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A collection of building materials marketing trends and insights focused on helping building product manufacturers BLD their brand.

The State of Sustainability

green wreath

Article Date: August 4, 2022

Q&A with Kathleen Egan, co-founder and CEO of Ecomedes

BLD Marketing sat down with Kathleen Egan, co-founder and CEO of Ecomedes, to discuss the building material industry’s current position on sustainability and to examine current requirements and trends within the design and construction space. Kathleen leads the charge at Ecomedes, which is a database connecting building owners, designers, and buildings with sustainable building products to help them save time, money, and energy.

QUESTION: Assess the state of adoption in terms of sustainability in the building products industry. Is it aligned with the needs of the architecture and design, contracting, building ownership, and government sectors today?

ANSWER: The building materials industry is at a critical transition in sustainability from the early adopters to the early majority. Some early adopters that come to mind are Herman Miller® and Interface® Carpet Tiles, two organizations that built their brands on sustainability. Then there are other sustainable organizations included in the early majority, or the ones that are providing enough volume and choice to encourage more building owners as well as architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) firms to increase their focus on selecting sustainable products.

Many organizations prioritize sustainability to some degree, but communication remains an industry-wide challenge as only a portion of the market is adhering to these standards. Most AEC firms cannot navigate the complex array of data points necessary to properly vet products. Therefore, an army of certifications and building rating systems have come into existence to help make this process simpler. However, there are now so many of those organizations that it still requires a lot of education to properly create and execute against green product standards.

QUESTION: How far away is the industry from reaching its goals?

ANSWER: Sometimes it feels like we have a long way to go. However, it is a non-linear journey. As we move into the early majority, I think that we will reach a tipping point where enough of the demand from building owners and their AEC teams will require the specification of sustainable materials. This will force manufacturers to retool their products to meet a higher standard regarding carbon emissions, energy efficiency, social impact, and toxin and waste reduction. As this group of manufacturers comes to market with more sustainable options, the demand side should accelerate and these requests for more sustainable products will eventually result in industry-wide mandates.

QUESTION: What are some trends that are driving stronger adoption of green building materials?

ANSWER: Many organizations are giving more thought to their own environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives. In particular, the E in ESG spills over into a business’ sustainability model and affects their processes and the products they create. ESG initiatives create value for an organization by prioritizing the reduction of waste and carbon emissions. For building materials manufacturers, this is one avenue they can take to deliver greater value for customers and reduce negative impacts on the environment.

Net zero goals are also gaining traction in the industry with the rise of groups such as the Science Based Targets initiative, which is encouraging corporations to establish roadmaps to significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and achieve the Net-Zero Standard by 2050. Unsurprisingly, this is affecting the products they create and go to market with. For manufacturers whose operations demand massive amounts of energy, these movements, in addition to the adoption of green building materials, are critical.

QUESTION: Are there particular sectors of the industry that are ahead of others (e.g., interiors vs. exteriors, infrastructure, etc.)?

ANSWER: We see tremendous movement right now to certify more products. In interiors specifically, there are leaders in virtually every category that we track, but it can be hard to define “ahead” due to inconsistencies in the data. Consider carpet manufacturers who have environmental product declarations (EPDs) for their products. Interface® is way ahead, but this is partially due to their excellent data management and ability to properly manage EPD links. In this way, they are indeed a leader, both in the number of products that they certify and in the way they manage their data. For the flooring and carpet sector specifically, this list demonstrates the gap in EPDs across the major manufacturers:

  • Interface (17,873)
  • Tarkett (385)
  • Mohawk Industries Inc (41)
  • Forbo Flooring Systems (28)
  • Patcraft (19)
  • Shaw Industries (15)
  • Shaw Contract (13)
  • Philadelphia Commercial (11)
  • Bentley Mills, Inc. (8)
  • Mannington Mills (5)
  • Milliken Flooring (5)
  • EF Contract (4)
  • Bentley Mills Inc (3)
  • J&J Flooring Group (3)
  • OfficeSmart (2)
  • Signature Floorcoverings Pty Ltd (2)
  • StaticSmart (2)
  • TUNTEX (2)
  • Universal Fibers (2)
  • VOXFLOR (2)
  • Welspun Flooring Limited (2)

QUESTION: How informed is the industry on the importance of sustainability to their business? What is the maturity model for manufacturers to evolve to?

ANSWER: Many manufacturers start with some level of green PR or “greenwashing” to test the market. From there, they get pushed by investors or customers. I believe that customers are the best push for manufacturers, because they are who generate the revenue. Manufacturers typically move from green PR and marketing to capsule collections of green products (limited high-profile green attributes in limited high-profile products) and eventually land on an end-to-end approach. It is a process, and many building product manufacturers are still in the capsule phase, and even more of them are still in the green PR and marketing phase.

A maturity model exists, but the way a company moves through it depends on the driver. It is usually one of two external sources: customers, or investors. For private companies, the driver is typically customers. For a public company, it can be a mix of both. I have not seen any real sustainability action by the third driver, which is internal executive team ethos. These tend to serve as good talking points for the organization but are not very beneficial in terms of action or making a real difference.

QUESTION: Ecomedes works with building materials manufacturers on a regular basis. How often do you find a manufacturer having too little, misguided, or misplaced usable sustainability information about their company or products?

ANSWER: The average building product manufacturer struggles to get information from headquarters out to the field, even when the information is relatively simple. When it comes to complex sustainability data, the difficulty increases, and the communication becomes even more challenging. This is an area that needs addressed within the building materials industry.

QUESTION: How often do manufacturers have transparent products but important information about them does not reach the evaluators? Why doesn’t it?

ANSWER: If a customer cannot quickly and easily find the right sustainability information for a variety of different needs, it is almost like it does not exist. Manufacturers need to have the sustainability information about their products easily accessible on their website. In the digital era, buyers do not expect to dig for information. If they have to dig, it significantly lessens the chances of them specifying that product or manufacturer.

QUESTION: What’s next for sustainable building materials?

ANSWER: Our surroundings and the buildings that we inhabit have a significant impact on our daily lives. Therefore, it is important for consumers to demand, for manufacturers to make, and for the AEC community to specify with sustainability in mind.

I anticipate we will see greater adoption of green building materials thanks to programs such as LEED from USGBC being embraced across the country. It is also encouraging to see architecture firms that will not specify a product unless it meets a specific green standard. If we can get the entire AEC industry on board with this trend, we can accelerate the adoption of true sustainability in building materials.

BLD Marketing is a results-based, digitally-focused, full-service strategic marketing firm exclusively serving the commercial and residential building materials category.