How transparency in the food industry has influenced construction

The mundane choices we make every day can have an impact on how we approach our work, sometimes in a monumental way. Our decisions are influenced by our daily interactions. Our ideologies and values shapeshift with our changing experiences and evolving perceptions. 

For instance, there has been an awakening around the relationship between our food, the environment, and our finite resources. We are asking what’s in our food, where it comes from, how it was treated, and how it got onto grocery store shelves and our doorsteps. 

We are demanding transparency from farmers, manufacturers, and distributors. We want to know how much waste and pollution the industry is generating. We want specifics around carbon emissions. We can thank leaders like Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Marion Nestle of Food Politics, and Danielle Nierenberg of Food Tank for calling attention to unsustainable practices and needed changes throughout the entire food supply chain. 

So what is the link between food and construction? 

It is only natural for this interest in transparency and appetite for greater education to permeate into other areas of life: our clothing, beauty products, furniture, building materials. We have seen architects and builders carry this awareness into their professional lives. Below, we walk through food industry revolutions that are being mirrored in the construction industry. 

A call to standardize transparency 

The more questions asked by every member of the supply chain, the closer we get to improved transparency for suppliers, consumers, and everyone in between. There needs to be a unified movement to establish a deep understanding of the environmental impact each product has throughout its entire lifecycle. Here is a deeper look at how transparency in food culture has seeped into architecture, design, and construction. 

Embracing circularity 

Historically, when choosing materials, architects and builders focused on: durability for a specific use case, cost, aesthetics, and energy efficiency (often from a cost perspective). Today, in addition to those elements, they are considering carbon emissions and materiality, asking: 

  • What exactly are materials made of? 
  • How were they made? 
  • Where did they come from and how did they get there? 
  • What impact are they having on our environment and the people who interact with them? 
  • What happens to them after they have served our purpose? 

Enter: the circular economy

In the broadest sense, the circular economy is an economic model aimed at eliminating waste and the continual use of resources. Circular systems employ reuse, sharing, repair, refurbishment, remanufacturing, and recycling to create a closed-loop system. They minimize the use of resource inputs and the creation of waste, pollution, and carbon emissions. 

Although organizations have been implementing circular systems for decades, some mainstream retailers have recently begun promoting these practices with companies like H&M, Eileen Fisher, and Patagonia leading the way. Some brands extend circularity beyond their production process into the building of their retail stores and offices. 

Defining the future state of materials

From a consumer perspective, the big focus of circularity in food has been composting: returning plant matter to the earth to regenerate soil and grow more food. 

Farmers have been embracing practices like permaculture, which is a closed-loop system and regenerative agriculture, which rebuilds soil organic matter and restores degraded soil biodiversity. In Nebraska, for example, farmers are exploring ways to reorient their farms to focus on rebuilding soil and sequestering carbon (Politico). 

Builders want their materials to last a lifetime, but more often than not, buildings are only used for 25-30 years. After that, they are bulldozed and the remaining pieces are sent to landfills, increasing the material’s carbon footprint. Manufacturers and builders need to be thinking about the future state of materials. 

bioMASON concrete masonry, for example, is a closed-loop system. The products are essentially stone composed of 85% aggregate and 15% calcium carbonate. After they’ve served their purpose for a particular project(s), they can be crushed up and reused. 

The transition process to revolutionary materials has been slow. In order for decision-makers to establish trust in these new materials, transparency is more important than ever. Here are a few ways industry leaders are helping builders and architects make informed decisions.   

Ingredient labels 

The FDA requires food labeling for most prepared foods such as bread, cereals, canned and frozen foods, snacks, desserts, drinks, etc. (They recently updated the nutritional label requirements for the first time in 20 years.) As consumers, we have become reliant on these labels when selecting our food, comparing ingredients and scanning for those we know are problematic. 

Now, we’re seeing a similar labeling system for construction materials outlining their ingredients and lifespan. bioMASON uses a Declare Label from the International Living Future Institute, which answers three questions: 

  1. Where does a product come from?
  2. What is it made of?
  3. Where does it go at the end of its life?

Here’s what our’s looks like: 

Clear, uniform labeling helps create new standards while increasing the trust of manufacturers and streamlining decision-making for designers. 

Sustainability standards 

Similar to the Declare Label, the International Environmental Product Declarations System (EPD®) presents transparent, verified, and comparable information about the lifecycle environmental impact of products. 

These systems help combat problematic marketing tactics like greenwashing, which is essentially fraudulent marketing. In food, labels like “organic” and “natural” mean something to the average consumer, as they are USDA-approved. Whereas, they have become meaningless to those who do extensive research on what products can claim these labels.

To illustrate greenwashing in food, meat products boasting the label “grass-fed” does not mean their products were grass-finished. Often, a cow is fed grass and hay until the age of slaughter. Then it is sent to a feed mill to be fattened up with grain before shipped to the slaughterhouse. That is why the label “grass-fed and finished” is far more honest. 

Greenwashing is also rampant among home cleaning products, beauty products, and beyond. And with this increased conscientiousness, we run the risk of seeing greenwashing practices appear in the construction materials industry as well. 

Consumers are waking up to greenwashing and other unethical practices, which is great news but can also lead to mistrust of manufacturers. A 2016 study from Label Insight found that consumers do not trust the way brands are currently providing product information with 75% of respondents saying they do not trust the accuracy of food labels.

We need systems that instill trust in decision-makers. The U.S. Green Building Council is another organization working to standardize practices of sustainable building and transparency with programs like the LEED rating system. There are also grassroots efforts representing the voices of manufacturers, builders, and architects, such as AIA’s Blueprint for Better campaign

There is a movement happening much like the one we saw in the food industry, but we need a stronger governmental push to standardize ethical practices and create a new normal for construction. 

Industry leaders will break the mold

The cement industry accounts for approximately 8% of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to a Chatham House Report. Of course, cement is the key ingredient in concrete, the most widely used man-made material in existence. It is literally the foundation of our cities, and is only second to water as the most-consumed resource on the planet, BBC reported

Second to water. 

That BBC article explains, “If the cement industry were a country, it would be the third-largest [carbon] emitter in the world – behind China and the US. It contributes more CO2 than aviation fuel (2.5%) and is not far behind the global agriculture business (12%).” 

Most of us know that the pesticide industry is harming the environment, poisoning our food, and leaving farmers of all sizes at a disadvantage. Thanks to investigative journalism documentaries like 2008’s Food, Inc. It is mind-boggling that we have not seen a similar mass-awakening around the cement industry and carbon emissions. We think it is time. 

We need thoughtful leadership throughout the entire building supply chain. Traditional cement is produced by burning calcium carbonate to get the reaction needed to create the material. If production continues “the way it has always been done,” the only way to lessen the harm caused is to choose more sustainable fuel sources. Of course, these decisions are complex and often strongly linked to relationships. The Chatham House Report says: 

“The concentration of the global cement market means that a handful of major producers have particular agenda-setting power. They are well represented in industry associations that help outline technology roadmaps for the industry. These firms have the resources to interact with standards committees and other institutions that set guidelines; they are therefore in a good position to help create and maintain norms and regulations. This results in a kind of soft lock-in of the status quo, whereby technical knowledge is funnelled through institutions, political lobbies and major producers that set the course for the sector based on their interests. 

The flip side of this concentration is that innovations, when adopted by this handful of firms, can more quickly be deployed all along the supply chain. Similarly, radical action on sustainability by these players, if it does come, could make a considerable difference in a short time.”

With time, we’ll see more builders looking for innovative solutions. These key players will drive industry trends with a bend toward ethics, long-term thinking, and sustainable solutions. 

Getting everyone around the same table 

Politico told the story of how Chip Bowling—whose family has been farming near the Potomac River in Maryland for seven generations—hosted the June meeting on climate change on his family farm. The meeting saw wide representation from across the food supply chain and what felt like productive conversations taking place:

“Vilsack, the former Agriculture secretary, was especially pleased to see every corner of the supply chain in one place. It simply doesn’t happen very often. Getting food from farm-to-fork is an incredibly complex and massive logistical dance, where food manufacturers and the farmers who produce the ingredients largely operate in different worlds. Agricultural commodity leaders are not often at the same table as the foodies and environmentalists trying to change their farming practices, often from thousands of miles away.”

The article added that “corporate giants including McDonald’s and Walmart remain committed to meeting the goals of the Paris Climate accord even as the Trump administration formally withdraws from the pact. Nestlé, Mars, Unilever and Danone North America have broken from industry trade groups and formed their own alliance, in part so they can lobby Capitol Hill in support of climate policy.” 

Industry change takes unity. In construction, we are seeing builders collaborate with manufacturers to develop sustainable, revolutionary solutions to reduce carbon emissions and make greener design choices. 

Final thoughts 

It is a great thing that people are pausing with each bite of food to think about its potential impact. We hope we see increased consciousness move through the building world, leading to wider adoption of materials and practices designed with people and the planet in mind. 

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Written by Shannon Byrne