As one of our esteemed Sustainability Awards judges, Kate Harris, the CEO of Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA), speaks to A&D about standards, compliance, greenwashing, training, and how her experience as a therapeutic clown doctor taught her the ability to create transformational change in an instant.
When it comes green standards, do compulsory standards work better in the long run than voluntary standards in your opinion?
We need both. Voluntary standards create new benchmarks and drive best practice - ultimately making our sustainable future possible. We know we can’t keep doing things the way we are, so voluntary standards push the bar and leaders get to show us how it is done - and be rewarded for it.
They also make sure that minimum standards don’t become a complacent compliance. Minimum standards are also vital though to have a minimum measurable requirement for safety, compliance and conformance.
It is also worth noting that other countries minimum standards are improving rapidly and in overseas markets, voluntary eco labels are becoming more than ever before.
For example, this is a good reason to know more about your Global Ecolabelling Network (GEN) member Australian eco-label and get ready for global trends.
From your experience, is the list of sustainable products for the built environment growing at a rate you would expect, or is their greenwashing going on as well?
Yes, we are growing and eco-labelled sustainable products are growing too as more and more people commit to doing the right thing. But don’t be fooled - green wash is alive and well!
Marketing and slick CSR initiatives are often great and sell the sizzle but this does not necessarily mean there is strong substance underneath.
Even a label without being certified or independent - many create their own labels and claims, but what do they actually mean?
So, we need a trusted and transparent brand to be well recognised and be easily identified. This is where architects and designers can really help.
Another form of greenwashing can be confusion of the market through saturation of data.
Transparency and data are now often given credibility as ‘best practice. Let’s be clear- data is helpful but declarations do not necessarily mean ‘good’. They could even be a bad product and without having an environmental engineering post grad, how would the consumer know?
So, we need both.
GECA runs a number of education and training programs - where is most of the demand coming from, and why from these areas?
At the moment, it’s materials and navigating the landscape.
For our manufacturers, we provide help and advice on understanding the impacts of certain materials and chemicals, their impacts on people and planet and how to procure alternatives.
For others within the sector and in particular in procurement, we are being asked to help understand what does an eco-label mean and what are the differences between them all.
In the built environment, we are also asked how to navigate and understand all the schemes available- whether Green Star, LEED, WELL, Living building challenge etc. We help people prioritise in alignment with their purpose and desired outcomes.
They all play their important role.
One of our newest initiatives is our positive procurement pledge, where we are helping organisations to start or grow their sustainable procurement policy.
We are asking companies to sign up and help make the world a better place through everything they purchase. We will help their journey over a three-year period
As CEO of GECA, what are the most common challenges you face in terms of compliance?
My biggest challenge is being able to create systemic change through Australia and our Asian region with a compliance driven and complex market that is often concerned about themselves, their company or just their bottom line. None of us work in insolation from each other- not one. These challenges sit with both supply and demand. How do we achieve our global, sustainable future for people and planet and drive positive implementation in order to make the profound changes we need to make within the time frame we need to make them? And how do we do this across all products and services and procurement and indeed even as an individual consumer within society?
Leadership in commitment, co-creation and cooperation are the answer. Simple, but not easy to achieve.
When it comes to sustainability, what would you say is the one thing that architects do well that other professions should emulate?
Architects understand the importance of creativity into action whether faced with a blank canvas problem solving. Vision into action. Left and right brain thinkers. Long term thinking and short term acting. Beauty and basics. For me this is the best skill set we need across all fields moving forward. Bring on more architects and designers into all professions to ensure a fabulous future for all.
On a global scale, how do Australian companies compare when it comes to sustainable practices?
In the built environment, we have shown great leadership globally and I believe we will continue to do so but we do not demonstrate that excellence across all sectors. We need to keep leading the way and sharing our story.
We also, I believe, have let environmental needs slip –particularly material considerations, whilst we focus on social and ethical concerns.
It is not one or the other-we need to do all of them, all the time, with all decisions.
Countries who have seen the environmental impacts from a poor use of materials in manufacturing and procurement have learnt the hard way and are fast making changes. I hope Australia doesn’t need to face degradation and despair before we choose sustainable design.
Australia has such an opportunity to lead this space. I am constantly asked for great green Aussie products and we need more.
The green economy is alive and well across Asia and with Europe. They are fast moving and well ahead.
Let’s learn from them and the lessons they have made.
In terms of life experience, what would you say prepared you the best for the GECA role?
I think starting off as a nurse grounded my care in humanity across all levels and I am very grateful for it. My parallel career as an improvisational performer and therapeutic clown doctor (Dr Princess Anaesthesia Lovebug) taught me that creativity and connection can create transformational change in an instant and somehow, we need to bring these things to the global system of sustainability to create profound change with care and simplicity.
I hold on to this hope daily. But most of all, I think my role at the Centre for Sustainability Leadership for showing me that people with purpose really are a powerful force in leadership.
And the architecture and design community is full of people with passion and purpose.
Great things will be possible when we all pull together towards a common goal for our future.