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Building Materials Sustainability: “This Is The Time to Double Down”

This week’s episode was a global affair — not just because our guest lives halfway across the world, but because of the issue of climate change and the risks we all face today. We dig deep into the topic of sustainability and how manufacturers can guarantee a future for our planet: a topic that’s heavy on everyone’s mind.

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Photo of Beth PopNikolov
by Zach Williams and Beth PopNikolov

More About This Episode

The Smarter Building Materials Marketing podcast helps industry professionals find better ways to grow leads, sales and outperform the competition. It’s designed to give insight on how to create a results-driven digital marketing strategy for companies of any size.

Zach talks with Mahesh Ramanujam, the President and CEO at Global Network for Zero. Mahesh Ramanjam brings expertise and experience to the building industry, and we were thrilled to bring his voice to our discussion.

Leading the Building Industry on Green Energy

You might already recognize his name, because Mahesh was also President of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), one of the world’s leaders in net zero energy education and certification.

“Along with a ton of community members around the world, I was able to future-proof the internationally-recognized LEED rating system with a more rigorous and ambitious certification process,” Mahesh says. “One that included the overdue and necessary de-carbonation requirements for a net zero reality.”

Global Network for Zero was established in August 2022 with a similar mission, and even though it looks like a competitor to the USGBC, Mahesh was eager to use what he’d learned at USGBC in other ventures. And he explains that he “never believed in the concept of competition because the work that we need to do is so huge. It's such a big social undertaking. So we cannot see anybody as competitors, but we are to see only everybody as partners.”

In fact, Mahesh is known for his “partnership is a new leadership” mindset. And we’re big fans of building that kind of support, especially when it comes to reaching net zero goals in the building industry.

Getting to Net Zero

We asked Mahesh how he and the team at Global Network for Zero intend to tackle the hefty issue of climate change. And there’s a plan and serious team in place. “We convene a coalition of leaders dedicated to progressing society towards ESG compliance and ultimately a zero-emissions world,” he explains. That group has established a few initiatives to make sure that mission stays actionable.

“Our primary focus,” he says, “is to digitize climate action, by doing two things. One, either through developing cutting-edge, breakthrough, new technologies and solutions that will help to eliminate the market barriers to zero emissions — and also to help those who are on the ground tasked with implementing ESG and zero emission strategies.”

Mahesh and the Global Network for Zero team want to transform the industry from the ground up. “In short, we are focused on implementation on the ground, and we are going to drive it through digital transformation,” Mahesh explains.

It’s a massive undertaking, but that’s why their strategy includes a significant amount of education. “We also focus on education and connect all these implementers with existing best-in-class practices, technologies and solutions that allow them to eventually make measurable progress,” says Mahesh.

Mahesh has experience as a tech leader and investor, in both nonprofit and for-profit businesses, and he brings that experience to the building industry with a specific motivation: “My passion is on integration and interoperability of various systems because I believe that's the only way the sustainability sector can scale.”

“Perpetual innovation, perpetual continuous improvement, is the hallmark of LEED [and] is the hallmark of U.S. Green Building Council and its community,” explains Mahesh. “What I realized was, that potential, that opportunity needed to be extended to other industries.”

How to Make Sustainable Decisions as a Manufacturer

Sustainability is a hot topic in the building products industry, one we cover often on our show. “Most of the manufacturers are very clearly savvy to know sustainability is no longer a side act,” says Mahesh. “Everyone has got a clear roadmap within their own supply chain or value chain to really embrace sustainability, to make their materials more sustainable, healthy and resilient.”

The biggest challenge right now is what Mahesh calls an “ultra inflationary environment,” which has led to manufacturers making trade-offs in their business. “Manufacturers need to make a decision between doing the right thing and being able to survive because at the end of the day, the market is going to demand better pricing, cheaper, faster, smarter,” he explains.

He recognizes the challenges ahead of our industry and how hard it is to stay on track with the goals we might have set a year ago when there are labor and supply issues facing many employers today. But Mahesh says it’s not the time to make trade-offs on sustainability. “This is the time to double down. This is the time to really find creative ways to make this sustainable,” he says.

The Inflation Reduction Act recently passed in the United States, allowing consumers who cut their energy emissions to get rebates and rewards. “[A] ton of rebates, ton of money, ton of capital is going to flow, and I'm an optimist. I believe that in the next two-quarters money will turn around. Value will be appreciated and people who can deliver true value will survive,” says Mahesh.

Who’s Doing it Well: Net-Zero Manufacturers

We share Mahesh’s optimism because the manufacturers and brands we’ve met with have been working hard to establish better sustainability practices.

“I do believe those actors are really well ahead of the curve,” says Mahesh. We asked him for some examples and ideas for how companies can join other industry leaders in reaching net zero goals.

“You could look at Colgate Palmolive,” says Mahesh. “They're trying to push the agenda of really bringing net zero focus to their products by reducing plastic, by reducing water, by reducing the consumption, so that they can really consume less energy, less water, less materials, less resources, etc.” The company is considered a true net zero business and has paved the way for other brands to follow in their footsteps.

So what else can manufacturers do to work toward more environmentally-focused practices? Mahesh emphasizes that teams focus on compliance. “First and foremost, if I was a product manufacturer, I would ask my team, ‘Are you compliant with the LEED version 4.1? Are you compliant with the latest version of WELL? Are you really looking at the CTC version 4 that's out there? And how are we performing with it, or above it, or further than that?’”

The next step is telling a story to your customers. “Once you know that compliance has been achieved, then you're to articulate — very clearly — how you achieved it. What is the benefit to the consumer, or the occupant or the building owner?” he says.

“If you're able to clearly articulate the benefit of your product in the context of health and wellbeing of an individual, then naturally people are going to connect with your product better,” says Mahesh. Being able to connect with customers is one of our favorite topics, so Zach continued to ask Mahesh how manufacturers might approach storytelling and sustainability.

How to Tell Your Sustainability Story

“Going green” has been overused in marketing building products, as many manufacturers already aim for compliance with building codes and want to meet the growing demand for sustainable products.

For Mahesh, transparency is key, but we asked him where manufacturers can start when it comes to telling their own unique story about sustainable practices.

  • Stick with standards. “It has to be based on a standards framework. This is where they're to lean heavily on the standards and the certifications and the credentials that they've achieved,” he says. ”If you go around Greenbuild, most of the manufacturers would clearly show that they're compliant to a LEED version 4.1 MRC credit. That's an easy lift for everybody.”

  • Mahesh thinks we need to talk more about money. “The biggest market transformation opportunity of a building comes from the materials. The more you can clearly talk about, how much money did you save, how much price did you cut and, most importantly, what does it mean to the long-term implications in terms of the operational cost savings of that building, or a city, or a community, wherever you are, [the better].”

  • There are also a few organizations and programs he suggests manufacturers get involved with. “Greenbuild is our annual conference for sustainability. Go and get a booth there and scream at the top of your voice, and tell all the stories that you have because this is the story you're to tell, and that's where the story’s told.”

  • Manufacturers can also submit information to catalogs of sustainable materials. “At USGBC, I know there's this program called Better Materials so that we can give a centralized catalog of all materials used by products around the world,” says Mahesh. “Ecomedes has got a ton of materials that have been demonstrated to be compliant with many, many multiple standards.”

Want Even More Insight?

Building materials brands and manufacturers have a huge opportunity to stay ahead in the industry when they focus on sustainability.

Mahesh breaks this opportunity down further and what that means for manufacturers: “If they can integrate quality with the philosophy of zero — and really align and be precise about defining the business case, delivering the value prop, particularly in the context of the occupants of the building in this case — then I think you will be able to identify yourself as a differentiated manufacturer and be able to sell your products faster, smarter [and] quicker,” he says.

You can listen to the full interview for more.

Visit Global Network for Zero to learn about their net zero strategies and industry news. You can also follow Mahesh on Twitter, LinkedIn or Instagram to learn more about his mission of getting to net zero.

Get more updates and news about sustainability and the future of building materials when you subscribe to the podcast, wherever you listen.