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Responsible sourcing in construction – an introduction

Derek Hughes, Certification Schemes Manager, BRE Global

You may have noticed of the last few years the term “responsible sourcing” cropping up in conversations at the office when it comes to procuring materials for the next project. Perhaps you’ve wondered, “What has it got to do with construction?”.

You might think that it’s all very well making sure your coffee comes from a well-managed plantation, where everyone is treated well and paid a reasonable wage. If that Fairtrade coffee is in an FSC certified paper cup, so much the better. And of course you don’t want to be feeding the family with horse meat that you thought was beef – but construction…?

Well yes… major contractors are increasingly aware that the source of building products, how they were manufactured and by who is becoming a key issue. It is now fairly common for contractors on large developments to require that, where possible, material and product suppliers demonstrate some form of responsible sourcing certification.

Indeed, the BREEAM assessment scheme, which is widely recognised as a badge of building sustainability, offers credits in its Materials category where responsible sourcing of construction products can be demonstrated for a number of years.

So why this concern with responsible sourcing in construction? Apart from feeling good about the way you operate, there are a number of important business risks and benefits involved – such as those outlines here.

Your reputation

Without being able to clearly identify the location and circumstances of manufacture, you could be buying products manufactured in sweatshops by child labourers in dangerous conditions. The recent disaster in a Bangladeshi clothing factory, where over 1,000 workers died, caused significant aftershocks in UK companies that had sourced their products from this facility.

In construction there are similar risks. For example, stone suppliers to the UK from India and China have been known to use child labour in extremely harsh and dangerous working environments. Having the news broadcast around the media that your prestigious city HQ building is manufactured from stone hewn out of quarries by 12 year olds, could cause serious reputational damage.

Transparency in your supply chain

The infamous case of horse meat being used in processed meat products for sale in several UK high street shops, dramatically illustrated the importance of traceable and verifiable supply chains. This applies equally in the construction industry. The question is, how can you be sure that products and their source materials are of the quality and source that are claimed for them?

The unacceptable ethics of some sources

There are some sources of materials and products that raise very serious ethical issues. A well known example is that of diamonds that find their way onto the market having been mined in highly undesirable circumstances during civil wars in some troubled African regions. Similarly coltan, a metallic ore used in the manufacture of electronic equipment such as mobile phones, is mined in parts of central Africa that are controlled by armed factions and organised crime. The profits from the sale of these materials to the less ethically minded manufacturers often go back to the countries of origin and maintain the existing states of conflict.

Demonstrating your ethical approach

Manufacturers are often keen to demonstrate that they embrace a wide range of ethical, sustainability and financial targets in their corporate governance strategy. Responsible sourcing, with its economic, sustainability and social focus, is an ideal vehicle for companies to demonstrate their aspirations and achievements in a wide range of different but related activities.

However, ensuring and demonstrating that your materials and products have been responsibly sourced is often easier said than done. In an increasingly complicated and global marketplace, product supply chains are becoming ever longer and more convoluted. Knowing where an item was manufactured and the circumstances of its manufacture is not always easy.

Third-party certification needed

So, there is a definite need for a means of demonstrating that the component materials and products in a manufacturing process have been sourced in a responsible manner. As self-certification would achieve little in this area, it is clear that a reputable third-party managed scheme is the best route.

The timber, paper and cardboard sectors have led the way in this area over the last 20 years, through the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and various Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) recognised schemes. The challenge has been to broaden this achievement to non-timber products used in the construction sector.

BES 6001

BRE recognised this need in the mid-2000s and since 2008 has been offering clients and independent third-party certification scheme – BES 6001 The Framework Standard for Responsible Sourcing.

The Standard offers clients a means of demonstrating responsible sourcing achievements over a broad and balanced scorecard of objectives:

  • Responsible sourcing policy
  • Legal compliance
  • Quality management system & operational management of responsible sourcing
  • Supplier management system
  • Material traceability through the supply chain
  • Environmental management in the supply chain
  • Health and safety management in the supply chain
  • Greenhouse gas emissions
  • Energy use
  • Resource use
  • Waste Prevention and Waste Management
  • Water abstraction
  • Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)
  • Ecotoxicity
  • Transport impacts
  • Employment and skills
  • Local communities
  • Business ethics

A wide range of construction sector manufacturers have taken advantage of this opportunity, with over 100 certificates having been issues so far. Many specifiers recognise the benefits of using suppliers who carry BES 6001 certification for their products. It offers them assurance regarding the sorts of issues noted above, significant product differentiation and can also deliver additional BREEAM credits.