Opinion Piece

Shifting the built environment towards net zero and beyond

Opinion piece by Elwyn Grainger-Jones, Executive Director, Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute

The built environment has an immense impact on the planet, so it’s no surprise that the building industry increasingly finds itself at the center of demands to address climate change. But emissions and climate are just one piece of a much broader puzzle, as this piece examines.

The impacts of the building industry are as large as they are diverse, to the tune of:

  • Representing more than 13% of global GDP
  • Accounting for almost £10 trillion ($12 trillion) in worldwide spending every year
  • Responsible for 40% of global material use 
  • Generating 40% of global waste by volume sent to landfill
  • Contributing 37- 40% of global carbon emissions every year (with 11% of global carbon emissions attributed to just the materials inside the buildings)


With such a substantial carbon footprint, the industry is continually under pressure to transform its practices to achieve net zero targets within the next few decades. This pressure to decarbonize comes from multiple angles – from increasingly stringent building regulations to greater shareholder demands for more sustainable, low carbon projects.

And the potential for change is vast: the World Green Building Council (WorldGBC) reports that by adopting sustainable building practices and enhancing the energy efficiency of existing structures, we could reduce global carbon emissions by up to 84 gigatons by 2050. 

Yet addressing the industry’s carbon footprint – while critical to our planet and communities – remains just one piece of the puzzle, and by focusing on carbon alone, we run the risk of chasing net zero at the expense of interrelated concerns. For example, how would you feel, as a designer, if you specified a net zero carbon product but it contained toxic chemicals that were responsible for communities having higher rates of cancer? Similarly, is it worth specifying a net zero product if it was made by a child or someone who is enslaved or subject to harsh working conditions? You should not be expected to make these tradeoffs in your product choices.

Your influence as a designer: choices matter
Designers have an outsized impact on the planet. Through the choices they make about structural systems, building envelopes, and the products that are installed in a building, designers purchase thousands upon thousands of square footage of products representing billions of pounds annually. It’s estimated that a single designer has 26x the spending power of an average consumer. The choices they make matter, and matter a lot.

And the demand for sustainable, responsibly made products in the industry is growing. Clients commissioning new builds and renovation projects are now asking designers to prioritize many other sustainability concerns in addition to low emissions. In a 2021 survey of their customers, Formica found that “98% of interior designers say their clients are prioritizing environmentally friendly materials.” This can include requests for non-toxic materials, products that are made equitably, products that contribute to healthy indoor air quality, and more locally sourced materials. 

This all creates added pressure – suddenly, designers need to understand topics outside of their regular expertise, such as climate reporting, material health, and ecosystem health. Designers are having to learn what they can on the fly, in real time. Balancing the everyday pressures of their projects on top of navigating these complex and dynamic topics can be overwhelming. Not least because the weight and impact of every decision adds up. 

Applying a holistic approach to sustainability to avoid difficult tradeoffs

What if there was an easy and reliable way to hit the broad spectrum of positive impacts through product choices? What if we didn’t have to make a tradeoff between low emissions and other ethical aspects? What if we could create a world that is healthy, climate positive, and equitable, all at once? 

In 2002, one of our founders, William McDonough, wrote, “here’s where redesign begins in earnest, where we stop trying to be less bad and we start figuring out how to be good.” Fundamental to the Cradle to Cradle Certified® Product Standard is a multi-attribute, holistic approach to sustainability, so we don’t have to make unfortunate tradeoffs as we tackle the multi-faceted global challenges of today and tomorrow.

Taking a holistic approach to sustainability means evaluating products across multiple areas of sustainability. The Cradle to Cradle Certified Product Standard verifies the sustainability performance of products across five categories: material health, clean air and climate protection, water and soil stewardship, social fairness, and circularity. It gives manufacturers a framework that guides them towards being fully net zero (carbon and energy) while simultaneously working to eliminate toxic chemicals from their products, actively contribute to a circular economy, and promote human rights in their company and across their supply chain. This enables consumers to select a zero or low carbon product that is healthy and made by a company that cares about its employees. A quick scan of the Cradle to Cradle Certified product registry (currently featuring around 1000 certificates that cover 75,0000 product variations) will show you just how many companies and industries are working towards net zero without making those ethical tradeoffs.

Harness your purchasing power and multiply the positive impacts

As a designer, when you specify products that are Cradle to Cradle Certified, your influential purchasing power says to the market “Yes, net zero, and…” Yes, we want zero carbon products, but we also want products that are healthy and equitably made. When you specify products that are good for people and the planet, your impact is multiplied.

Yes, we are trying to get to net zero. But that is not our only goal. Fundamentally, the work of designers is to take a space and make it better for the community. Wouldn’t we rather leave the world a better place for our children than simply “neutral” or “net zero?” Wouldn’t we rather create places that are healthy, regenerative, and equitable?

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