Saint-Gobain is a global manufacturer of construction materials with operations in 70 countries. The company launched its 2050 CO2 roadmap for achieving carbon neutrality at the end of 2020. The roadmap incorporates the Group’s commitments in terms of reducing not only its direct and indirect carbon dioxide emissions, but also the emissions along its value chain.
Mária Szentesi is System Development Manager at Saint-Gobain Hungary and has been working for the company for 18 years. She is also the Sustainability Ambassador of Saint-Gobain in Hungary. We talked about the strategic commitments of the company and how the construction industry can be more sustainable.
Saint-Gobain launched a carbon neutrality roadmap at the end of last year. What is the story behind this strategy and what are the key elements?
The process started back in 2019 at the UN Climate Summit where the Chairman of Saint-Gobain announced our 2050 carbon neutrality target. Back then, even we did not know if it meant carbon neutrality of the production only, or if it covered our whole operation. Later it was clarified that everything had been included. Since then, a large number of people have been continuously working on making this become reality. This is partially due to our philosophy. We want to have a dynamic start where we deliver the majority of improvements that are needed upfront. Hopefully, this will leave us with the necessity of making only adjustments towards the end of the period.
The strategy is focusing on our own production first. We assess what we have accomplished so far and how sustainable we are currently. We also need to understand what else we have to do in order to achieve our targets.
We already see that the carbon footprint of an industrial manufacturing process can be minimized but not eliminated entirely.
We will probably have to compensate for the remaining part, either by planting trees or through other methods.
At the same time we need to pay attention to our partners, as well, especially suppliers and raw material suppliers. We try to understand how we can influence them. One example is transportation. In Hungary we work with contractors and we can require that they use trucks with better environmental (Euro) classification. We already plan to tighten this requirement. We are looking for similar solutions in all areas.
Reducing carbon emissions starts with accounting for them. How difficult is to calculate your carbon footprint?
It is a big task and the global headquarters cannot do it alone. All countries have to do the calculation individually. We have to be so detail-oriented, for example, that we even check how many energy efficient lightning bulbs we have in the buildings or examine the coverage of selective waste collection.
Measurement is not the only expectation. We also have to continuously communicate it to colleagues and motivate them to take part in the improvements.
Saint-Gobain even has a new initiative for this. Each ton of CO2 emitted outside of manufacturing, but related to employee activities, gets a carbon price. This includes business travel or using corporate cars. 2020 measured low due to restricted activities but it is still a considerable amount.
This carbon budget calculated for 2020 will have to be spent in 2021 for projects that will protect the environment or improve the wellbeing of employees.
Moreover, the project ideas will have to be submitted and selected by employees themselves.
The same initiative will be implemented in all countries and the projects will be financed from local budget.
Speaking about raw materials: are there any materials in Saint-Gobain globally or locally that are in focus?
I am more comfortable speaking about the Hungarian situation. In Hungary we produce basically two main construction materials: plasters and gypsum plasterboards.
In terms of plasters, their raw material is partly cement which has a considerable footprint.
Plasterboard is more favourable because gypsum comes from an environmental protection technology. It is the byproduct of the desulphurization technology at the Mátra power plant. On the other hand, plasterboard production itself still has a high energy demand, so we need to focus on the reduction of this and possibly use renewable energy sources.
In your view what are the main global sustainability trends in the construction material industry?
One main trend is definitely the increasing use of renewable raw materials, such as timber. This is mainly relevant for residential buildings right now and it is less relevant for Saint-Gobain Hungary.
The second trend, in my view, is prefabrication. It has two benefits at once. First, if you use prefabricated materials you will end up with less on-site waste. The second benefit is that in Hungary and in Europe in general there is a shortage of skilled labor on construction sites. By using prefabricated systems, you can mitigate workforce-shortage related risks.
… and what about recycling?
Yes, the third trend is recycling and it again has two aspects. The first is recycling in the process of material production and construction. Usually it is much easier to recycle waste generated inside the factories than on construction sites. On construction sites, the waste is usually mixed with other wastes as well. And even if you can sort it, you still need to transport it to a recycling location. This is why I mentioned less waste as a benefit of prefabrication.
The second challenge with recycling, on which a huge number of people are thinking and working currently, is the recycling of demolished old buildings.
If we are to be truly environmentally conscious, then an old building that is not in use anymore should not be regarded as waste, but as a raw material bank.
Raw materials are scarce and everything that is valuable should ideally be recovered.
Of course we know there might be hazardous materials in these old buildings and it is a question if they can be separated. Still, it is important to recycle as much as possible.
As a company we are increasingly focusing on the rate of recycled materials in our products. Plasterboard is a good example. By default, the production technology works with no or very small recycled content. But we need to work on increasing it because resources are scarce and we might end up – hopefully later rather than sooner – in a situation where we will only have the gypsum from demolished buildings as a material source.
We are not doing it yet but I know that in some countries other Saint-Gobain companies already recollect plasterboard for further use.
Coming back to the Saint-Gobain strategy. How does the strategy implementation work internally?
We have top-down targets, the implementation of which is completely the responsibility of the local companies. Of course progress reports are needed and if we see that some of the targets will not be met, then we need to flag them on time and with reason.
From an organizational point of view, Saint-Gobain has global regions and within these regions there are clusters. All these clusters have a sustainability leader whose responsibility is to harmonize activities and most importantly, to share best practices. This cluster leader is also the one who gives professional support. Even if you work on a sustainability topic, it does not make you a sustainability expert and you will need professional support.
Another change is that sustainability is now a part of budgeting as well. Sustainability projects and targets have to be included in financial plans.
One important remark here is that we want to be leaders in sustainability but at the same time we cannot sacrifice our profitability and market share. So we have to carefully balance these two aspects.
In your view are customers willing to take part in the sustainability efforts and pay their share for it?
We started our sustainability journey with a very detailed survey. We asked our partners about sustainability, the sustainability requirements they have to comply with and how important this topic is for them. The respondents included architects, wholesalers and also construction companies.
The wholesalers are the least engaged which is not a surprise because they sell what is demanded by the customers. On the other hand, designers and construction companies do show interest. We also asked them how they perceive the sustainability efforts of Saint-Gobain and 98% responded positively.
Sustainability ratings such as BREEAM and LEED have a positive impact, too.
There are more and more examples where customers ask how our products can contribute to improving the sustainability rating of buildings and they make the purchasing decision based on this contribution.
Cover picture: Saint-Gobain