Ekaterine Khetaguri

Greenwashing: Capitalist Market and Construction

2021 / Interior 05/10/2021

Ekaterine Khetaguri

2021 / Interior 05/10/2021

Talks about sustainability and calls for urgent actions towards changing ways of living emerged a few decades ago in response to concern about environmental degradation. In his book, The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, the author Norbert Wiener says: "We are the slaves of our technical improvement, […] we have modified our environment so radically that we must now modify ourselves in order to exist in the new environment."
An essay discusses and analyses concerns about sustainability and environmental problems in prefabricated architecture, design and construction, with a specific focus on greenwashing in this industry. The essay examines greenwashing in the broader context of existing business operations that create a production-consumption relationship that currently drives the market. Supported by ongoing discourse and criticism, the paper explores the links between the capitalist market and sustainability and analyses greenwashing as a misleading marketing tool with the help of the visual language of advertisement and technology. The final part of the paper is a closer examination of a case study exploring greenwashing from both: the capitalist market point of view and construction details that need to be considered as greenwashing that hinders transition to the circular economy.
The urgency of rethinking sustainability and reshaping existing business models are crucial and have been stipulated by some authors. The linear capitalist economy deviated from its initial idea of social purpose and aims to "make a profit at any cost.” There is a necessity to implement a new sustainable, circular economy, based on multidisciplinary collaborative work and "social and ethical values must be integrated into capitalist economies, thus restoring the sense of balance". At present, the Western capitalist market dictates its rules, and any attempt for change is highly challenging. There is no doubt that a critical point of capitalism is progress and growth to make a profit, but it also creates a specific image of society, a functional regime that acts as a mechanism for creating a political and economic frame of a "privileged" society. “…the American image abroad…was the communication of an idealised environment… upholstered and fitted out with all the gadgets available.” With no extreme opinions discussed in this paper, the degrowth theory shares similar principles stated above. It is not against growth itself but the system where growth is the only ultimate goal framed as prestige. Similarly, in Designing Meaningful and Lasting User Experiences, Jonathan Chapman describes consumerism, a "throwaway society", and a behavioural crisis as contributing factors to the environmental crisis. The author draws attention to modern consumerism as a self-satisfactory way of establishing one's social status: "Postmodern consumers…will never be satisfied… The notion that many products prosses symbolic features and that consumption of goods may depend more on their social meaning than their functional utility.”
What strategy can change existing business models for a smooth transition from a linear economy to a cradle-to-cradle economy?
“We will set up a new European Bauhaus – a co-creation space where architects, artists, students, engineers, designers work together… A new cultural project for Europe.” The call for the revolutionary (as the EC president meant by “new Bauhaus” together with its cultural significance and influence) change is an urge for immediate actions to set new business models for transition to the circular economy. This interdisciplinary initiative set to “facilitate a profound, collaborative, and multidisciplinary societal transformation” and to target environmental issues, specifically, the European Green Deal- a set of policies to make Europe carbon neutral by 2050. "The New European Bauhaus movement is intended to be a bridge between the world of science and technology and the world of art and culture… it is about a new European Green Deal aesthetic combining good design with sustainability." — President of the European Commission Ursula Von der Leyen. New projects and ideas have already emerged within the “new European Bauhaus” framework. Besides stimulating and improving already existing sustainable experiences, this initiative aims to discover, analyse and implement new ideas that will generate shared responsibilities and social / community inclusiveness and forms new collective memory. Encouraging existing experiences involves concepts described below.
Adaptive reuse of existing buildings- similar to the former factory renovation in Mlynica, Bratislava. The way designers approached this project was to highlight the quality of the original building, created a contrast between old and new. With minimal possible intervention, the building got a new life and was transformed into a modern mixed-use building. Another idea is Participatory Building “it’s about… build together- with people rather than for people- alternative ways of thinking of the built environment,” similar to the multidisciplinary project The Arch by ConstructionLab in Thor Park, Genk, Belgium, 2017. The project was about to explore new concepts and approaches to the construction, rather than the building methods.
New European Bauhaus is open to new ideas and projects. It is anticipated that the board will deliver a detailed research-based report on further strategy by 2023. Despite the spirit of the proposed strategies, scepticism around dramatic changes has already emerged. Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas stated: “I think there will be enormous pressure on things returning back to normal.” According to him, the immediate urgency is global warming, but “the whole idea of things changing drastically… is simply partly wishful thinking.”
How greenwashing fits into the context described above? The next part of the essay discusses why greenwashing occurs generally and how it works in the prefabricated construction industry.
Traditions are slowly changing and focused towards sustainability. New eco-friendly habits became socially acceptable and popular. For the market, it means to completely rethink and reshape well and long-established business models and develop new infrastructure to meet sustainability criteria. In this context, greenwashing occurred as dishonest, misleading “resistance,” which allows companies to run as usual with minimal changes towards sustainability. Covering up with the popular words “green”, “eco-friendly”, “sustainable”,” clean”- businesses are making a false claim to improve their image. How do they do that?
Advertising- is a powerful marketing tool that quickly reaches a large audience. Marketing teams use different methods of delivering information, including printed media, websites and social media. The visual and typographic languages used in the advertisements are carefully chosen and have an evocative effect. Analysing, for example, real estate marketing, the words used in the advertisement flyer: "green real estate", "natural". The visual presentation through imagery connecting to nature and colour palette- they all connotate with sustainability.
Technology – An abundance of high-rise buildings covered with trees and vegetations is proposed as a sustainable approach to modern architecture. These magnificent images introduce new concepts of future cities but almost all of them usually stay on presentation boards and never will be build. “The brightly coloured renderings appeal to intrigued investors as well as sales-oriented developers.” An experimental project Bosco Verticale- “vertical forest” was actually built in Italy by Boeri Studio, to examine and measure sustainability of the building. Analysing the "tree-towers" from a sustainability point of view proposes a different reality. Apart from the extra amount and weight from concrete and steel, the irrigation system is required to support vegetation. There is no follow-up information on how long these trees last and how safe they are in extreme weather conditions, such as high winds. Besides, heavy excavation needed to bring the trees undamaged from the land to the tower planters. Lastly, plants require regular maintenance. All these factors make "vertical forests" the active energy consumers, and eco-labelled architectural renderings differ from the actual facts. They are used as a persuasive marketing tool, and to some degree, are examples of greenwashing.
The final part of the essay focuses on greenwashing in the prefabricated construction industry. Off-site construction is considered as a sustainable alternative to traditional building methods. However, this design field also needs to rethink its approaches. Often companies claim that "their products are green simply because they are prefabricated” , which is not necessarily true. In this section, the paper will examine a case study 1 George’s Quay Plaza Dublin 2, Ireland, so-called “Pyramids”, by KMD Architects, completed in 2003, commercial use offices. The tallest building in this complex is 59 m. This is a large-scale project built by using prefabricated construction methods.
This building complex is a prominent example that exhibits how the capitalist market uses its marketing tools to make a profit and reveals greenwashing elements. The property is advertised on the market through JLL Ireland: Real Estate Advisor and Investment Group. Apart from spacious and well-designed interior office spaces, the information brochure accentuates extra facilities, a prime location, local amenities, good public transport links. Besides visual imagery, the brochure uses words like “iconic”, “stunning views”, highest standard…impressive office floors.” High-quality images, aerial views, diagrams and floor plans have an eye-catching and convincing effect. As a result, the “pyramids” together with two more adjacent office properties produce “€19 million annual rental income.” An average rent per sq. m in April 2018 was €592, with further increase up to €618 per sq. m in September 2018. The "pyramids" are stretched over 11 floors, and the overall floor size is approximately 13935.45 sq. m, which brings an annual rent income to a minimum of €8.25 million solely from this complex. This sum excludes charges for any extra facilities such as individual storage lockers, showers, and basement car parking (€3750 per space annually).
In order to understand the most apparent greenwashing details of this building, it would be appropriate to analyse the construction details first. The complex is constructed from prefabricated concrete slabs. The buildings' roofs- the "pyramids" are designed off-site from an architectural aluminium ARCAL 50 with glazing and used as a frame structure for the roofs. The large, open-plan, column-free office spaces suggest that the rest of the building is supported by long-span composite beams. Exterior façade- sealed off industrial glazing, using bolted glass and curtain wall systems. The building is provided with a four-pipe fan coil air conditioning system. The complex has a large basement car parking. The property is owned by Green REIT PLC. The company claims to transform all buildings they own into sustainable developments by 2022. The company set five goals to achieve its sustainability targets. All of these are formulated vaguely, with no specific actions indicated. Moreover, in the report about 1 George's Quay Plaza, the description provides only limited information about monitoring energy management, temperature, water supply and conditioning by a tracker device to control "the heating/cooling environment and additional potential savings in power consumption.” The report also unveils tendencies amongst office tenants in travel to work transport preferences and motivations behind it. The travel breakdown showed that 48% of employees travel to work by private cars just themselves in the vehicle and the reasons for it are convenience and comfort.
There is no evidence that Green REIT PLC claims the 1 George's Quay Plaza is sustainable. The information given in the report about the "pyramids" transformation is suggestive and allusive that works convincingly. The sustainability strategy plan gives information about changes and adjustments they made to the building. An attempt to reintroduce the complex as "now more sustainable" office development is a classic example of greenwashing. Only the fact that the complex is already built puts the 1 George's Quay Plaza in the position where it cannot be categorised as a sustainable building. The detailed analysis explains this statement better. The building has a full-length glazing façade, which causes on average six times more heat loss than an insulated wall. Together with sealed windows, which exclude natural ventilation, the building requires an advanced conditioning system that produces "60% higher… [carbon emission] than…offices with natural or mechanical ventilation.” Lastly, the large basement (car park) requires extensive excavations and land disturbance. Besides, the basements usually use large quantities of a special-mix “carbon-intensive concrete and should be designed out or minimised.” Considering all off-site work manufacturing, transportation, and material shipping, the carbon footprint produced from the construction of this complex brings the "pyramids" to a lesser degree sustainable. A thorough investigation demonstrated that 1 George’s Quay Plaza office complex is not sustainable, and any suggestions of transforming it into a more sustainable building are greenwashing and marketing tool which makes an enormous annual profit.
The essay examined sustainability problems and greenwashing in the prefabricated construction industry and the role of the capitalist market in shaping business models that seem to be reluctant to make any significant changes to their corporate principles towards sustainability, despite an immediate call for change. Profit maximisation is a primary driver for the existing market, and greenwashing is a method for creating a false positive reputation. The paper explored the compelling ways of using greenwashing for marketing purposes. The "green" architectural projects' analysis highlighted that most eco-friendly claims have no scientific proof. As Chris Playle, director of WSP, formulated, "the battle to look green is being fought more vigorously than the battle to be green.” With the growing interest in sustainable approaches within the industry, manipulations will continue until the capitalist market transforms into "the co-creation of societal and economic profits.”

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