branded as an environmentally damaging company.

This can mean different things for different companies of course. For a solid hardwood floor manufacturer that has fairly local sustainable timber sources and generates its own wood- based electricity on site, the task of optimising its raw material is fairly well advanced. The focus then might turn to waste reduction, packaging, the types of vehicles used for transport and the sustainability of other stakeholders and suppliers to the company.

For companies using raw materials derived from crude oil, for products that use significant amounts of energy or those that have limited, and damaging sources of raw materials change comes harder, requiring large investments and lots of time. They may need to develop solutions for new materials and technologies that may not even exist yet on a commercial scale.

There’s also a risk of swapping one problem for another. If for example we manufacture all plastics using vegetable oils this will place huge demands upon land to grow crops, potentially leading to deforestation in poorer nations. Our national news recently talked about the development of a new type of plastic film, made from seaweed which could be used for packaging.

If you try to imagine how much packaging film the world uses, replacing this with this one seaweed derived material may cause ecological damage to marine environments, so we need to be careful not to replace one problem with another. The answer perhaps will be to continue to get better at managing our resources and to replace one problem with a variety of solutions.

In the world of main contractors and subcontractors, many of the UK’s larger main contractors are formally adopting systems designed to reduce global warming and this can be seen as one of the ways the main contractors compete with one another. Most of the larger national companies will have in-house sustainability teams, headed up by a sustainability manager.

As well as looking at their own operations, they set out standards for their approved subcontractors and manufacturers. They will have in house design managers, many of whom will be RIBA architects and so will be affiliated to the RIBA 2030 climate challenge. Their databases of approved products will include some detailed environmental information including EPDs and they use carbon tools to calculate the overall environmental impact of the buildings they are designing and constructing.

If and when Building Regulations Approved Document Z comes into force those who operate in this way will be in a good position to do the reporting and carbon calculations required to comply. Many main contractors will go further and require their suppliers to demonstrate how they plan to reduce their effect on global warming by getting them to sign up to schemes such as the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi).

Under this scheme the supplier identifies areas for improvement in their own organisation and then formulates a strategy to make improvements, using defined and measurable means. For manufacturers who want to deal with main contractors this will undoubtedly force them to up their game in terms of their sustainable practices and the way they report environmental data about their company and products.

I suggest over time medium sized and then smaller main contractors will adopt the same policies due to client and competitive pressures and future legislation such as Approved Document Z.
The end of a floor’s life is a key part of the sustainability discussion in our industry, with the current need to move towards the circular economy, using recycled materials and reducing landfill and incineration. The best outcome is if the floor can be repurposed when it is no longer needed- often most easily achieved with floors that have a very long life that can be removed undamaged, and then re-laid; solid hardwood being one such option.

Difficulties arise if the old floor is contaminated, is damaged during the lifting process and it is made from a material that cannot be reprocessed or recycled. This is probably the worst scenario and accounts for a lot of plastic-based finishes that are glued down. There are a couple of answers to this.

One is that manufacturers might develop floating floor finishes that don’t require adhesive, as this will at least make recycling and repurposing easier. The other is to develop materials that are more easily recycled.

Both the UK flooring and construction industries are in a period of significant change, and this can mean different things to different organisations. In the coming years, especially if global temperature rises cannot be limited in the way that scientists tell us they need to be, the restrictions on our industry are likely to become more onerous with strict limits being imposed on operational and embodied carbon.

It’s important to see developments in our industry and construction general, as being a relatively small part of the whole story. On a global level we’ll probably see developments in the field of environmental assessment and modelling, a rise in the number of skilled specialists and research into new technologies for raw materials, energy, and factory processes.

On a global scale I suggest we also need to look at the potential for ecological and climatic damage when planning largescale exploitation of innovative, new raw materials and technologies, to be sure we don’t simply replace on problem with another.
Richard Aylen is technical manager
at Junckers

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