How do you ensure you tell the truth about how sustainable your buildings are? Bennetts Associates director Peter Fisher shares how the practice came up with an anti-greenwash charter other architects can sign up to
What is your anti-greenwash charter?
It sets out what we will do, describing upfront and embodied carbon and how we talk about them.
Why did you call it ‘Tell the Truth’?
Extinction Rebellion emphasises how important it is to tell the truth. We can so easily delude ourselves that we’re taking action when we’re not.
How did it start?
Sustainability has become a catch-all. The genesis of the charter was us writing things down internally with the intention of being more consistent and more precise; moving on from the superlatives. It covers upfront carbon materials and energy, low carbon and net zero. It has now evolved into getting others to sign up.
When does this matter?
All the time, in your own website, in pitches, in marketing and press communications. Across the board.
What have you done to implement it?
The most specific change was reviewing our own website and PR text. More generally, it is instilling a culture of more substantiated writing and presentations. It’s okay to have headlines, but they must be followed by validation.
What is the biggest mistake in talking about sustainability?
Not having numbers. Data is key. One of the frustrations as an architect is when you get behind the big claims and there isn’t much there at all. It is particularly hard when you have seen something incredibly impressive, try to do the same but it is unachievable. You question yourself and your own ability, whereas, in truth, that hasn't actually been done elsewhere. David MacKay, in his book Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air, called for numbers, not adjectives.
Net zero carbon claims are one of our bugbears. We as an industry still have numerous definitions, so you have to define how you are defining it. The emerging Net Zero Carbon Building Standard will help here.
We can so easily delude ourselves that we’re taking action when we’re not
Explaining definitions etc is not punchy. How can practices craft a quick message?
We have to become more circumspect in our claims, and more moderated and substantiated. Use metrics, give examples against a target from LETI or RIBA 2030 Challenge; when you say ‘against an average build’ you need to be transparent about what you are comparing with.
Bennetts’ projects have been called sustainable for years. Is it fair to ask others to stop giving that title to projects?
It's certainly not an attempt to pull the drawbridge up behind us. It is about understanding what is realistic. Releasing genuine figures makes them more attainable. It makes those goals touchable rather than completely out of reach.
What is the point of putting in numbers that may be ignored by the local paper or the Sunday Times?
It gives journalists and whoever you are talking to something to hang their hat on, to cross reference. We’re doing as much as we can to not be party to greenwashing.
The RIBA Journal was approached by ING Media public relations company to run this article. When we asked whether ING had signed up to Bennetts' charter, spokesperson Josh Fenton said: ‘The need for evidence-led communications on sustainability is clear as the built environment moves from words to action when it comes to fulfilling its ESG obligations. We have begun conversations internally about the guidance of the charter and the implications for our clients across the built environment, from architects and engineers to developers, investors and cities.’
To see read or sign up to Bennetts Tell The Truth charter, visit bennettsassociates.com