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Dominic Burbridge, Carbon Trust

Low embodied carbon – Communicating the power of sustainability

Low embodied carbon: Part 1 of a two part analysis by Dominic Burbridge of the Carbon Trust on the role of low carbon building materials in driving towards a sustainable future.

In recent years, cutting carbon has become an imperative for suppliers and buyers of building materials. The Infrastructure Carbon Review has focused the efforts of the construction industry to reduce emissions across the supply chain.

Clients demanding certification to voluntary standards like CEEQUAL, BREEAM, BES6001 and BS8903 are also drivers, while Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) have made it technically possible for suppliers to measure and report the environmental impact of their products. It’s increasingly acknowledged that ‘where there’s carbon there’s cost’. In a competitive industry, cutting carbon and associated costs is a great way to protect margins.

"A lack of communication around the ‘what’s in it for me’ benefits lies at the heart of the problem. While BES6001 is driving suppliers to carry out often costly life-cycle analyses like EPDs, the findings often gather dust."

It’s also true that the environmental credentials of building materials are now being considered alongside their price, quality and availability as the fourth differentiator when making a purchasing decision. Organisations that we’re working with, for example leading UK contractors and developers Wilmott Dixon and Taylor Wimpey, now have procurement policies that favour low carbon suppliers, a trend that is set to accelerate.

Yet companies in the construction supply chain seem slow to adapt to these changes in market dynamics. Suppliers are uncertain about how to measure and cut carbon efficiently, and how to work together across the whole construction value chain to uncover business benefits from low carbon products. Arguably the sheer complexity and cost of environmental auditing has often led to inaction instead of innovation.

A lack of communication around the ‘what’s in it for me’ benefits lies at the heart of the problem. While BES6001 is driving suppliers to carry out often costly life-cycle analyses like EPDs, the findings often gather dust. Companies lack the confidence to compare their products’ environmental credentials, which makes life harder for buyers and procurement teams to make informed purchasing decisions.

"In my conversations with suppliers of low carbon building materials, it is clear that there is an untapped potential for life-cycle analysis to cut costs and increase business opportunities."

Something as simple as trying to compare, side by side, the thermal performance, price per square metre and environmental credentials of different insulation products can require hours of research. And at the end of it, can you really be sure you’re comparing ‘apples with apples’?

In my conversations with suppliers of low carbon building materials, it is clear that there is an untapped potential for life-cycle analysis to cut costs and increase business opportunities. The process of carbon footprinting to an international standard, when combined with lifecycle costing, uncovers three benefits.

It identifies product manufacturing efficiencies, areas for future innovation and, most importantly, the embodied carbon of the product – a new product feature that customers are really starting to value.

Part 2 of this analysis follows next week and will take the issue forward to maximising life-cycle analysis.

Dominic Burbridge has a degree in electrical engineering and 15 years experience in business management and strategy, low carbon, resource efficiency and renewable energy consulting. He is on the Management Team of the Carbon Trust’s Business Services practice, with responsibility for project leadership, business development and client management.