Features - Environment

Construction Must Re-evaluate Cost of Convenience

Craig Sanders is joint managing director at Protrade and in this latest feature he writes about how the cost of convenience has an impact our environment.

The construction industry is capable of truly great things.

It is able to work on projects such as Kings Cross Station and The Shard. Even when we’re not directly involved in a project, we watch in awe at the progress of incredible construction works, such as the Leeds Flood Alleviation Scheme and Google’s new landscaper London headquarters, taking shape.

Work like this challenges the great minds and skills of our designers, planners, and engineers, and also takes a great deal of consideration for the durability, energy efficiency, and commercial viability each time.

However, why does it seem that little thought is given to the environmental cost during the actual building phase?

Currently, the industry still operates with price and availability being the overpowering factors behind many purchase decisions made in the procurement of materials for construction and fit-out projects.

It’s only when you start to consider the volume of products being consumed and the number of deliveries being made each and every day, that you wonder; what are they actually costing the Earth?

As fierce competition drives prices down, we’re seeing the quality of products inevitably suffer – often resulting in reduced service life, more frequent repairs and maintenance, increased consumption, and subsequently a higher rate of disposal.

We’re also faced with the modern interpretation of ‘great service’ meaning you can have whatever you want, whenever you want it, and as often as you like with limited financial penalty.

Again, though, what is the cost of that convenience to the environment?

Just good enough just isn’t good enough

There is a general thought, and indeed a strategy, that has been adopted by some significant players in the construction supplies sector: that the consumer simply wants the cheapest product they can get their hands on.

However, offering products, like trade tools, that are perceived to be just good enough, as they meet quality accreditations – albeit by the skin of their teeth – isn’t going to encourage any long-term sustainable thinking.

Some time ago, my colleague and I were attending a trade fair and were discussing diamond blades with a respected manufacturer.

We overheard the buyer of a well-known tools and equipment supplier stating that providing the price was low enough and the product looked good enough, the life of the blade was less important. Their primary concern was appearing to be low cost and getting regular repeat sales.

In reality, the tip of a diamond blade represents less than 10% of all the material used to make it, but arguably is the part of the product that does all of the work. So once this part has been exhausted, what happens to the rest of the blade?

You can bet that the majority goes to landfill.

There was another example of this short-term thinking at a presentation I attended, during which a particular brand launched a new angle-grinder that featured a unique counter-balance attached to it, reducing the vibration of the machine.

It made it safer in use and enabled the abrasives consumed by the tool to last up to 65% longer. It was a fantastic product – one that would have provided long-term benefits to the consumers in our industry – but it wasn’t popular at that event for one reason: distributors felt it would impact the bottom line of their abrasive sales.

While we accept that it is difficult to step away from this way of thinking, it’s certainly not impossible and we are seeing small steps towards better quality standards and sustainability. The new procedure for testing cut resistant gloves is a great example of that.

Too much emphasis goes on the basic cost of a product and the margin that is achievable, this is applicable to manufacturers, distributors, and consumers.

Instead, a greater effort and change in mindset needs to be made when it comes to looking at what we call the hidden costs – what this is doing to our finite resources, environment, and ultimately the planet as a whole.

The cost of convenient service

Something that has been long established, but is not often considered with regards to environmental sensitivity is stock inventory management or consignment stock systems.

Providing they are well managed and are implemented to include products from within the supply partners’ core competencies, they can be extremely efficient and practical.

A good system should identify core consumable products and place them in the customer’s stores, where they are able to be used at any time of the day… or even night.

A stock reconciliation process should be completed at fixed intervals, often monthly, where all the products used are identified, billed, and replenished in one go – facilitating just one order, one invoice, and one delivery. This type of process eliminates multiple orders and significantly reduces administration costs.

Instead of several vehicles delivering one product frequently, why not have one vehicle delivering multiple products infrequently? We’re all aware of the fact that vehicle emissions are one of the biggest causes of climate change, so why is it not on the construction industry’s radar?

At Protrade, we make a huge effort to consolidate our purchases from suppliers. It reduces interruptions at goods in, allows us to take advantage of any bulk purchase rates, and reduces the number of orders placed, invoices received, and payments that have to be made.

We actively encourage our customers to do the same when placing orders with ourselves and where possible use past sales data to proactively prompt scheduled orders and encourage consolidated purchases on items that we can see are regularly purchased.

Changing attitudes: a case story

Fairly recently, a customer asked us to submit a quotation and confirm how many cartridges they would require for a large sealant tender they were working on.

After giving the joint dimensions and meterage involved, it worked out at a staggering 24 kilometres and that some 19,800 cartridges, all manufactured from single-use plastic, would be required to complete the project – all of which would inevitably end up in, you guessed it, a landfill.

We approached the customer with an alternative foil pack option which contains approximately 30% more product than a cartridge of the same size and when crushed takes up 96% less space.

Part of our discussion with the customer was how they could save money on skip waste and transport due to being able to fit all of the crushed foils into half a skip compared with the eight skips required to dispose of the cartridges.

We were amazed when the customer replied that they were not worried about the cost of disposal as it was ‘already accounted for’ – but, again… what about the environment?

We’re not naïve to the fact that foil packs are manufactured from aluminium and the mining and processing of it are not without its hazards. However, half a skip’s worth of landfill is better than eight skips in the ground, as well as the eight separate trips required to transport the waste.

Is tougher legislation the answer?

For a start, the industry has to be prepared to change and accept costs. That needs to become the norm. There are two key components of that:

  1. Transparency – being open and honest with the consumer about what is available in the market right now
  2. Legislation – there needs to be a swifter process when it comes to banning products that are harmful to the environment. Halogen lighting is a good example of this, containing ‘nasties’ like mercury and consuming significantly more energy than LED alternatives but it is still possible for consumers to purchase halogen lights.

While these changes remove convenience and probably cause more hassle, only by implementing these two points are we going to make a change for the better when it comes to making a genuine commitment to contribute to a wider and more important cause.

There are still a number of steps that need to be taken when it comes to our industry doing its bit for the environment. We know we can’t save the world in one go, but together, there are a number of small changes we can make that can collectively make a big difference.

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