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A (very) basic guide to ethical specification


Looking at the construction sector today it’s pretty clear that there are two types of ethical pressure; it either comes from the client who, for whatever reason – and there are many – wants to ensure that their project(s) confirm with acknowledged ethical criteria; or it comes from below, from the specifiers’ desks who, for whatever reason – and there are many – wants to encourage ethical behaviour within the sector by demonstrating that ethical specification is possible in an economically harsh commercial world.

Sitting between these two market pressures is the manufacturing community, that has its own decisions to make. Let’s take an over-simplistic view on these three arenas of influence:

The Client: will be looking at the bigger picture. It’s not about thousands of individual components within a building, its about the delivery of an ethically holistic project (that is built from appropriate individual components)

The Specifier: is responsible for ensuring that the components listing does amount to an ethical specification, but it unlikely to have the physical/financial resources to make an ethical assessment all of the products that make up a specification

The Manufacturer: whether its an upwards or downwards pressure, the manufacturer needs to deliver the actual product, whatever that may mean.

A definition at this point: what do we mean by ‘ethical’?

Ethical behaviour in business’ covered just about everything and it is usually condensed into a phrase like ‘applying standards for morally right and wrong conduct’, which doesn’t really help because very few of us actually set out to be crooks – regardless of how it may end!

The ‘ethics’ that we’re discussing here relates to the idea that a company should play a positive role in the community and consider the environment and social impact of business decisions. Its often known as Corporate Social Responsibility (CRS) though, more recently, it’s become distilled into a set of standards that measure a business’ impact on the Environment; on Society; and on its internal Governance practices. Its known generally as ESG and it’s been embraced by the investment sector as a way of reinforcing the likely success of ensuring a decent return on capital investment – the principle being that an ESG-based specification will deliver a more robust project that is less likely to fall apart within a few years of the building being completed.

An ethical lighting specification begins and ends with the specification. The burden falls on the manufacturer to deliver the goods. That sounds a very onerous position to be facing, but its worth re-reading that paragraph above: ESG as a principle is being taken seriously because it’s the more profitable route to take. We all know the ‘buy cheap – buy twice’ trope and we bang away at Value Engineers for not getting with the programme. Here’ at last, we have a top-down demand for robust and resilient equipment. It WILL cost more – it will last longer. Go figure . . .

Routes to ethical reporting

So how does the specifier find out about a manufacturer’s ethical activity? There are two basic approaches that a manufacturer can take, though both will require independent certification. There is no way to avoid an external assessment; it’s the only way to protect the ethical sector from blatant – or not so blatant – greenwashing.


The first route is to have individual products certified as meeting ethical criteria. A handful of lighting companies in the UK and Europe have taken this route and it certainly provides the specifier with the confidence to specify those products 

This is an assessment process that works hand-in-glove with EPDs and LCAs and often forms the basis for a specification brief; no EPD – no invitation to tender.

If there is a problem it comes from ‘those products’ mentioned above; certification can only apply to specific products (or closely related product ranges) and it cannot be shared across the rest of a manufacturer’s product range. Nothing can be assumed about anything else in the catalogue. That leaves the manufacturer in the unenviable position of potentially being barred from other areas of a tender bid, or making a huge financial investment to develop ethical certification across the entire range of product.

Assessing company activity

The second route puts the emphasis firmly on overall business practice and relates much more closely with the ESG standards that a client body may be following. When it’s the entire company that’s being accredited, product development and production activity will fall within those assessments.

One of the companies offering this type of oversight is B Corporation (other companies . . etc). B Corp does not have a modest view of their aims and ambitions, simply seeing their work as transformational for the global economy, benefitting all people, communities and the planet. B Corp wants to bring all business sectors together within a virtuous circle of engagement; we are all stakeholders in this view of the world. And if everyone is a B Corp accredited company (or everyone practices B Corp-style ethics) then we can build a better world. It’s a great ambition, and one that – in the meantime – provides advantages at the immediate and local level of helping specifiers to recognise those manufacturers adhering to ethical principles.

The guiding principle here is that a truly ‘green’ company can only make ‘green’ products.

Mind you, this is an absolutist position that doesn’t make a lot of sense in the real world, chiefly because there is no such thing as a 100% ‘green’ company. (its reckoned that the use, transmission and storage of 1GB of data produces much the same as the combined carbon output of Finland and Sweden combined). Its just one more of those things we prefer to ignore). And as Ray Anderson of Interface said at the beginning of his company’s journey towards a sustainable future “Only one thing was really clear: this was a mountain to climb, a mountain much taller than Everest and infinitely more difficult”.

It means that, in real world terms, we have to accept the opposite of that previous statement: ‘brown’ companies can – and frequently do – make green products; it all depends on the scope of the accreditation and the range of the metrics.

We are all where we are, roaming around in the foothills of Mount Sustainability, looking for an accessible pathway to take us higher and closer to the summit (which is probably just getting further away!)
Many, many, years before Ray Anderson, Voltaire wrote “le mieux est l’ennemi du bien” – ‘the best is the enemy of the good’. What’s being said is that the journey starts from where we find ourselves today, in a state of imperfection. If we can improve our condition with each step we take then we move towards perfection, even if never actually get there. I’ll take that.

RIBA CPD in 2015

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