Build business with sustainable architecture

My competitor is making some questionable claims about the environmental benefits of his building products. I think he’s doing it to capitalize on the “sustainable architecture” movement. How can I legitimately jump on this bandwagon?—B.T.W., CEO

 Sustainable architecture means building in ways that have minimal impact on the land, reducing the energy required to build and maintain buildings, conserving nonrenewable resources, and creating and maintaining buildings that do not have toxicity problems. The growing interest in this trend means building product manufacturers are facing new consumer attitudes, regulatory requirements, manufacturing considerations, and competitive challenges.

Finding the best response for your business can be difficult. There are few, if any, building products that do not have some adverse environmental impact. Also, most designers and builders have little experience with “environmentally correct” buildings, and there are few standards to guide them.

A few manufacturers have exploited this situation by “greenwashing” their products and making exaggerated or unfounded claims. To avoid this superficial response and maintain credibility, examine your business and products to identify their environmental strengths and weaknesses. Then develop your marketing strategy by answering the following questions:

What are your customers’ attitudes? Will they commit their own resources for the sake of environmental resources? It’s easy to accept a “green” product that has an established reputation and costs no more than competing products. But will specifiers and builders risk using a new or more expensive product strictly for its alleged environmental benefits?

What impact will new regulations have on your business? For example, limitations on volatile organic compounds continue to be tightened, and several jurisdictions require certain building materials to have a recycled content.

What is your competitive situation? Do your competitors have an environmental marketing advantage? If not, be sure that the benefits of being the first in your product category to offer a green product outweigh the costs of market development.

Is there an opportunity to reposition your business? Some roofing manufacturers, for example, now make liners for landfills.

How can you adapt your research and development? Look for new designs, sources of raw materials, and manufacturing processes that improve your environmental report card.

The current interest in sustainable architecture will inevitably subside as today’s environmental innovation becomes tomorrow’s industry standards. Until then, if you have environmentally correct products, you’ve got to tell it to the world.

Your marketing media

Besides helping sales, your ads, literature, and public relations should give customers the data they need to make informed product selections. Your marketing communications must be accurate and complete. If you claim an environmental benefit for your product, you must be ready to disclose and document far more information than you are used to, such as the types and sources of raw materials and manufacturing emissions. But you can use this information to your advantage by getting listed in directories of recycled and green products. Also, look into certification programs that provide credentials for environmentally improved products.

Your communications materials must reinforce your environmental statement. Use paper with recycled fiber and vegetable oil-based inks. Make sure your mailings and catalogs are recyclable. Challenge your graphic designers, printers, and magazine publishers to help you project a consistent image by being aware of the environmental impact of their services.

To reduce the volume of paper you distribute, print abbreviated catalogs. Offer a fax service so customers can request only the data they need. Consider using high-density computer disks and CD-ROMs. Put your materials in reusable binders with clear plastic sleeves that allow new title pages to be inserted.

Your sales effort

Your salespeople, of course, must be trained so they can answer questions about the environmental aspects of your company and products. But you should also consider ways to make their activities more environmentally conscious. Take advantage of technology to reduce their travel. Use overnight delivery services, fax machines, and modems to support your telemarketing. Another way to cut travel is to use sales agencies, which represent several manufacturers within a small territory.

Your plant

Take a look at your plant. Does it release toxic emissions? Have you optimized your energy utilization? Is your plant situated for efficient distribution? Some industries favor small, local plants instead of large national operations. In addition to reducing fuel consumption, local plants can be more responsive to regional needs.

Your product
The use of recycled materials to produce building products has caught the public imagination more strongly than perhaps any other aspect of sustainable architecture (Marketing Specs, July 1993, p. 8). Are you taking advantage of the reliable and economical supplies of used metal, glass, and plastic now available? Is your scrap put back into the production process or recycled appropriately? When virgin materials are needed to produce your product, are your supplier’s environmental practices part of your purchasing criteria?

Reduce your packaging by designing it to be incorporated into the completed construction, recycled, or returned for reuse. Some communities require job site debris to be sorted and recycled, and packaging that simplifies a contractor’s job will have a marketing advantage.

How else can you reduce job site waste? In many instances, prefabrication improves environmental performance. For example, factory-applied finishes can capture nearly all solvents and over-spray for reuse.

What about the performance of your product itself? Over a building’s life, more energy is consumed in operating it than in creating it, so product quality is a critical factor in sustainable architecture. How efficiently does your product operate? How easily can it be maintained? How long will it last? Can it be recycled when replacement is finally required? These are all issues that affect your product’s environmental standing.

Construction has typically been governed by expediency, first costs, and cash flow. The wild card in sustainable architecture is how far it will go towards fostering new values based on long-term building economy and performance. Will concrete pavement, for example, with a 50-year-plus life expectancy, take market share from less durable asphalt pavement?

If that happens, companies that have environmentally sound products and practices will, in the long run, be more competitive than those that don’t. As in any changing market, however, the short run is full of risks as well as benefits. The sustainable architecture movement seems remarkably free of individuals who do not appreciate the pragmatic concerns of business. Perhaps they realize that there is no value in sustainable architecture if it does not sustain your business as well.

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By Michael Chusid
Originally published in Construction Marketing Today, Copyright © 1994