What Makes a Building Material Sustainable?

Rose Morrison
on June 7, 2022
Green building model with two trees behind

Government officials are targeting climate change by establishing sustainability regulations. The construction sector produces significant quantities of pollution. In answer, countries are regulating building pollution to preserve the global ecosystem.

Construction professionals release emissions and toxic waste into the environment by sourcing unsustainable building materials. Mislabeling and marketing deceptions cause builders to release pollutants unknowingly. Identifying greenwashing and searching for sustainable products can help construction teams shrink their carbon footprints.


The Effects of Greenwashing

Manufacturers are using greenwashing to increase product sales from eco-conscious consumers. As a result, over one-third of consumers around the world will pay more for environmentally friendly goods and services. Companies are capitalizing on the green movement by mislabeling their products as “sustainable.”

Greenwashing is the practice of delivering misleading information about sustainability. For example, companies may label their products as “eco-friendly” or “natural” without scientific backing. Marketing deception directly threatens sustainability in the construction industry.

Some of the most prolific carbon-emitting companies are rebranding their products to represent sustainability. Big oil and gas companies distribute natural gas, an environmentally degrading fossil fuel. Material manufacturers use similar mislabeling to improve sales.

Builders can improve eco-consciousness by researching construction materials before making purchases. Investing in low-impact products can significantly shrink a construction company’s carbon footprint. Individuals may choose sustainable materials by assessing their certifications.

greenwashing: paper leaf next to plastic waste with text underneath


Sustainable Material Certifications

Environmental organizations are regulating products’ ecological impacts using pollution measurement practices. One sustainability certification ensuring products’ eco-friendliness comes from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The FSC calculates materials’ forest management impacts.

Environmentalists conduct lifecycle assessments before providing products with FSC certifications. Another sustainable certification comes from Energy Star. Energy Star evaluates the efficiency of materials and appliances throughout their lifetime.

Products must be at least 10% more energy efficient to receive an Energy Star label. Builders can use sustainable goods to improve a building’s overall sustainability. They may also utilize recycled and recyclable materials to minimize ecological impacts.


Recycled and Recyclable Materials

Manufacturers are improving conservation efforts by transforming waste into building materials. Recycling old materials can save nearly 1.1 quadrillion British thermal units (BTUs) of energy. That is over 300 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) or the equivalent of energy consumed by 10 million U.S. households annually. On the other hand, producing new products with fossil fuels causes the enhanced greenhouse effect.

Some manufacturers are also creating materials with recyclable components to minimize post-consumer waste. Reducing municipal solid waste (MSW) can significantly improve environmental sustainability. Landfills release toxic contaminants into the environment as they expand.

When it rains, stormwater carries the toxins into the ocean and degrades aquatic ecosystems. Builders can prevent ecological degradation by investing in recycled goods, like used cellulose insulation. Manufacturers are producing sustainable insulation from old newspapers to reduce MSW.

They treat the material with borate to decrease its flammability. Borate also makes the cellulose pest- and mold-resistant. Recycled building materials can also shrink a structure’s carbon footprint.

Cellulose insulation material held in hand

Credit: ecoinsulation.ca, Why use Cellulose Insulation


The Carbon Footprints of Materials

Sustainable building materials produce minimal carbon emissions. Some manufacturers use renewable energy to power material production processes. Using low-impact materials to build homes and commercial structures significantly improves individuals’ health.

Greenhouse gas emissions and toxic building materials create unsafe work environments for builders. Inhaling contaminants can place individuals at risk for adverse respiratory conditions. Reusing materials instead of demolishing a building also protects builders’ health and well-being.

Demolition practices produce significant amounts of pollution. They also expose workers to dangerous material waste. Instead, construction professionals can shrink their carbon footprints and protect their health and safety by using low-impact building materials.

Bulldozer crushing the building at construction site


Challenging Planned Obsolescence

Building materials have higher sustainability levels if they challenge planned obsolescence. Modern manufacturers are producing materials to degrade over time. Planned obsolescence requires consumers to keep purchasing more goods, which increases a company’s sales.

In 1920, lightbulb manufacturers limited their products’ longevity. The business model increased sales and MSW. Eco-conscious manufacturers are reducing landfill pollution by building products that last.

Builders can place light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs in their structures to minimize pollution. The bulbs last about 25 times longer than traditional incandescent lights. They also use nearly 75% less electricity, which shrinks their carbon footprints.

Construction professionals should assess the longevity of building materials before making an investment. Builders can access various environmental and economic benefits when using sustainable building materials.


The Benefits of Sustainable Building Materials

Individuals can support the circular economy when using recycled or recyclable building materials. The circular economy is more sustainable because it reduces surface-level pollution. Using recycled goods creates a restorative and regenerative production model.

Another benefit of sustainable building materials is natural resource conservation. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and resource exploitation can preserve the global ecosystem. Likewise, reducing climate change effects protects biodiversity and humanity’s well-being.

Builders can also save money by using sustainable building materials. When manufacturers use solar to power their facilities, they minimize utility costs. Solar is currently the most cost-effective energy source on the market.

Construction professionals may also access financial benefits by meeting eco-consumers’ demands. Companies using sustainable materials attract more green customers than their competitors. They can also stay ahead of sustainability laws and regulations by making eco-conscious strides today.

Sustainable housing on Portland in Dorset England


The Future of Green Construction

Many countries are creating sustainable building regulations to prevent environmental degradation. The U.S. uses the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system to measure structures’ sustainability. Government officials may fine construction professionals and building owners with low LEED ratings.

Environmental construction regulations may become stricter in the future. However, builders can avoid future fines by using sustainable building materials and shrinking their carbon footprints before more aggressive regulations begin to take effect.

LEED certifications

Credit: langschwander.com, LEED Certification; The benefit for builders, designers & the environment


Rose Morrsion, Managing Editor of Renovated.com

“I aspire for readers to reflect more deeply on materials, their vitality, and how they endlessly shape our world and future.”

*This article is the work of the guest author shown above. The guest author is solely responsible for the accuracy and the legality of their content. The content of the article and the views expressed therein are solely those of this author and do not reflect the views of Matmatch or of any present or past employers, academic institutions, professional societies, or organizations the author is currently or was previously affiliated with.

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