We need a business renaissance to address climate change

Bronze doors of the Florence Baptistery by Lorenzo Ghiberto
Michelango called these doors to the Florence Baptistery the "Gates of Paradise." What does a Renaissance mean for business today?

Renaissance. The word evokes an era of unprecedented enlightenment. A turning point of invention, fresh thinking and possibility. It’s happened in business before and is happening again, as the world’s businesses are rapidly aligning to a new set of rules that will render our old operating habits obsolete.

The quickening reality of climate change is re-writing the rules of prosperity. And with new rules come new challenges. Climate change is, at once, both the greatest challenge and the greatest opportunity of our time. For those with the insight to motivation to meet the escalating needs of our changing society, the rewards will be great. 

This optimistic perspective of reinvention and progress drove Andersen Corporation to sign the Ceres Climate Declaration, becoming only the second of two major building products companies to do so.

Created in 2013, the declaration seeks to accelerate the adoption of sustainable business practices to build a healthy global economy. It is based on the belief that vast gains can be made when businesses work together to do the right thing. Signatories of the declaration value this collaborative commitment as a powerful force of change in the face of our deeply entrenched energy challenges.

Today, the business of most building product suppliers is largely driven by energy efficiency and cost. Low-cost products that help customers reduce their energy consumption can yield a clear return on investment over traditional, less efficient technology.

The good news is this traditional formula for reducing total energy costs also yields reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. However, such cost-driven decisions are often touted as “green,” even though this factor may have played only an ancillary role in the purchasing choice. 

Being truly green will require more deliberate action on the part of both manufacturers and customers in the future. The bottom line is the building products industry needs to do more in order to fully play our part in addressing climate change.

There may be no other sector of our economy better poised to positively impact our future climate than the building industry. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, residential and commercial buildings were responsible for 40 percent of U.S. energy consumption in 2013 — a figure that does not include the energy impacts associated with manufacturing, transporting or disposing of building products. The collective impact of buildings on global climate change is staggering, from the perspective of both current emissions and our ability to affect positive future change.

This is not new information for our industry  nor is the concept of collectively addressing a complex challenge.  Consider the genesis of the U.S. Green Building Council, where amazing progress has been made thanks to multiple stakeholders joining together in solving complex challenges with a systems approach. As of October, more than 3.3 billion square feet of building space was certified under the LEED green building rating system. This achievement was realized because leading businesses came together to drive change with measurable results.

Now its time for manufacturers of building products to step up their efforts to address climate change in two important ways. 

First, product innovation needs to move beyond short-term energy efficiency claims to also embrace durability and extended service life. Customers can be misled by energy efficient products that don’t stand the test of time. Consider that low durability products must be remade again and again to fill the same need over time, increasing overall energy and resource demand on the planet. The math is simple: the fewer times a product must be produced over a 100-year time period, the lower the associated consumption of planetary resources or “natural capital.”

Second, energy-efficient product suppliers need to walk the talk. We have to follow our own advice and set measurable goals to reduce our own carbon footprints. A set of basic operational goals for energy, water and waste reduction is the ante to play in this space. But even these basics have not been publicly declared by most players in the industry.

Innovation and differentiation always have been the key drivers of market share growth in our economy. In times of great change these dynamics are amplified, with winners and losers being quickly decided. Over the next decade, those who keep pace with the rapidly changing needs of our society will find that corporate action on climate change is synonymous with continued prosperity.

For the building products industry, maximizing our collective positive impact means acting as a group. A movement is required, and the Ceres Climate Declaration the ideal vehicle to catalyze just that.

The time is now for more building products companies to embrace this renaissance and forge a legacy of planetary stewardship for all.