Published: 7 Dec 2021

COP26 had some worthy aspirations, but it raised plenty of questions for quality management professionals, argues Taofeeq Ibn-Mohammed, Assistant Professor and Head of Sustainability Research at WMG, University of Warwick. 

Some of the outcomes from the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26) in Glasgow were extremely encouraging and, considering all the challenges surrounding the event, I felt a number of positive steps forward were taken. 

However, in the period leading up to and during COP26, you only needed to look at the abundance of full-page adverts in respected business magazines – or observe the social media accounts and websites of some of the world’s biggest companies – to see organisations making a range of claims about their environmental credentials. 

What is actually being measured? 

Some of these claims, which are often dismissed by critics as ‘greenwashing’, raise concerns and questions for anybody working in the quality management profession. These include: 

  • How are the claims measured?  
  • Can like-for-like comparisons genuinely be made between different claims made by different organisations?  
  • Are the organisations actually measuring the same thing? 

Building on the last point, all organisations now talk about their environmental, social, governance (ESG) credentials and they freely use terms such as ‘carbon neutrality’, ‘net zero’ and ‘climate positive’. But the way different companies measure and report on these can vary significantly. 

Lots of organisations talk about their ESG credentials – but are they really being properly validated?

The risk for quality management professionals working within these organisations, and their colleagues in sustainability, is that marketing teams have grabbed the ESG agenda from them. The high-profile advertising around COP26 showed how everyone loves the positive ‘optics’ that result from big statements and messages. Yet when the data and detail behind the messages is requested, the level of certainty and boldness is often withdrawn. 

In short, lots of organisations talk about their ESG credentials – but are they really being properly validated? 

Of course, that’s where quality management professionals come into the equation. They need to be assertive, state their evidence, present data-based cases and earn the right to make sure their organisations’ messages and claims are genuinely based on reality. 

Methodology variations 

However, this can be easier said than done. For example, in the construction sector, the energy used, and consequent CO2 emissions associated with building construction materials and processes across the entire value chain (collectively known as embodied energy) are usually calculated using the concept of lifecycle assessment.  

Worldwide, embodied carbon emissions account for about 13-18% of the total carbon footprint of any construction project. For years, the concept of embodied energy has been part of the sustainability debate. However, despite all the advantages of its inclusion in lifecycle energy analysis of buildings – and partly because there are such significant variations in methodology – there is still little incentive to integrate the calculation of embodied emissions in construction decision-making. This has wider implications for the climate change debate. 

Environmental net gain 

Rather than employing terms such as ‘carbon neutrality’, ‘net-zero’ and ‘climate positive’, which are used by different organisations in different ways, I believe the real measure of environmental performance should be environmental net gain (ENG).  

In the construction sector, ENG is achieved when both biodiversity and the environment are left in a measurably better state after a building development than beforehand – as measured by biodiversity indicators, ecosystem services and environmental metrics.  

Meanwhile in the consumer goods sector, there are often measures that rank products’ environmental performance only once they are being used by consumers. For example, producers of fridges and freezers promote their products’ energy efficiency ratings, but they don’t necessarily report on the embodied carbon emissions that occur during the manufacturing process. In some cases, because the embodied carbon emissions are so high, they outweigh the energy efficiency benefits – and, in fact, no environmental gain is achieved. 

Inconvenient facts 

Facts like these can be inconvenient as organisations look to impress customers, governments, policy-makers and stakeholders by drawing attention to their environmental credentials. 

Via standards such as the ISO 14000 family, which relates to environmental management, ISO 50001, which focuses on energy management, and ISO 37101:2016 (sustainable development), quality management professionals can call on the tools, systems and processes to ensure their organisations are transparent about their environmental performance.  

They need to make the most of them – and play their part in starting the long process to eventually remove the word ‘greenwashing’ from our everyday dictionary.