21 June 2022

How do you specify a responsible sustainable product?

The declaration of climate and biodiversity emergencies has rightly instilled urgency in all of us to act for the benefit of the planet. In the construction industry, action primarily takes the form of reducing carbon emissions through the operation of buildings. Alongside that, a focus on embodied carbon is also gathering momentum.


Specifiers want to make more sustainable choices as quickly as possible, and manufacturers want to support that shift in specification. But the truth is that the genuine decarbonisation of supply chains is a multi-decade project. It can’t be done overnight; if it could, the country wouldn’t be targeting 2050 for net zero. Therein lies a risk, that in the quest for short-term gains we deliver longer term unwanted and unintended consequences.

EPD Tata Steel

Taking responsibility for the shift towards an integrated circular economy

Lowering the embodied carbon of construction products and buildings is undoubtedly important – whether by reducing the environmental impact of the processes needed to make them, or by needing less of them and therefore using resources more efficiently.

Doing this in the context of a linear economy, however, simply means that our overall impact on the environment will be spread over a longer period of time. So, we need to take action today and, be mindful that we create the conditions in which future generations can take stewardship and help the planet to thrive.

To move away from the linear economy means integrating the circular economy into everyday thinking. There are still actions that can be taken today, of course, but they need to be aligned with the vision of the world in thirty- or fifty-years’ time – and longer – to avoid the above mentioned unwanted and unintended consequences .

This alignment, on the part of both specifiers and manufacturers, is what will really drive the specification of responsibly sourced products. Given that to be the case, what can specifiers  do now, what information can they ask for, to give them greater confidence in the sustainability claims made by manufacturers?

An example of good transparency and reporting

Manufacturers who don’t want to engage in greenwash (the practice of making products seem more sustainable than they actually perform) are transparent about environmental impacts. They report on their performance as a company, and maybe even on the performance of their supply chain too.

Part of overcoming greenwash (whether intended or otherwise) is understanding that there are different levels to transparency, reporting and sustainability. By starting to request more and more specific information, the level of complexity increases – but so does the understanding around environmental performance.

In some cases, the more complex information may not exist – yet. By asking for it, manufacturers become aware of the demand for it, and the specifier has a better understanding of what they’re getting 

Environmental performance declarations (EPDs) are a perfect illustration. EPDs are a tool through which manufacturers can report the environmental impact of a product over its life cycle. However, not all EPDs are the same or declare things in the same way. Being aware of this is crucial.

For example, if you’ve got an EPD for a product you are specifying, is it a generic EPD reporting average values from multiple manufacturers? In which case, how representative is it of the specific product you’re specifying?

An improvement on a generic EPD is a manufacturer EPD. While that reports values more specific to the manufacturer, it still represents a set or family of products. A bespoke EPD, if one is available, reports on the impact of the specific product used and is therefore more accurate and transparent.

Extending transparency throughout the supply chain

A product’s life cycle impact is important, but specifiers also need to have confidence that manufacturers are working with supply chains that are as responsible as the manufacturer itself.

BES 6001  is one of the leading responsible sourcing standards. Certification means an organisation has been audited against criteria that are challenging to meet, and manufacturers can choose to work with supply chain partners who are all accredited. A specifier wanting to select responsibly sourced products can seek certification for the complete supply chain.

As with EPDs, it is about engaging with the manufacturers, and showing that there is demand for this level of information. When that engagement is there, it becomes easier to have conversations about travelled miles, local supply chains, and what is a realistic goal for recycled content , among other common sustainability questions.

The push and pull of working with supply chains 

Manufacturers can deliver more information, but specifiers can create a demand for that information. For example, how should someone on site deal with delivery packaging waste? What materials have been used so they can be sorted and processed properly? 

How should products be dealt with at the end of the building’s life? Just because a component is reusable, or recyclable doesn’t mean that it will be. Is the manufacturer developing digital tools  that will ensure the information sits with the building for several decades, ready to be used by somebody in future?

One approach is to include information like this as optional specification items. If manufacturers don’t have it currently then they won’t necessarily be excluded from projects at the present time. But if you make clear that in coming years it will be a mandatory part of your specifications, then it will create greater impetus for them to ensure they provide it.

Optional specification items don’t just have to relate to product performance and information either. They can also relate to the manufacturer having certain policies in place, such as zero waste to landfill, or being a member of an initiative like the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP).

Ultimately, it isn’t just down to manufacturers to be responsible. Specifiers also have to take on responsibility by understanding that targets like “low carbon” or “net zero” are not easily defined and, if they can be defined, that they’re not necessarily available right now.

Not all of the desired information will be available in all instances, but supply chains that are committed to delivering it will be able to show where and how they are working towards achieving it – and therefore how we can all achieve our long-term sustainability goals in collaboration. 

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