A Greater Grasp: How we can use green building to motivate and make meaningful strides in sustainability

Diversity and inclusion are two topics at the center of the conservation around green buildings. To me, green building is all about people – it’s about improving their quality of life, making sustainable practices more accessible to them, and creating a more equitable world for all. But before we are able to fully support each other, we have to first ask the right questions: how do we ensure responsible impact investments reach the communities that need it before it’s too late? How do we guarantee every single human being on the planet has a safe and healthy place to call home? How do we make sure a universal standard of living becomes a right for everyone, regardless of background or circumstance? 

To even scratch the surface of answering these critical questions, we need to be honest about the stakes. Globally, they’ve never been higher. Over the next two decades, overpopulation will accelerate and millions of people and trillions of dollars in assets will be at risk. Low-income communities, which are already disproportionately affected by substandard health conditions and environmental hazards, will suffer the worst consequences. And we’re facing a divide in opinions surrounding the urgency required to meet these challenges.

It’s up to all of us to start engaging wider audiences and convince the public of the reality of climate-related threats. And to do that, we need to illustrate the importance of small, everyday actions. We have to connect the dots between people and the planet they call home.

Last fall, my organization launched the Living Standard campaign, an initiative designed to better understand the pulse of our community, address disconnects in our messaging, and reach communities beyond our normal orbit. We conducted independent, in-depth national qualitative and quantitative research to understand people’s views. Instead of just talking to ourselves, we met with people outside our typical audiences and sought feedback in focus groups across five diverse, urban markets of the U.S., including commercial and residential developers, millennials, community opinion leaders, and young parents.

And in April, we compiled our findings and released the first in a series of reports examining how we can make strides in sustainability and build a diverse and inclusive community. Rooted in personal interactions, this new type of data will help us better grasp how people from all walks of life feel about green building, sustainability, and the environment.

What we’ve found is this: Overwhelmingly, while most people believe existential stakes exist, few are actually taking action. They know climate-related risks are a problem. But they also feel they are too big, too abstract, and too distant from their own realities to do something about them. We did word-association with terms people might relate to when thinking about a healthier world. And the results were telling: at the bottom of the list was green building. Only 11% of our respondents associated that phrase with strongly relating to the environment.

But we also found that what people want most are ways of having a better day-to-day experience in their lives. They want cleaner air and less waste. They want to reduce energy use. They want to conserve water. And, interestingly, they told us they don’t just want these things, they expect them.

Fortunately, these are all expectations that green buildings can meet, and that we as the leaders advancing ESG can help achieve. But we still have some work to do to show people that buildings are behind these benefits. Many of these same individuals can’t quite explain or describe what role a building plays in their overall health and happiness. They aren’t even fully convinced that buildings do, in fact, play a large role in their own well-being. The long-term problems that come from an absence of these benefits are not part of their short-term, day-to-day considerations. While people might believe in the idea of LEED, BREEAM or WELL and generally support the concept of green building, they don’t grasp how a green building is contributing to their health and quality of life. In other words, they don’t make the leap we need them to: better buildings equal better lives.

To help more people make that leap, the global green building and investment community has to work together to stay motivated, evolve our tactics with the stakes, and not be in a perpetual state of catch up. We have to seek out and listen to communities outside our normal orbit. We have to try harder to understand the experiences of everyone, not just those in our boardrooms or the people who live in our immediate communities. And we have to connect their challenges with our solutions.

To mobilize people outside our community and inspire them to get involved, we have to shift their sense of urgency. But it’s also critical as the leaders advancing the conversation around ESG that we shift our own. We have the insight, the context, and quite frankly, the responsibility — to use the data and information we gather effectively. Changing public perception about green building and the importance of ESG will take nothing less than a swift and radical reframing of our communication methods, particularly our heavy reliance on data and numbers to prove our cause. As a self-professed data nerd, I’m guilty of this, too.

If we are ever to reverse the dangers of climate change, we’ve got to bring more humanity into our conversations. For leaders in ESG, and especially business, financial and portfolio management leaders, making this real—defining data as it connects to the actual human experience—will be the whole ballgame.

If we want to build diversity and inclusion, we have to start by asking the right questions. We must take into account the other leaders in our immediate orbits, but, just as critically, listen to communities outside our own for stories that have too often gone untold. And lastly, each time we consider quantitative data, we have to bring it to life by putting it into context. Look for the stories behind the numbers and share them.

The ESG and green building community has made tremendous strides in building a better world, but if we leverage the combined power of people and data to build a better narrative, we’ll not only educate people on the benefits of green building, we’ll increase demand for better buildings. We’ll open up even greater opportunities for impact investment — and most importantly, we’ll help all people live longer and better lives.

This article was written by Mahesh Ramanujam, Chairman of GRESB, President & CEO of USGBC, President & CEO of GBCI.

Related insights