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Cleaning up the construction industry: a supplier’s perspective

Chris Harrop OBE, Group Sustainability Director for Marshalls plc, discusses his sustainability journey and some of the obstacles Marshalls faces as the construction industry scrambles to clean up its act.

We’re in the midst of a climate crisis and I’ve seen the evidence. In April 2017 I travelled to the North Pole to help me make sense of the statistics that I was reading and I saw for myself, vividly, the environmental degradation which is a result of climate change.  To truly understand the scale of the melting ice caps is indelibly etched into my memory.

That’s why I’m committed to making Marshalls the most sustainable business it possibly can be. We’ve been on this trajectory for nearly two decades and in that time we’ve made huge leaps to reduce our impact – for example, between 2008 and 2019 we reduced our carbon footprint by 50% - but we know we still have a long way to go. 

It feels as though the market is now starting to join us on this journey. This is great news; the construction sector is taking its responsibilities seriously which means that together, we have a real chance of making a meaningful difference to climate change.

However, as the industry races to catch up and gets its house in order, we’re coming across areas of confusion which threaten to undo the good work that we (and other responsible suppliers) have invested significant resource in.

First of all, transparent reporting. We have always taken the stance that we work with reputable, credible partners to measure our performance and then report the results clearly and openly; this way customers can make buying decisions based on defendable fact. However, we have recently seen examples of suppliers being less than candid in their reporting.

For example, “cradle to grave” product carbon footprints (the type we publish) measure ALL the emissions throughout a product’s lifecycle; “cradle to gate” calculations stop at the point the product is packaged. Both are legitimate footprint boundaries, but obviously “gate” numbers will be lower than “grave”, so unless the methodology is shared openly, it’s not always easy to compare apples for apples. Well-meaning specifiers risk making the wrong decisions due to either incorrect, disingenuous or, in some cases, deliberately misleading reporting.

We’re pushing for greater transparency and consistency of reporting across the industry, and we’re also asking customers to interrogate the data they’re given to ensure they’re making like-for-like comparisons.

Assuming the correct specification has been made in the first place, we also face a threat from contractors at the end of the chain. Recent CPA research suggests that over 80% of specified products are switched out for alternatives – usually to save money at the later stages of a project. The net result is that the carefully calculated carbon footprint of a scheme becomes meaningless as the replacement product may carry a higher carbon load than the more expensive product that was originally specified. Contractors need to be brought in to the specification process to understand that it’s now about more than performance, aesthetic and cost – it’s also about the sustainability performance of the product and the company who provided it.

This isn’t intended to sound like sour grapes. It’s great that the market is catching up, and it’s heartening to see so many responsible suppliers taking great strides to improve their impact and reporting honestly. What we’re keen to drive home is the point that the construction industry carries a huge responsibility to make a genuine, meaningful difference to climate change. This can’t be a box ticking exercise, nor should it be about short term commercial advantage – I’ve seen climate change in action and I can assure you that it’s far more important than that.

Marshalls are sponsors of CIRIA's Annual debate: Construction's race to net zero: fact or fiction? to be hosted on 9 June 2021.