Building Materials in a Green Economy

Community-based Strategies for Dematerialization 

Brian Milani, 2001

Paper delivered to the biennial conference of the Canadian Society for Ecological Economics (CANSEE),  McGill University, Montreal, August 25, 2001.

Intro: Materials and Building
Service and the Ecological Economy
Elements of Material Solutions in Building
What is a Green Material?
Deconstructing the Waste Economy
Alternative Materials
Industrial Ecosystems
Rules, Regulation and Coordination
The Significance of Consumption
Prosumption in a Green Economy
Green Consumerism, Information and Markets
In Summary
References & Resources

Materials are the stuff of economic life in our industrial world.  They include the resource inputs and the product outputs of industrial production.  How we handle them is a major determinant of real economic efficiency, and also has a major impact on our health and the health of the natural environment.
        Although the primary focus of popular environmental awareness has been on energy, it is our relationship to materials that will probably have the most significance for green economic transformation and the establishment of sustainable societies.  Over the past decade or so, green thinking has increasingly recognized that minimal levels of sustainability depend on radical increases of resource-efficiency—in the industrialized countries, by a factor of ten.  Such efficiency gains seem almost impossible in the current system.  But there are also fears that, even if major efficiency gains could be made, they might easily be offset by continuing growth of the economy as a whole (Gardner & Sampat, 1998; A. Hayden, 1999).
        The technological and organizational potential to successfully make these changes, however, does exist.  Cutting-edge thinking on green economics has associated industrialism with material accumulation, and postindustrialism with what has been called dematerialization of the economy.  The argument is that a growing role for knowledge, information and culture should make it possible to displace materials and energy with human intelligence and ingenuity.  This would allow us to satisfy more basic human needs with far fewer resources.  It would ostensibly also allow us to fit human economic activities within natural processes without disrupting them. But all this would entail fundamental changes in the form, content and driving forces of the economy—the subject of my recent book, Designing the Green Economy.

        The built-environment is also a strategic realm of social, economic and environmental change. Various writers have stated that spatial redesign of the landscape and built-environment may be the single most effective means of achieving new levels of efficiency and sustainability (Lyle, 1994; Mollison, 1983; Alexander, 1977; Van der Ryn & Cowan, 1996).  Building materials are also quite important.  One reason is because of the weight and volume they represent. They have been estimated to constitute up to 40 percent of the entire economy’s material throughput. It follows that changes in building materials use can leverage major changes in manufacturing, extraction and disposal.
        Building materials are also the stuff of our personal environments.  They are all around us, and literally part of the air we breathe.  They can damage the biosphere: VOCs from paints alone are responsible for perhaps 9 percent of the damage to the ozone layer.  They can also damage us: the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for example, estimates that indoor pollution—caused by materials like paints, plastics and particleboards—is responsible for more than 11,000 deaths each year from cancer, kidney failure, and respiratory collapse (Ligon, 2001).
        The fact that buildings are all around us means not only that they immediately impact us, but that we can potentially affect them. The building industry is a decentralized one that exists in virtually every community. Not surprisingly, the built-environment is a major venue for ecological and community development alternatives, with materials being an increasing focus of concern over the past decade.

        The purpose of this essay is to marry these concerns about materials and building, and consider strategies for dematerialization in the building industry.  In particular I want to look at community-based initiatives, and consumption as a starting point for transformation.   Various writers and catalysts like the UK’s Martin Charter (2001) have argued that it is more effective to work on the level of production, where corporate decisions can more directly affect supply chains, product designs and so on.  Others put the focus on regulation, insisting that the incentives and disincentives structured into the economy are crucial.  I will argue that a strategic focus on end-use, consumption and community may be an ultimately more powerful influence on both corporate action and state economic development policy.
        Real dematerialization, however, requires action on every level of production, consumption and regulation, and there are pitfalls and limitations at every level—especially consumption.  Before looking at these, I will briefly survey some of the key realms of building materials transformation, based on an understanding of what an ecological economy can and should be—the perspective of an “ecological service economy”.  Hopefully this will provide some context for discussing the role of consumption in catalyzing change, and especially through the use of information in community-based initiatives.

Service and the Ecological Economy

       In Designing the Green Economy, I highlighted ten key principles of green economic development, but for the purposes of this essay, we can reduce these to two primary aspects of the ecological economy.  A green economy is one in which (1) the primary focus would be selling services rather than material products, and (2) economic activities would be designed to either fit within, or mimic, the closed-loop design of natural ecosystems.
        The second notion, while quite radical, is perhaps most easily understandable.  For decades green builders and designers have attempted to create buildings and communities that work with nature rather than against it.  More recently they have begun to emphasize the use of local resources and materials—both natural materials like earth and reclaimed materials from the waste stream.  At the same time, the perspective of industrial ecology has emerged to spark the creation of manufacturing systems that mimic ecosystems.

        The first green economic principle, that of selling services in the building industry, is perhaps not so straightforward.  In fact, how it applies to most sectors of the economy might seem perplexing.  The idea of selling services is actually a very radical concept.  It refers NOT to the exporting of manufacturing to the Third World, but to a basic change in the aims of economic activity in every sector.   It would transform all material output from being the end-goal of economic development into a simple means of meeting social and environmental need.  These service-needs include nutrition, access (or mobility), health, entertainment, etc.  Service is another way of describing “end-use”. As Amory Lovins (1977) initially described this approach to energy two decades ago, we should primarily be concerned with providing “hot showers and cold beer”, not power plants or fossil fuels.  By focusing on the service-need desired, we can creatively discover the most elegant and efficient way (or ways) of meeting this need.  Invariably this allows radical reductions in the amount of matter and energy used, and, more often than not, a much higher level of quality.

        It is possible to find examples of eco-service in the existing economy.  For example, there is the much-cited transformation of Xerox into a “document company” that designs its hardware for disassembly and reuse.  On the cutting edge of green business, there is also Interface Flooring, which is voluntarily implementing “extended producer responsibility” that drastically reduces waste.
        For the entire economy, however, displacing production-for-production’s-sake with a service approach is a much more difficult proposition.  Capitalism has always been based in growth and expansion.  There is currently quite a debate as to whether it is possible to completely disconnect monetary from material accumulation.  It amounts to a debate as to whether a “green” or “natural capitalism” is possible, or whether the profit-motive itself must be replaced with other indicators and incentives.

        This essay isn’t the place to resolve that debate (although I do deal with it in my book).  Whatever we choose to call an ecological economy, the point is that dematerialization and a focus on service-needs require wholesale changes in the rules of the game, and in longstanding economic incentives and disincentives.  This requires a transformation in the form, content and driving forces of the economy.  Industrial ecologists and green economists have made significant contributions in outlining the implications of a service approach in manufacturing.  My particular concerns revolve around what the building industry would look like in an ecological service economy.   To this end, I want to survey briefly the realms affected by a transformation of materials in building. Hopefully this will provide some context for a discussion of community action.

Elements of Material Solutions in Building 

        John Young (2000) recently summarized the hierarchy of materials efficiency that can be applied to construction materials with just a little qualification:

1. Materials use avoidance:  this includes scrutiny of consumption needs themselves—do we really need to build this?—and voluntary simplicity.  It includes a focus on selling services, rather than products.  It also includes the redesign of products, buildings and settlements to dispense with superfluous materials.  The great efficiencies resulting from ecological urban design and mixed-use development are in this category.

2.  Increased intensity of product use:  All kinds of sharing are included here, and thus there is some overlap with category #1.  Co-housing developments with shared facilities, for example, can substantially reduce the volume of materials use.

3.  Extended product life:  Repair, reuse and remanufacturing are in this category, and in building there is vast potential for deconstruction (the disassembly of buildings) and the reuse of building materials.  One step further is the design of buildings to be easily changed, repaired and disassembled.

4. Finally, there is materials recovery, or recycling.  This tends to require more energy, but some form of recycling will be ultimately necessary for every material at a point in its life cycle, no matter how durable, reused, or shared it has been.

        While this categorization is not sufficient in itself to deal with all the main dimensions of transforming materials use in construction, it provides a framework that can be built upon.  We can add concerns of toxicity, human and ecosystem health, job creation and other aspects mentioned in product evaluation.

 Key areas that are crucial to achieve this materials transformation are:

What is a Green Material? 

        This is an important question, and cannot be separated from the question of how we can reduce the use of materials.  In a sense, they are two articulations of the same dilemma: how to understand, revalue and reorganize flows in the economy.
        A green material is one that simultaneously does the most with the least, fits most harmoniously within ecosystem processes, helps eliminate the use of other materials and energy, and contributes to the attainment of a service-based economy.

       Understanding what a green material is depends on understanding relationships—in nature, in the economy, between nature and the economy.  It is a very complex matter and always changing.  What is considered a green material is also constantly changing.  It is certainly important to look closely at every individual product and material, but it is often more efficient to look first at the building system.  This is particularly clear when we see systems now being designed to allow buildings to be easily dismantled rather than demolished.  The context in which a material is used is crucial.  A conventional petrochemical-based building material might be used in buildings and developments that are quite ecological in overall impact.  Similarly, a “green” material might be deployed or installed in destructive ways that completely negate their positive characteristics.  By being salvaged and reused, a very conventional material might become a green material. It’s a question of relationships that are multi-dimensional and constantly shifting.

Criteria for evaluating building materials include the general categories of resources, performance and pollution.  The resources required for a material can be consumed in extraction, production, use or disposal.  The same is true for pollution.  Performance refers to the energy and resources it can save or squander doing its use. For each category of material, performance means something quite different.  For example, the performance of insulation must be judged mainly in terms of its thermal resistance, while a floor tile would be evaluated more for its durability.
        Deciding what is “green” is sometimes quite relative.  Some products in a certain category might be the greenest simply because the available alternatives are so destructive (for example, CCA-treated wood or PVC plastic).  Even the best current directories of green building materials are often forced to compare apples and oranges within the same category—for example, comparing the energy-intensity of one product with the toxicity of another (Wilson, 2000).  The ideal of an objective numerical LCA rating for every product and material will always be a distant dream.  It should be pursued, but evaluators, particularly those who synthesize available data to help consumers make the best possible choices, will simply have to do the best they can.
       Here are a  number of criteria that have commonly been used in evaluating building materials:

Other criteria can also be applied that stem from larger concerns about sustainability.  They can be social, political, ethical and even spiritual.  What are the working conditions for producers or installers of these materials?  What kind of labour is involved, skilled or unskilled?  Do these materials contribute to community development?   Do they close gaps, or make useful linkages, in the local economy? In some cases, a community might have to make a tough choice between a high-tech energy-saving product and a local low-tech traditional material that would create sustainable livelihoods.  If we are looking at materials from the perspective of quality, society-wide, it makes sense, where practical, to examine possible social, technological, and health implications at every stage of production and every sector of society.

        Knowledge about building materials is a crucial dimension of green change in building and design. Especially on the community level, concrete information about social and environmental impacts can have immediate effects, especially when it concerns specific products and processes.  Those who can make a difference—designers, builders, tradespeople, homeowners, building supply retailers—are acutely lacking the basic information on materials that would allow them to make constructive changes.
        Oftentimes information exists, but not in a form easily accessible to those that need it, without a lot of research or effort.  Easily updateable directories and website databases are starting to appear in some places, but they are needed everywhere because what is green depends very much on local conditions.  An ecological siding panel from California will not be so ecological if it has to be shipped to Nova Scotia.

      For this reason, a lack of information about materials—even on the consumer level in building—has a major impact on manufacturing in a region.  When builders and designers are demanding products with low embodied energy, there immediately exists a market for a responsive regional manufacturer.  This is also an opportunity for enlightened municipal politicians and development officers.
        Awareness about the objects of everyday life and commerce has broader implications. When people are routinely inquiring about larger impacts, about where resources come from, and where they go, it is only one step further to think about similar indicators of development for entire communities.   Product evaluation, labelling and certification are just one level of a complex of possible indicators of social and environmental quality: sustainable community indicators.  Ultimately, awareness of the importance of these indicators are our best hope to displace simplistic ideologies of growth and competitiveness.
Deconstructing the Waste Economy
Logo of Beyond Waste,
SF Deconstruction Firm
       One of the central objectives of green economic transformation is to move extractive industry from the country to the cityVirgin materials are no longer appropriate sources for most of society’s production.  Talk of sustainable management of virgin resources will remain ideology or self-delusion without a radical transformation of society’s infrastructure to cycle materials in relatively closed loops.
    As noted above, perhaps 40 percent of the North American economy’s materials throughput is building related.  Up to a third of municipal landfills are construction and demolition (C&D) waste. One (fairly conservative) estimate is that the US produces about 65 million tons of demolition debris annually (EPA, 1998).  Changing the relationship of people to materials in the building industry will clearly have major impacts throughout the economy.

        Because the level of waste is so great, particularly in North America, one would think that making substantial improvements should be fairly easy.  But when we consider the institutional character of this waste—coupled with now entrenched cultural patterns—we should not underestimate the difficulties of dealing with the fundamental problems.

        Robin Murray’s Creating Wealth From Waste (1999) highlights the clash between two distinct organizational mentalities involved in current struggles over waste. He calls them conflicting modes of “modernization”:
(1) the “Chemico-energy” mode: centralized and capital-intensive, whose main instrument is incineration—a form of disposal which allows the traditional linear extraction-to-disposal economy to remain intact; and ...
(2)  “eco-modernization”: the closed-loop economy, featuring more complex flows and simple or specialist treatment. It is expressed in “intensive recycling” and its key innovations are in collection, not in high-tech plants.
        Murray writes, “recycling demands the skills of a modern retailer, not a transporter of aggregates”and hauling aggregates is precisely the background of most of the dominant waste management firms.

        This contrast in styles is nowhere more apparent than in demolition.  Despite some outlandish claims of the demolition industry about the amount of material it reclaims and recycles, the capital-intensive bulldoze-and-haul approach annually destroys millions of dollars of value (even in today’s perverse markets).  Now the demolition industry is having to deal with a young competitor of the “eco-modernizing” variety—the burgeoning deconstruction industry.  Deconstruction companies exhibit the retailer-like flexibility that Murray ascribes to the new collection networks of intensive recycling. The starting point to make waste a resource is, of course, source separation, and this requires an understanding of building styles, how the buildings originally went together, along with an appreciation of what can be reused, reclaimed or recycled, and where the markets for these materials exist.
        The appeal of deconstruction is growing rapidly, with much of the enthusiasm of the recycling movement of the seventies.  It is rightfully seen as a source of new skills, of environmental and building preservation, and of jobs and community economic development.  According to Neil Seldman and Mark Jackson of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR),

“If deconstruction were fully integrated into the U.S. demolition industry, which takes down about 200,000 buildings annually, the equivalent of 200,000 jobs would be created and $1 billion worth of building materials would be returned to the economy, with accompanying reductions in virgin material extraction.”
        The difficulties the new ecopreneurs face are, of course, substantial.  Despite the fact that as recently as two generations ago the demolition industry was involved in reuse, many of these traditional skills have had to be reinvented.  Deconstruction crews are often under severe time constraints.  Despite the fact that buildings can sit vacant for years, once a development decision is made, a developer is often under pressure to take down buildings in the shortest time period.  Because of the time and care that deconstruction requires, labour costs can be much more than demolition, and much greater precautions must be taken around worker safety. Workers also require more training.
        The sites usually require more space for proper sorting and stacking of materials, and the materials must be transported with care.  Materials must be carefully inventoried, and if “site sale” is not feasible, then the materials must go to salvage yards or resource recovery parks.  Compared to the old days, modern deconstructionists must deal with the increased use of composite materials, laminates and powerful adhesives.  Certain building types are more conducive to deconstruction, with panelized or timber-framed structures the most desirable.  Different regions present different challenges, with the most advantageous places being those with high landfill charges and well-developed markets for recyclables.

        Despite the obstacles, there are many notable success stories.  In places like Hartford CT., Portland OR, Minneapolis, and San Francisco, deconstruction initiatives are proving they can financially compete with, or outperform, demolition firms. Many are non-profit, some are worker-owned. They are retaining money in their local economies and saving lots of public expense for waste disposal.
        They are also creating innovative win-win situations.  Because many are non-profits, private owners who contract with them for deconstruction services can get tax deductions worth the value of recovered materials donated to the programme. A 1,200-square-foot house typically can claim from $5,000 to $8,000 (Seldman and Jackson, 2000).  They are paradoxically also creating some opportunities for conventional C&D outfits.  In many places, deconstruction and C&D firms are working together to efficiently take down buildings. The demolition industry focuses on the recycling of building materials, while the deconstruction’s role is recovery and reuse. The C&D companies have also been pushed by the new situation to recycle more and more of what they handle.

    The ultimate frontier in deconstruction however is in design for disassembly, very much as in manufacturing. Buildings live and change, much like organisms.  Very few buildings are used for the purposes for which they were designed even five years after construction (Brand, 1994).  Ecological building design for change would incorporate three principles (Berge, 2000):

1. Separate layers: All building contain such layers, but they are not usually easily separable. They include interior, space plan, mechanical services, structure and skin.  The structure would be designed for the longest life +50 years. Exterior surfaces change about every 20 years.  Wiring, plumbing, and other surfaces tend to wear out or go obsolete every 7 to 15 years.  Interior walls and other elements of the floor plan tend to change every few years in some buildings, especially commercial ones—so they would be designed for easy dismantling.

2. Possibilities for disassembly within each layer: sections that tend to wear quicker can be more reinforced or more easily replaced.

3. Use of standardized monomaterial components: this includes primary monomaterials like untreated wood and secondary monomaterials like concrete, glass or cellulose fibre.  Components made of different materials laminated together aren’t appropriate because their different elements tend to decay at different rates.  They are also difficult or impossible to separate, and they make for inferior quality if recycled while blended.

        The more deconstruction catches on, the more pressure will grow for design for disassembly.  Below I will review some factors—like product stewardship legislation and taxation—that will undoubtedly be necessary for reuse to really take off.  But there are some infrastructural initiatives that can also help.
        When garbage becomes a resource, it will have to be more central and visible to society.  The phenomenon of Resource Recovery (RR) parks is an innovation intended to displace dumps.   California is a primary spawning ground in North America for these parks, because the state has mandated substantial diversion from landfills for every community.  They are sites for much more than C&D resources, but building materials have played a major role in their development. They are places where materials are brought for resale, or for reprocessing and resale.  They are places where businesses can share space, operating equipment like forklifts, repair services, management and technical expertise, accounting services, job training and much more.  They also feature showrooms for various products.  They will hopefully become an ecological-economic nexus for public-private cooperation and all kinds of networking (California Integrated Waste Management Board, 2000).
        Several are now in the process of development in California—in Cabazon, San Leandro and Berkeley.  They seem to have great potential for connecting construction and manufacturing activity, particularly through interfacing with eco-industrial parks and networks (Lowe, 1997).  I will look at eco-industrial developments and manufacturing after a brief diversion into another crucial area of eco-building: alternative materials.

Alternative Materials

The evaluation and promotion of green building materials should probably begin with conventional materials since these are the most used.  But in a transition to sustainability, we must begin to think more and more of materials that fit within ecosystem processes.  These are the alternative materials.  They vary from place to place, bioregion to bioregion, but some of the better known, and increasingly popular, in North America are straw bale, rammed earth, adobe, cob, cordwood, stone and “earthship” buildings made of old tires and other garbage (Chiras, 2000; Chappell, 1998).

They all make excellent use of local resources and are produced with little energy.  Their building processes tend to be labour-intensive and resource-saving.  Most are natural drying and eminently recyclable or even reusable.  They are also non-toxic and engender little pollution.  Some, like earthships (built from old tires) and straw bale construction, make good use of a waste product (Steen, Steen & Bainbridge, 1994).

        Most of the alternative building techniques are updated versions of traditional building methods that were swept aside by the industrial revolution.  Many of the materials are in fact virtually ideal materials for the climates in which they are found.  Materials like straw are natural insulators—one of the only completely non-toxic forms of insulation.  Other materials like earth have great thermal mass, keeping warmer in winter and cooler in summer.  While many people associate these materials with rural settings, this is primarily because the countryside has been more conducive to experimentation.  There is no reason why rammed earth, earthships and even straw bale couldn’t be used as easily in cities.  The future of sustainable cities lay in low-rise, high- and medium-density settlements, featuring lots of plant growth that can provide food, climate-control, energy and water eco-infrastructure, along with neighbourhood employment.

       If green cities are to value and harness the natural productivity of the landscape—including backyards, alleys and rooftops—they must also harness the social productivity of vernacular building and design, and of the informal economy (Hough, 1995; D. Hayden, 1984).  Economies must find ways of supporting the gardening, preventive health care, self-help building and other vital forms of production that the existing capitalist economy tends to consider forms of passive consumption.   Alvin Toffler (1972, 1980) first called these emerging informal activities “prosumption”.  Toffler was totally oblivious to the ecological dimension, but writers like Schumacher, Illich, Winner, Mumford and Goodman have not only called attention to the importance of these sectors, but also to the need to design and implement technologies to support them.
        The alternative materials are eminently suited to “prosumptive” activities.  Rammed earth, for example, takes soil right from the building excavation, eliminating most of the vast processing industry devoted to wood frame or concrete construction (Easton, 1996).  Most of the techniques can be learned by the people who will live in the buildings.  They can participate in the design.  They can see and feel how nature supports them, and understand what they must do to return that support.
        The implications of greater use of alternative materials cannot therefore be fully understood with a life cycle analysis.  They also involve social relationships that are fundamental to creating sustainable communities and economies.  They can help to undermine the forms of alienation of producer from consumer, of professional from client, of design from execution, and of individual from community, that so underlie unsustainable practices.

Industrial Ecosystems
Alternative materials and deconstruction by no means eliminate the role of manufacturing, but manufacturing must take on a very different configuration in a green economy.  It must begin to complement the closed loops created by deconstruction/reuse and by natural materials, but it must also create its own loops through the inter-networking of firms and processes that can approach the goal of zero waste.  Eco-industrial complexes do this by making sure that, as in nature, every output of a process serves as an input for some other process.

        The phenomenon of eco-industrial parks, inspired by the somewhat fortuitous Kalundborg Denmark model, is well-known.  Firms work to save resources, energy and model by cooperating to use by-products.  EI networks are also inspired partly by the success of regions like the Third Italy where the cooperation of small firms in flexible manufacturing networks allow these firms to achieve what would ordinarily require a giant corporation—and they do it more flexibly.

        Eco-industrial park and network initiatives are being combined with resource recovery parks in places like California, which are trying to divert materials from landfills.  Building materials are a big part of this, and in places like Alameda County, development authorities are trying to create new secondary materials industry by diverting materials into eco-industrial parks for reprocessing or for making new products from recycled materials (Cornell WEI, 1999).  Inevitably, however, this kind of manufacturing still prioritizes local production for local consumption and gives workers a sense of contributing to their communities.
        Manufacturing materials off the site will, of course, always be appropriate, no matter how bioregional and decentralized building becomes.  It will even be appropriate to pull some operations that are currently done on site, off the site so that greater quality-control is possible.  Engineered lumber and concrete waffle panels are examples of products that can substantially reduce materials use compared to current practices.  Various forms of natural materials—like straw and hemp—can also be usefully employed in manufacturing to produce panels, insulations and the like.

       Many of today’s highly-touted examples of industrial ecology are, almost embarrassingly, comprised of some distinctly unecological elements—like coal-fired or nuclear power-plants, oil refineries and petrochemical firms.  Hopefully, these are transitional phenomena, on the way to fully ecological industries.  One key principle of industrial ecology is that, since production depends on complex “food webs” linking diverse producers, the “food” involved should be healthy and non-toxic enough to be easily shared.  Toxic elements can be isolated in their own sealed loops, but this limits flexibility and increases risks.  Green manufacturing must ultimately move toward the production and use of benign materials that can be “globally recycled”—that is, able at their end to be composted or reunited with nature in some way that makes them a potentially new resource (Berge, 2000).
        Industrial ecologist Hardin Tibbs (1998) wrote about the potential of combining benign materials with eco-networking. The key, he said,

 “would be first to identify a set of materials which have long-term geophysiological compatibility. A fairly small set of acceptable materials could probably be used to supply eighty percent or more of all production needs. The next step would be to devise clusters of production processes which use some or all these materials, and which can be interlocked ecosystem-style. Once this was done, the resulting industrial clusters or industrial ecosystems might stand a reasonable chance of being stable over time.”
From this standpoint, the importance of developing the “carbohydrate economy” of plant-based materials is a crucial part of industrial ecology, one that should make the networking between firms and industries substantially safer.  The focus of Gunter Pauli’s (1999) Zero Emission Research Initiative (ZERI) is in creating just such networks of carbohydrate-based production.

Rules, Regulation and Coordination
logo of  ILSR New Rules Project 
        Because the role of the state is so vast and complex, this essay can only review, quite selectively, some of its key tasks around dematerialization.  It is, however, essential that we deal with the “rules of the game” because focusing the economy on service, and on closing production/consumption loops, requires basic changes in the economy’s incentives and disincentives.  The role of the state in a green economy is dealt with more comprehensively in my book.

        It must be emphasized, though, that the state is not the only means of regulation.  There are various elements of an economy that put limits on certain activities, and encourage other things.  The scale of the economy is perhaps the most significant.  A community-based economy, with much more local production for local consumption, builds in a certain amount of accountability.  A community-based financial system can be an even more direct influence on investment.   A place that has a number of powerful financial institutions that lend only, or preferentially, for economic activities that meet the bioregion’s ecological and social needs will have a great impact on the nature of regional production.  Community currencies are another phenomenon that, if well developed enough, can function as forms of economic self-regulation.

        That said, the role of the state is still of undeniable importance.  And this role goes beyond regulation, or making and enforcing the rules.  It also includes coordinationa function that I believe becomes ever more important in a service-based economy.  Because the rules of industrial capitalism encourage greed, self-aggrandizement and accumulation, the state must consistently be a policeman, watching for individuals or firms that transgress the limits.  When the rules are changed to be incentives for service, human development and dematerialization, the state’s role of policeman becomes much less critical than its role as coordinator.  This coordinator role is also important because the state’s planning role in a green economy cannot be a top-down deterministic one in the state-socialist model.  Planning is ever more important, but it must be more participatory and flexible because of the very diverse and decentralized nature of ecological production.

        For dematerialization, the most important rules must surely be those requiring extended producer responsibility (EPR) and product stewardship They constitute major changes in property law and liability that have, until now, limited corporate accountability and encouraged waste.  When a producer must be liable for a product over its entire lifecycle, there is every incentive to conserve materials and to provide service.  There is great incentive to make “products of service” disassemblable, reusable and or even compostable.
        Building materials present a real challenge in terms of how extended producer responsibility should be applied.  “Take back” legislation is obviously not the simple answer. There are many different kinds of products, and different strategies and policies would have to be employed to achieve the goal of closed loop production and the minimization of materials use.  Product stewardship legislation, building codes and development laws, and green taxation are among the many tools available to accomplish the job.

        On the macro scale, development and housing policy would have to prioritize quality shelter instead of the production and sale of buildings.  Forcing developers to bear the full costs of infrastructure, and enforcing mixed-use that combines workplaces and residences in the same area, are other steps.  From here, it is a short step to develop incentives not just for resource-efficient urban intensification (or densification), but for ecological infillThis is intensification that not only increases density but also designs buildings and landscapes to provide food, purify water, heat and cool buildings, etc.  Codes, by-laws and taxation that encourage the preservation, reutilization, and adaptation of existing buildings, rather than building new, can also save vast quantities of materials.
        Taxes are particularly important in building the real cost of materials into market prices.  They can contribute to changing the destructive relationship between labour and materials in the industrial economies, where materials are cheap and labour is expensive.  When materials are substantially more expensive, they will be conserved more.  Dump charges and disposal taxes are crucial means to encourage deconstruction, reuse and recycling.  Taxes on new materials, especially virgin materials, are also appropriate, along with taxes on petrochemical or other polluting products.

        Taxes and charges can complement two other very direct forms of government action: product or substance bans, and green procurementProduct bans might seem draconian, but in fact, as Barry Commoner (1990, 1992) has pointed out, they are direct solutions that require very little bureaucracy.  Municipal governments in Europe have become important vehicles in the campaign against PVC by such bans, and in other cases governments have implemented bans of certain materials from their own purchasing for public purposes.  Green procurement can, in itself, be a powerful instrument for creating market demand for green products.  They can be a crucial factor in allowing local green industries to take off and win wider markets.

        Whether changing rules or providing demand, the government must be a coordinator, ceaselessly networking with major players.  The state must make sure not only that there is a level playing field for green production and conservation, but also that the economy has the capacity to produce ecologically.  Efforts, for example, to reduce landfills must be combined with efforts to attract or set up secondary materials industry to make productive use of diverted materials.  Governments in California, for instance, are involved in various Resource Recovery Park and Eco-industrial park initiatives as part of their efforts to reduce waste.  The kind of cooperation between firms needed to make eco-industrial parks or networks succeed is quite foreign to the mainstream business mentality.  Producing in order to provide real service to people, rather than just selling stuff, is even more foreign.  Local government can be a facilitator, bringing firms together with each other, and with elements of the community.

Information is a crucial ingredient for all this work.  An incredible amount of information about products and materials is necessary for the state to implement green taxation.  It is in the government’s interest that everyone is well informed about the products and forms of production that benefit the community and the environment.  The state obviously has a key role to play in certification and labelling, a role that can greatly benefit local green economic development.  Because what is green depends very much on local-regional circumstances—as well as local social needs and values—government has a large interest in helping develop and distribute information about green products and services.
        This kind of product informational work is very complementary to more general work to develop sustainable community indicators (SCI).  These programmes—like those of Sustainable Seattle or Toronto’s Vital Signs—are small sets of indicators—from, say, 20 to 70—that communities feel best synthesize and distill their social and environmental priorities, and monitor their status (Hart, 2000; Tyler Norris Associates, 1997).  They are at once planning and educational tools that are based on other more detailed quantitative indicators of both social and environmental health.  But they also reflect the more subjective expressed values of the local community. Local government should play a major role in making SCI projects vital aspects of economic planning and development.

The Significance of Consumption
        The preceding provides a sketchy overview of some key levels involved in transforming the use of building materials.  It will require action on all these levels and more to achieve the kind of Factor 10 dematerialization various researchers have insisted is necessary for sustainability.
        Consumption is the final level I will deal with in this paper.  Various writers from a green business perspective, like Martin Charter (2001), are very skeptical of how effectively change can be mobilized from this realm.  Charter feels that most consumers and citizens are highly disorganized, relatively powerless, and, perhaps most importantly, incredibly uninformed about sustainability, about economics and development potentials.  (He has focused his own work at the Centre for Sustainable Design in the UK on product design and on “sustainable supply chains” in industry.  While he has been involved in the development of “integrated product policy” (IPP) development in the EU that includes some concern with the demand side, the emphasis on creating green markets seems fairly weak).
         Other writers, and most environmental organizations, tend to emphasize the level of regulation, the rule-making level, where the state acts as the “guardian” of community and environmental interests (Jacobs, 1991).
         There are certainly many potential pitfalls in working from the consumer side.  In the “consumer”, as well as in the “taxpayer”, industrial capitalism has shaped fairly passive individualistic identities—in sharp contrast to the proactive and principled “citizen” of popular movements.  As Robin Murray (1993) wrote, the postwar Fordist consumer economy de-skilled the consumer as much as Fordist mass production de-skilled the worker.  As people became more “materialistic”, they became increasingly less knowledgeable about materials: where they come from, where they go, and what they are made of.
         The rise of mass consumption in the 20th century paralleled the rise of the Fordist Waste Economy, geared to generating “effective demand” for corporate production.  But leaving aside for a moment the wasteful form it took, this new importance of consumption had great historical significance. Marx long ago emphasized that human consumption was a form of production—the self-production of human beings, or what Marxists call the “reproduction of labour-power”.  The rise of mass consumption signaled, according to Radovan Richta (1969), a new relationship between humans and the economy—with human development becoming potentially an end in itself.
     In the classical industrial economy, human beings were cogs in the megamachine, means to the end of accumulation.  (Their status as commodities on the labour market paralleled their cog status in production).  Consumption was pretty much taken for granted.  It was geared to primary needs for food, shelter, clothing, and basic infrastructure.  It could be standardized, and left to take care of itself.  The actual work of consumption—or the reproduction of labour-power—would be handled primarily by women, and not even recognized as work.
         After the volcanic productivity explosion of the twenties, followed by the Great Depression (which at its roots was a crisis of overproduction and effective demand), consumption could no longer be left to itself.  Industrial capitalism’s newfound interest in consumption would not be for human development, but simply to create effective demand for its growing material output.  But the fact that capitalism had to pay some attention to consumption, and to deliberately cultivate it, was a historical milestone.  It reversed longstanding investment/consumption relationships in civilization, wherein consumption by the masses had always to be deferred to make social investment possible.  Now consumption became the prerequisite for investment and “business confidence”.   It signaled the possibility of human development coming first, and reflected the rise of knowledge-based production, where productivity would depend less on routine (or cog-) labour than on human creativity.

         In Designing the Green Economy, I described how the new social movements of the postwar era were much more culturally-defined and oriented to quality-of-life than the old labour and socialist movements.  The new movements implicitly tried to redefine consumption in a qualitative way.   They were (and are) movements to redefine the ends and goals of economic activity, to redefine wealth itself, and not simply the share it out more fairly.
         The environmental movement has been very important in raising fundamental questions about the “why?” and “for what?” of economic activity.  Many economists may question the waste and inefficiency of industrialism.  But important as these concerns are, they pale next to the more basic questions about consumption, and who we want to be as human beings.  This is the significance of the movement for voluntary simplicity.  It does not by itself touch on the restructuring that needs to occur, and as an economic strategy it might simply reinforce individualism.  But, at its best, voluntary simplicity goes to the roots of economics, forcing us to examine our needs, and distinguish between wants and needs.  It can be a very advanced form of people-production or human development, and a starting point for economic restructuring.

         A technical or economic expression of the new importance of consumption is the emphasis on end-use and on service in ecological economics.  The “hot showers/cold beer” approach of Lovins in defining the soft energy path in the seventies was essentially a focus on human needs.  More recently, the emphasis many industrial ecologists have put on service needs—nutrition, access, shelter, entertainment, etc.—rather than material products amounts to the same thing.
     Clearly, then, the realm of consumption is important, and ultimately the starting point for economic restructuring.

Prosumption in a Green Economy

A focus on consumption certainly risks reinforcing individualism.  Social action in this realm also presents major logistical problems since citizen-consumers have been marginalized and fragmented by industrial capitalism.  But such dangers and difficulties do not negate the importance of consumption.
         Besides the importance of end-use and eco-service, there is another factor that not only makes consumption significant but also indicates possibilities for a new integration of consumption and production.   This is the rise of prosumption.  The term was coined by Alvin Toffer (1972, 1980) when he and other writers like Scott Burns (1975) were exploring emerging postindustrial trends.  It refers to the rise of an informal economy based in the home and community—including gardening, crafts, health disciplines and therapies, self-help building and more.  These activities are considered merely forms of consumption by the capitalist economy, but are in fact potentially advanced forms of production.  They can combine human development (consumption) with production.

         Toffler was almost completely devoid of ecological awareness, but environmental thinkers in recent years have recognized that the potentials for decentralization brought by postindustrialism have major ecological implications.  Fuel cells, rooftop solar shingles, living machine wastewater treatment, rooftop gardens, etc. all make homes and communities into places of production.  (Or, as feminists would argue, they dramatize that residences have always been places of production).          Ground-breaking thinkers on green cities, like landscape architects Michael Hough (1995) and John Lyle (1994), have called attention to the fact that creating green economies depends on harnessing the natural productivity that exists everywhere—in back alleys, front yards, rooftops, industrial lands.  Industrial ecologists like Walter Stahel (1994) are also saying that manufacturing based in reuse and extended producer responsibility must become increasingly local, since proximity is such a major factor in resource efficiency.  The green emphasis on source reduction and reuse, and on conservation or “negawatt” energy, make communities places of production as well as consumption.  Choices about consumption, therefore, can become powerful choices about production.

Green Consumerism, Information and Markets

         As suggested earlier, information about green materials can contribute to alternative sources of value that help shape the incentives and disincentives in an economy.  This knowledge of materials can also be a powerful force in itself if consumers can easily access and act on it.  Many people will be inclined to buy materials that they trust will not only save them energy and not pollute their indoor air, but also protect the ozone layer, create local jobs, and enhance community cohesion.

         Informed individuals making intelligent and responsible decisions about products can certainly make an impact on the economy.  To date, however, the information that is available to individuals is flawed and insufficient.  Brower and Leon (1999), in a Union of Concerned Scientists report, are critical of many environmentalists’ moralistic attitude toward consumption.  They treat driving cars, using disposable diapers, and buying prepackaged foods as uniformly reprehensible actions.  In fact, argue Brower and Leon, these choices are not equal, and all citizens need not adopt voluntary simplicity in order to make major positive environmental impacts.  They outline the largest negative impacts that individual consumers make—with automobile trips at the top of the list—and itemize the priorities that can help people make sound environmental choices.  Food choices are the next biggest priority, followed by major household operations like heating.  These priorities deserve to be more widely known, and each community or bioregion should have priority lists of their own.

         Individual consumerism has other limits.  The low level of most people’s eco-literacy is not just an individual but a social problem that can best be tackled socially.  Ferreting out reliable information can be a problem is just one problem.  Simply buying what are promoted as green products is not in itself an environmental solution.  One must be sure that one is reducing overall materials use and not just adding on another form of consumption.
         Connecting “being green” with “consumer choice” is a scam that has been promoted in the deregulation of the electrical industry.  Almost invariably so-called individual consumer choice through “retail wheeling” of electricity directly to consumers has resulted in a lessening of environmental standards, particularly across the community (Morris, 2001).  “What is green” must be understood looking at the big picture.

        In energy, the most meaningful choices must be taken by communities, through a kind of “wholesale wheeling”.  Communities work as a whole to plug energy leaks, support the combination of generation and conservation they prefer, and then choose to buy from external sources based on their needs, much as the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) has done (Smeloff and Asmus, 1997).  Its equivalent in the realm of materials is collective or cooperative consumerism.  By seeing beyond the individual, one can see possibilities for conservation and for efficiency far beyond what the individual is capable of.  One can also see how cooperation and collective action can make it easier for individuals to make environmental decisions.

         Sharing is one of the easiest and most powerful ways of conserving resources (Gardner, 1999, Sachs et al, 1998).  This is why the electrical grid will always be important in cities, no matter how many buildings can generate solar or wind energy.  The grid will serve as a “community battery”, elegantly storing excess generation for people to use when they need it.  The public transit system works in a similar way.
         Communities can also share buildings, open areas, vehicles, tools, appliances and many other facilities.  This cuts down on the amount of materials used drastically.  Most ladders, lawn mowers, skill saws, washing machines, and automobiles sit idle for most of their useful life.  Sharing can even upgrade the level of quality in using these items—as evidenced in the high maintenance level, newness, and efficiency of cars in existing auto-sharing networks.  Sharing frees time and increases quality for almost everyone.

         Home greenup or community (building) retrofit programmes are examples of another way that cooperative consumerism can work.  Building auditors provide checklists for building owners, prioritizing the measures that can most effectively save energy and money.  They also usually provide lists of certified contractors who can do the recommended work.  The same principle can be applied to materials.
       In some of the Ontario Green Communities Initiatives (GCI), plans were being developed to provide building owners recommendations for materials use—recycling, composting, etc.—while also providing them with directories of green products: food products, building materials, home appliances, etc.   The home inspection would insure that reduction of energy and materials use took place first, and on top of that, any desired purchases would serve to support local green business and industry.  When a right-wing anti-environmental government was elected in 1995, these plans were scrapped, as the Green Communities programmes were forced to retrench into energy services as their grants were cut.  Although funding for the development of green building materials databases were also cut, it is likely that plans to combine green consumer information on building materials with community inspection programmes will be realized in the future.

         Such initiatives have tremendous potential to both reduce materials use and also to build the infrastructure of green building in a region.  This can be a great help to increasing reuse.  In many areas, the reused building materials centres are relatively isolated from public consciousness, as the big box stores control the popular mind as well as the market.
         In Ontario, the developers of the GCI programmes, Keith Collins (of the Environment ministry) and Robin Murray (of the C.E.D. Secretariat), saw the potential of collective consumerism not only to conserve and to support local builders, but also to create market power that could spawn new green industry in the area.  Established manufacturers could also be approached with the promise of a guaranteed market of x thousands—if they would produce a reusable this or a biodegradable that.

         The existence of a directory of green building materials, coupled with its guaranteed distribution in the community, could also give community developers influence in convincing retailers of building materials (particularly local retailers threatened by the big box stores) to stock the materials listed in the green directory.  “If you agree to carry these materials, we can help promote you as the ‘green building centre’ of this city.”  These stores could also be sites for educational workshops in green building and design.  And they could also be linked with the emerging networks of deconstruction and reused materials.  There is no reason why deconstruction services could not also operate out of the building supply retailers.  As taxes and charges on virgin materials and on disposal increase, smart retailers will want to increasingly move into the realm of reuse and deconstruction.
         Collins and Murray also sought to explore other ways of building support for local green industry by combining cooperative consumerism and green enterprise networking with innovative uses of community money.  They had agreements with a number of major credit unions in southern Ontario to issue discount or “eco-” cards to members to provide incentives for both consumers and producers.
         This isn’t the place to explore the details of the eco-card initiative, but only to argue that the realm of consumption can be the starting point for any number of initiatives that can ripple back up the “supply chain” to affect production and extractive industry, in addition to disposal.  Projects like the Collins/Murray GCI in Ontario could easily be networked into eco-industrial development initiatives in ways that would substantially benefit both communities and enlightened corporations.  Particularly in places like Toronto that have pressing landfill problems, this kind of integrated approach—which combines new markets, new industries, new jobs and environmental quality—is especially appropriate.

In Summary
        The greening and dematerialization of building involves the whole economy.  It must take place on every level—production, consumption and regulation.  Green initiatives have to begin everywhere, but the realms of consumption and prosumption may be the place where radical initiatives have the greatest space for movement.  Grassroots action is perhaps the most logistically complex because, by definition, it is moving from the realm of the marginalized and fragmented.  But it also can appeal directly to real felt needs and also build incrementally.
         The realm of consumption is deeply embedded in civil society.  It not only includes unpaid prosumption but is very closely connected to the realm of small business.  This level of business is where most ecological economic alternatives are implemented: eco-construction firms, community-supported agriculture networks, auto-sharing networks, green power co-ops.  Small businesses have more space to interject ethical motivations into their actions.  Whereas large corporate initiatives hold the promise of quick and big change, they are also more bound by existing rules of the game that encourage accumulation not dematerialization.  Civil society can experiment with new rules.  And the power thus built can create pressure for official rule-changes.
         In the end, the fastest way to effect production and extraction “upstream” may originate right in our communities.

       Brian Milani
       July / August 2001

Note:  the author gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the SSHRC for this research

References & Relevant Resources

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