Future Watch – James Parker speaks with Alan Yates of BRE Global

When it comes to specifying responsibly sourced construction materials and products, how much do you really know about the scope, rigour and consistency that lies behind the labels on products that more and more clients demand? What’s more do you really know what the label means? With the focus on responsible sourcing expanding to include a broader emphasis on social conditions throughout the supply chain, such concerns are now increasingly key issues for architects globally.

Construction materials often have complex supply chains covering a diverse range of geographical, political and economic variations. These often include parts of the world with high levels of enforced labour and other forms of exploitative labour practice. Of the 35.5 million people worldwide who are thought to be living in slavery, 70 per cent are found in regions which include major suppliers of basic and processed construction materials to the UK.  The Modern Slavery Act which came into force last October has increased the emphasis on ensuring that such practices are not part of your supply chain.

The international nature and fragmentation  of many materials supply sectors has meant that there is some inevitable inertia preventing them from robustly understanding the impacts and addressing them. Responsible sourcing schemes range from the BRE’s own generic BES6001 scheme to other sector-specific ones such as FSC, PEFC and others for timber, and CARES and EcoReinforcement for steel reinforcement products.

Each of these schemes have their own strengths and weaknesses partially resulting from the difficulties of the sectors that they deal with and partially a result of their relative

immaturity.  In carrying out its review for BREEAM, BRE is working with key responsible sourcing certification schemes (RSCSs) to identify these strengths and weaknesses and then to work to increase their rigour over time, so stimulating a shift in industry perceptions from the sometimes-seen view of responsible sourcing as a ‘nice thing to do’ to engagement with a transparent, fully scrutinised process.

Architect and technical director at BRE Global’s sustainability group Alan Yates comments:

“It’s about encouraging scheme operators and the sectors they serve to get on board and improve and innovate in a way that is appropriate to their sector.”

Over its 25 years, BREEAM has always included credits for responsible sourcing. As part of its continued support of the key schemes currently in operation, the ratings body has scrutinised how well they have maintained their processes and kept up to speed with best practice.  The principal purpose of this work is to amend the scoring process for responsible sourcing to take account of the differences between schemes and enable BRE to recognise future enhancements in this area.

BRE is about to publish a revised version of its BREEAM Guidance Note (GN18) with amended points scores for each scheme and a summary review of the six key RSCSs that it currently recognises in BREEAM – BES6001 for all materials and components, plus FSC, PEFC and SFI for timber and UK CARES SCS and EcoReinforcement for steel.  The ultimate aim of the review is to ensure that the schemes recognised by BREEAM continue to be managed robustly and along the way offering specifiers greater transparency and confidence in the process.

This will also, it is hoped, enable specifiers to in future have a better understanding of what now-familiar labels mean, and what they do not.  By bringing in a more sophisticated scoring process for responsible sourcing schemes within BREEAM comprising key criteria, BRE is aiming to underpin its credibility via a consistent, fair and balanced approach.

As detailed on the following page, this universal set of criteria will evaluate the schemes so that they can be better considered within the whole-building focus of BREEAM.

Alan Yates explains why BRE Global undertook the review:

“We looked at how best practice in standards setting has evolved and saw that BREEAM needed to enhance its approach to take account of the progress made in this important area. There was also the fact that many of these schemes have evolved over time and they want to be recognised and rewarded for their strengths.”

He admits concerns that specifiers “probably have a glossy view of what these responsible sourcing schemes actually mean and may read more assurance into them than the label can actually provide.” In a post-Modern Slavery Act context this is important for any UK business procuring construction

materials.  According to Yates, most FSC labelled construction timber on the market is likely to be covered by FSC’s ‘60 per cent certified’ label.  This means that up to 40 per cent may simply be legally harvested, benefitting little from the scheme’s robust forest management requirements. As such this does not provide the guarantee that many think it does about the sourcing of timber on a building.

Yates says that this is why it’s essential that the label is not automatically seen as a comprehensive guarantee of responsible sourcing. Whilst FSC does operate a 100 per cent certified label, this is rare in construction materials. The same limitations occur for all other schemes reviewed although, asserts Yates, the reasons for this are clear.

Sector-specific issues 

Yates confirms that since the emergence of the FSC labelling scheme in the 1990s, there has been an increasing interest in this issue and a growth in responsible sourcing schemes in the market. He says this has been characterised by an understandably variable approach to standard setting which can lead to significant differences when one material is being compared to another.  He adds that the relative immaturity of responsible sourcing and resultant ad hoc and sector-specific development of schemes has meant they are “at different stages along the journey” when it comes to their robustness.

Yates explains further: “Each of these schemes has set out its own objectives of how it is trying to help its customers whether it is the specifier or the person in the supply chain e.g. the steel mill. They all come at it in a slightly different angle and this influences their criteria for measuring success.

“Sector-specific schemes are fine when comparing apples with apples, but BREEAM has a need to look at responsible sourcing at a whole building,” says Yates. While most schemes are focused on the organisational level issues throughout the supply chain, he says that BREEAM’s focus is different, namely on whether “the material that arrives on site gets incorporated into the building, and delivers the impacts embedded within that material.”

He explains that the new process “isn’t intended to say that one scheme is better than another one, as each sector starts from a different place in terms of the risks and complexity of its supply chain. It’s simply that from the perspective of BREEAM in a building that scheme is more robust in ensuring that, for example, people have been paid decent wages in the supply chain.”

Key criteria in BREEAM

The BREEAM review which BRE has just carried out is the product of several months working with the respective scheme operators. Alan Yates is at pains to stress that its purpose is not to say what the level of responsible sourcing  in each case or dictate universal standards, but whether the processes being used by the RSCSs in setting their standards and operating their schemes are adopting best practice.

The review of schemes includes the following criteria in judging their robustness for scoring within BREEAM:

• how the RSCS bodies have engaged with stakeholders;

• the way the standards process works, and whether internationally recognised best practice has been followed;

• scope of the scheme – how many issues are covered; is it fully holistic (using the British Standard BS 8902:2009 as the framework for what those issues should be);

• the openness and transparency of the scheme.

These have been used to carry out a detailed review of each scheme, and the findings will be used to determine the contribution that materials covered by each scheme can make to a BREEAM assessment of a building or infrastructure project. Yates explains the importance of the transparency aspect of the criteria:

“If you’ve got an open and transparent system with representative stakeholders then people ask awkward questions, and you don’t get away with whitewashing anything.”

Yates says that this represents a “positive, constructive” endeavor in partnership with the scheme operators, and it has taken several iterations to get to the current review stage which will produce a new BREEAM Guidance Note used for all BREEAM assessments moving forward. While he says this is a “line in the sand,” schemes will continue to develop and new schemes will be launched for other materials sectors.  They will in due course be able to update BRE on any changes to their schemes and further Guidance Note revisions will take account of these changes.

For specifiers, the review should be an important step to clarify how robust the schemes really are and make clearer whether claims of responsible souring between different

material groups can be compared.  As well as further highlighting the importance of responsible sourcing, it will raise the level of understanding of this increasingly important issue amongst specifiers and constructors, by taking account of the varying processes and standards that lie behind the familiar labels, as a part of the BREEAM assessment process.