Can sustainability and economic viability truly coexist? Tata Steel's green journey proves it can.
It's amazing how much power we wield as consumers. In the past, we've banded together to ensure that products that caused damage to the ozone layer found themselves out of business. More recently, our refusal to use cosmetics tested on animals turned the tide on dangerous chemicals being used in cosmetics in the first place. And of course, no one buys blood diamonds anymore.
When we as consumers change our preferences, en masse, businesses must adapt to survive. The greatest global challenge ever to confront us is climate change; and we are already using our consumer power to cow the automobile industry to accept increasingly challenging emission targets, but that's not enough. Everything we consume has a carbon footprint: either through the way it is produced, or through what it is made from. The trouble though, is finding enough reliable information to make the right buying decisions.
The good news is, The bad news is, we have ecolabels. Ecolabelling is voluntary and there are several ecolabels that exist today across a variety of product types. Unfortunately, there is no single international (or even national) standard for these ecolabels; and as is with anything "trendy", fake ecolabels abound. This problem is compounded by the huge marketing spends available to larger companies, who are riding the eco-friendly trend all the way to the bank. Sponsored research, lobbying, and fake news together create a nexus that serves to confuse and misinform consumers, keeping the biggest polluters in business while making it harder for conscious businesses to compete in the marketplace.
What is needed today, is a standard. One that unequivocally vouches for the product's sustainability across its lifecycle: material sourcing, production processes, distribution, use and disposal. A start has been made by the Indian Green Building Council, which was formed by the CII (Confederation of Indian Industry) with the express purpose to "enable a sustainable built environment for all and facilitate India to be one of the global leaders in the sustainable built environment by 2025".
The IGBC covers housing, commercial and industrial spaces, public facilities and infrastructure. Utilising the skills and experience of a cross-section of stakeholders consisting of architects, developers, product manufacturers, corporate, Government, academia and nodal agencies they are developing several models for sustainable building. And, they are setting the national standard for what is considered sustainable. Buildings are certified as Silver, Gold and Platinum on meeting strict criteria under their Green Building program. The best part is, that the evaluation doesn't just consider building practices, but the materials used too. All materials used in construction have to compliances to meet, and to take this even forward, the IGBC introduced the GreenPro Certification.
The GreenPro Certification is the first of its kind in India. Its lifecycle approach to certification ensures that there is no wiggle room for wastefulness. It weeds out any unsustainable processes, reducing wastes meant for landfills or incineration. In order to be certified, each product is reviewed for its product design and performance during use on various parameters, durability being the chief among them. Raw materials must be sourced responsibly, and those that use renewable resources score highly here. The manufacturing process needs to have high efficiency - extracting the most out of the materials and inputs (including power and fuel) used. The waste and by-products must be minimised and disposed of in a sustainable manner, and the product itself should be recyclable.
Obtaining the GreenPro Certification isn't meant to be easy. With an objective as lofty as global leadership in sustainability, the certification isn't meant to be just a declaration of compliance to a standard, but an award for true transformation. It forces businesses to think differently - to stop looking at sustainability as an "ideal", and to treat it as business as usual. Even once that shift occurs, it takes a lot of consistent action and quality control to translate that vision into a sustainable and economically viable process and product. Few make the cut.
Which is why it becomes so seductive. Bragging rights aside, a GreenPro certification confers real value to the business by opening up a market of conscious consumers at individual and enterprise scale: markets that are exclusive. This is clearly evidenced by the successes of the early adopters. The framework is already set. Those who want to certify their buildings as Green Buildings, have an easier time when they opt for materials that are GreenPro certified. Win-Win!
Tata Steel is the first steel manufacturer in India to have steel products that are GreenPro certified. The first product to do so was Ground Granulated Blast Furnace Slag, which is a sustainable replacement for Ordinary Portland Cement. Soon after, three more products - Tata Pravesh, Tata Structura and Tata Pipes have been certified, with several other products in the running to be certified in the coming years. Using the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) across their product lines and lines of business, Tata Steel have not only achieved GreenPro certification for various products, but have also brought about significant efficiencies by identifying hotspots for action. While they are already considered leaders in sustainable processes, as evidenced by several industry rewards and recognitions, they are actively leveraging LCA to bring about greater efficiencies. New product lines are put through the same rigour as age old ones, ensuring that the vision is maintained.
One of the reasons that Tata Steel was able to achieve this certification so quickly, is because the groundwork was already in place. The company has already been focused on sustainability for decades and its eco-vision policy spans biodiversity, climate change, energy, environment and sustainability. It's conservation efforts at the Naomundi, Joda, Sukinda and Jharia mines is well documented, as is its exemplary record with water and waste management at all its steel plants. While Tata Aggreto and Tata Nirman come from by-products of steel making, that once languished in landfills.
Tata Steel is now setting its sights on Environmental Product Declarations (EPD) for its entire product line. This will bring in even greater transparency in the environmental impacts coming from what goes into the making of their products; as well as the expected performance of these products during use. By being one of the first to do so, it hopes to foster an environment of greater transparency, innovation and transformation.
This approach to LCA, GreenPro and EPD as drivers to identifying hotspots for improvement is highly replicable across industries. For Steel, the model already exists; for others, the methodology is sure to bring about a burst of innovation in the coming yearsâ€¦ bringing us ever closer to an ideal scenario where industry and the environment can exist in a perfect balance.
As consumers, we can expect similar standardisation in fields other than construction and building to take shape. It's likely that in the next few years, a trusted ecolabel standard will emerge, making it as easy to buy a sustainable product, as it is to buy a 5-star energy rated device today! In the meantime, we owe it to ourselves to do our homework about the products and services we consume. Let's be critical readers and careful consumers of the information available. Our choices have a bigger impact than we can imagine.