When we catch somebody trying to be something they’re not, we tend to be unkind about it. Consider the derogatory term “mutton dressed as lamb”, for example. We see failed attempts to deceive as foolish – and the same is true for a company that’s trying to convince you of its ‘green’ credentials with a thin veneer of corporate social responsibility, beneath which lie a set of operations that have remained largely unchanged for decades.
We’ll come to ‘greenwashing’ in a future article… but for now, let’s talk about architecture. A common attempt at subterfuge comes when a company tries to address its ‘green’ credentials via a retrofit to its buildings. Never mind the hundreds of tonnes of steel and cement that went into the construction of your new office building; hang a few solar panels on it and you’ve “done your bit”. Never mind the polybrominated biphenyls, hexavalent chromium and mercury that your manufacturing division is belching out every day… fit low-flow taps in the restrooms, and you’ve got a ‘green’ success story for your web page. This is the green wig.
Sustainability isn’t something that you retrofit in a one-off ‘fix’; it needs to be built into the DNA of the business. Otherwise it’s like putting flared wheel arches on your Ford Fiesta and pretending that this gives it racing credentials: it’s a “pig in lipstick” – and deserves the derision of those who know better. That’s not to say that ‘green’ retrofitting is pointless: it’s encouraging to see a company investing in photovoltaic cells, for example. It’s a good example of sustainability meeting all the requirements of the triple bottom line: the cells feed energy into the grid, thereby reducing the carbon emitted generally in power generation, it doesn’t take up any additional land (the building was already there, casting a shadow, so the sunlight used is ‘free’) and of course it saves the company money in the long-term. That’s great… but if designing a new building one shouldn’t automatically turn to a bolt-on solution such as a bank of photovoltaic cells; this is just one option among a tremendous range of ways to save energy. With good architecture, buildings can be made to stay cool with far less reliance on air conditioning, or to stay warm with less heat input. ‘Green’ buildings can also be constructed from low-carbon or reclaimed materials, or have a longer design life, and there are additional options associated with water catchment and treatment, etc.
The presence of solar panels might not be a sincere attempt to contribute to sustainability at all; it might just be an attempt to clear up the corporate image. I’ve seen solar panels positioned where they can be seen most readily by passing traffic, rather than where they can catch the most sunlight. I also know a large UK manufacturer whose site features one small vertical-axis wind turbine (the simplest, least efficient type) that’s positioned by the main gate, rather than on the hilltop where the wind would be strongest. These are shamelessly applied green wigs. In another manifestation of the green wig, many executives think they can address the issue of sustainability by dashing off a quick paragraph on ‘green stuff’ at the end of an article or press release. If you look back at my recent article, “Whatever happened to MFI?” and read the piece in Logistics Manager you will find a classic example, reproduced here:
“The warehouse has a number of features to improve environmental performance including grey water management while the lighting uses a combination of daylight control and proximity sensing. The principle adopted was to use as much natural daylight where possible and supplement that natural light with artificial light from the light fittings where needed. The design within the marshalling area is such that fittings are grouped together in threes and turn off in three stages.”
The grammatical error is just a bonus, but even if it had been a beautifully executed example, you’re left with the feeling that you’re watching the misdirection of a stage magician: look at this… don’t look over there. The green wig, when applied to a press release often involves excruciating detail about some minor technical feature, or hype about an irrelevant statistic such as how much paper was recycled in their offices last year. It normally comes right at the end of the text, in an attempt to finish on an ecological high note. There’s nothing actually wrong with any of these small steps towards sustainability, if sustainability is the intent. Saving a few kilowatt hours here or a few hundred litres of water there is better than nothing… but that doesn’t mean that you, as the reader, have to overlook all the waste or pollution that might be found elsewhere within the value chain.