SE 562 Environment Behavior Research
There is a clear deficiency in how the manufacturers of construction materials represent their sustainable practices today. It is easy for the average consumer to believe clever marketing campaigns that declare products to be green, but it is an entirely different thing for consumers to be able to see the truth and draw their own conclusions. Materials are the backbone of sustainable design and so many companies mislead designers by claiming to be more sustainable than they actually are. When the cost of a product plays a significant role in how designers choose materials, it is crucial to make sustainable alternatives competitively priced. When unsustainable products are much cheaper than sustainable ones, it makes the decision easier for most projects, which is unfortunate.
Due to a greater desire from the public for more sustainable products, a niche industry has developed that, by its nature, can demand a higher price tag. While some construction material manufacturers see a lucrative advantage in tapping into this trend, others actually care about the difference their products can make on the environment and in the industry. As a result of this discrepancy, it is important that we, designers and consumers, are to be able to differentiate between authentic and imitation sustainable materials.
This issue led me to my research question: by examining sustainable building materials manufacturers, how is the sustainability of the supply chain conveyed to its consumers? How transparent is the company’s representations of sustainability? Do they accurately portray how they produce their materials? Or do they hide particular details in order to create a certain image? How important is this transparency to architects and interior designers who specify these materials?
I once heard a story from a friend who is an interior designer about a granite company that claimed to be locally sourced and could help projects gain LEED points for being within the required 500 mile radius. My friend was interested in learning more about the company’s claims so she looked into them further. She discovered that even though the company was located in Vermont, they would ship the granite to Italy to be cut and then ship it back to Vermont before sending it to wherever the customer was. They purposefully neglected to tell their customers this detail; yet, they marketed themselves as sustainable and local. With this uncovered truth, my friend did not specify them for her project. If this company were required to be more transparent about their practices, how many designers looking to specify a material for a sustainable project would have looked elsewhere?
As “green design” has become increasingly popular over the last few years, many manufacturing companies have started to become “green” and market themselves as such. Even if those companies do nothing sustainably, they will make false claims and present skewed data about their products to take advantage of the situation, which is known as “green washing”. Greenpeace defines “green washing” as “…the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.” Unfortunately, “green washing” is a prevalent marketing strategy that consumers unknowingly buy into. This is why it is important for companies to be transparent, so that consumers can see for themselves whether or not these representations of sustainability are accurate.
Among the literature I have found, there have been three consistent themes throughout: sustainable construction, sustainable building materials and supply chains. Building construction produces a significant amount of waste, most of which can be reused or recycled (Da Rocha and Sattler, 2009). According to Koletnik et al (2012), the European Council is enforcing new recycling laws for demolition and construction, setting a goal of at least 70% of construction waste be recycled by 2020. Even if this may seem unfeasible, it is, in fact, possible and should be implemented throughout the world, not just Europe. Recycling and reusing construction waste is a necessity because it will help create more sustainable production models for companies to use in their supply chains (Da Rocha and Sattler, 2009).
Born of the waste from construction and demolition are new, revamped building materials. These materials are fully functional and not from virgin resources. They are of sound quality and are just as effective and durable as brand new materials (Siddique, 2010). These sustainable building materials can come from sources other than previous construction products, such as coal and agricultural waste. According to Siddique (2010), coal ash, a byproduct of the energy sector in the US can be used in many alternative forms, such as cement. A company called Ecovative Designs produces a material used for insulation and acoustical tiles in buildings that are produced from agricultural waste and mycelium.
The supply chains in building material manufacturers are often quite intricate, with many levels. It becomes difficult to stipulate required practices of sustainability when there are many influencing external factors. As Irland (2007) explains, wood building products are often cut from sustainable, third party certified forests but are not being recognized for it. This is due to their failure to communicate with in the multi level supply chains of larger companies (Irland, 2007). This absence of communication in the supply chain is unfortunate because the company is actually doing what every wood company should be doing but not being properly recognized for it. There is a “lack of commitment in the supply chain to go green” and companies feel there could be significant financial risks by adopting green building practices (Zou and Couani, 2012). With more research and education on incorporating sustainability into supply chains, companies can have an easier time implementing and incorporating it into their business models.
The methods I would use to research this problem would be personal interviews, analyzing data from published corporate information, and surveying sustainable material manufacturers and design firms. The personal interviews will give me an understanding of how other people see this problem, if they see it as a problem at all. I feel that narratives from people will provide me with insight that might not be given if they were to just answer a few short questions. The published information will help me to fill in the blanks from the interviews, as well as give me a more thorough comprehension of the industry standards and company practices.
I would also like to use surveys because they are a great way of capturing data from a lot of vastly different companies. They would be a more efficient way of obtaining primary information from many manufacturers at one time instead of trying to connect with each of them individually, not knowing if they would be willing to participate at all. I can also use surveys as a precursor to determine whom I would like to interview. If I get back answers that sound promising, I would want to go forward with an interview with them. I would also use surveys to find design firms that would be appropriate to interview. By surveying designers, I would be able to get insight as to how they view the manufacturer’s representations of sustainability.
The sites in which my methods will take place would be at the manufacturing facility of the sustainable construction material companies as well as the offices of architects and interior designers. I feel that people would be more comfortable and open to speaking about private issues during personal interviews when they are in the safety of their own space. In addition to making interviewees comfortable, being at the manufacturing facilities will allow me to look at the physical offices and plants first hand. I understand that I will not necessarily be able to see the whole production line, but by seeing their spaces, hopefully a lot can be learned. I would be able to see for myself if they were telling the truth about their practices. For example, if they claim to have a recycling program set up, but I do not see any recycling bins, it would potentially foreshadow an inconsistency in their representations of sustainability.
If I were to use surveys, I would send them out to about 50 different companies and 50 design firms in early summer of 2013. Assuming I get responses by late summer 2013, I would begin mining through the information and finalizing a list to interview. I would begin interviewing early fall 2013 and finish by the end of fall 2013. From the 50 surveys initially sent, I would interview the ones that seemed the most enthusiastic about participating and willing to give detailed information. I would also want to interview those that seem the most intriguing and possibly controversial. To prepare my questions for both the surveys and interviews, I will use the data from the research I did on published industry information.
From seeing the results of surveys sent out in past research, I do not expect to get the full 100 surveys back, or even half. As long as I get back at least 10 responses from each, I will take those and choose 10-16 companies and firms to interview. At each company or design firm, I would try to interview at least 2-3 employees. Each interview would be approximately 1-2 hours. I would have between 10-40 hours of transcription. Upon completion of transcription in late fall of 2013, I will begin analyzing the data in winter 2014 and will finish the research paper in the spring of 2014.
Sustainability is a fairly new topic and not too much has been published regarding sustainable construction products’ marketing. The findings from my research could greatly benefit companies in developing their own marketing strategies and becoming more transparent to their customers. They will be able to see what other, similar companies are doing right and wrong, where they need to improve and what they should avoid. The research will not only help companies, but interior designers and architects as well. It will allow them to become more aware of false information presented to them by material manufacturers. They will scrutinize construction product manufacturers’ claims and dig a little deeper to find out if they are valid.
By having more informed designers and more transparent building material manufacturers, we will be able to get to the core of sustainable design. As a result of this, we, as a society, benefit. All of us are able to live and work in healthier buildings that reduce the amount of toxicities that we continuously come in contact with. With these cleaner buildings, we are one step closer to minimizing environmental degradation and preserving natural resources.
da Rocha, Cecillia Gravina, and Miguel Aloysio Sattler. 2009. “A Discussion on the Reuse of Building Components in Brazil: An Analysis of Major Social, Economical and Legal Factors.” Resources, Conservation and Recycling 54 (2) (December): 104–112.
“Greenpeace | Greenwashing.” 2012. Accessed December 15. http://www.stopgreenwash.org/.
Irland, Lloyd C. 2007. “Developing Markets for Certified Wood Products.” Journal of Industrial Ecology 11 (2): 201–216.
Koletnik, Damijan, Rebeka Lukman, and Damjan Krajnc. 2012. “Environmental Management of Waste Based on Road Construction Materials.” Environmental Research, Engineering & Management 59 (1): 42–46.
Siddique, Rafat. 2010. “Utilization of Coal Combustion By-products in Sustainable Construction Materials.” Resources, Conservation and Recycling 54 (12) (October): 1060–1066.
Zou, Patrick X. W., and Paul Couani. 2012. “Managing Risks in Green Building Supply Chain.” Architectural Engineering & Design Management 8 (2): 143–158.