We sat down with Todd Sims, Director of Sustainability & Market Outreach at American Chemistry Council to chat about the state of sustainability in 2020 and where the industry headed in the future. He will also be speaking at Greenbuild International Conference & Expo Virtual this fall.

Check out our conversation with Todd below:

What is the biggest sustainability trend of 2020?

In a word, inclusiveness. A sustainable future requires a broad definition of sustainability – to include considerations of global pandemics, climate change and community resiliency, and social equity. It also requires a conscious effort to include as many diverse voices as possible to help solve the world’s most pressing issues to create a sustainable world and future. 

What is the biggest sustainability innovation so far in 2020?

The widespread institutional embrace of technology solutions to allow us to stay productive and connected during the COVID-19 pandemic will have long-term implications on sustainability. These innovations will allow us to re-imagine our relationship with the built environment in offices, transportation practices, and beyond.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected sustainability and/or green building?

In the immediate, COVID-19 has caused a re-imagining of our work environments given the need for widespread adoption of remote work. From return-to-work protocols to the amount of office space which may or may not be needed in the future, how companies and employees engage with the built environment on a daily basis has been significantly altered.

Rahm Emanuel famously quipped, “Never waste a good crisis.” While the sentiment could be seen as callous, the lesson is important. People are becoming more aware than ever about their direct relationship with the built environments around them. As we emerge from this pandemic, sustainable building professionals will have an opportunity to capitalize on this awareness to encourage greater demand for healthy, sustainable, and resilient buildings.

Why is corporate social responsibility becoming more and more important?

In a way, it is reminiscent of the sustainable building movement. What was once viewed as a ‘nice-to-have’ is quickly becoming viewed as a license to operate. Besides simply doing the right thing, businesses understand that in order to stay competitive they need to attract top talent; and emerging leaders are making decisions using different value sets. At ACC, our staff and members are committed to being a positive force for a more diverse, inclusive and equitable society, a principle that is reflected in our existing commitments to sustainability.

We have the ability to leverage our position within communities and the broader economy to create opportunities and enhance equality for underrepresented groups, including people of color and women.  

Why is social equity so important today?

Social equity has always been critically important, we just allowed our leaders to either willfully ignore it or to hide behind half-measures. Social equity is sustainability; and sustainability is social equity. There is no parsing of the issues. A future that doesn’t work to provide support and opportunities for all isn’t a sustainable one.

How can sustainability and green building professionals help create a more circular economy?

I worry that the conversations around the circular economy are falling victim to the same pitfalls of the early sustainable building movement – an overreliance on a single attribute or issue.

Of course, we need to make better utilization of recycled content in products; and we should make products more easily recyclable from the onset. But to stop there would be a massive failure of imagination and progress. We also need to challenge our current relationship with materials – how can we insert circularity at the beginning of the design process rather than the end; and how can we enhance investment in R&D innovations in green and sustainable chemistry.

What is your advice to fellow sustainability and/or green building professionals to make a positive impact in 2020?

Bring a friend! This issue is too big, too important, and too urgent to be confined to a narrow group of dedicated advocates. Not only do these issues require an enormous amount of brainpower to solve, but the movement itself would benefit greatly from fresh perspectives and approaches.

For too long the perception has been you are either a full-time sustainability expert or that your contributions may not have meaningful impact. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sustainability should be the norm, and we should to normalize it for people to include in their day-to-day functions.

Where do you see sustainability going 10 years from now?

There is a false perception that sustainability has a finish line; that we will have either ‘solved’ this in 10 years or we are all doomed. I think that flies in the face of sustainability as a principle. Of course, it is incredibly important for us to make significant progress in the next 10 years to mitigate the climate crisis. But what comes next? There will no doubt be a new set of issues that will demand our full attention.

At the closing of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, in response to a question about whether America had a monarchy or republic, Benjamin Franklin responded, “a Republic, if you can keep it.” So, in 10 years, we will have sustainability – if we can keep it.

Want to hear more from Todd? Attend Greenbuild Virtual starting September 10th through November 12th. The industry’s leading green building event now offers three virtual summits in lead up to International Conference & Expo virtual event.

Safe, secure, sustainable. Connections without geographic boundaries. Expanded education courses available in real time or any time. Interactive supplier sourcing and peer networking forums. This is Greenbuild’s next chapter. Join us – Sign up here!

Working from home has become the “new normal” for many businesses. As people return to offices, social distancing and healthier workplaces are imperative. Attracting and retaining the best employees is no longer just a function of corporate culture but also the environments in which they work. 

Air and water quality and ventilation, building systems that encourage social distancing, and other solutions will continue to evolve. The willingness of many companies to allow employees to work remotely will ultimately have an impact on air quality, as commuters establish new at-home routines. 

“The CDC now wants us to highly increase building energy use through ventilating in off-hours, turning off demand-controlled ventilation, etc. Spaces will need to accommodate both collaborating and social distance.”

  • Neff, Kilroy Realty

“COVID-19 has reframed the way we think about building use and occupation comfort. The conversation also includes efficiency upgrades because many new HVAC systems allow for several accessories, like UV sanitizing lights.”

  • Agazio, Motili

“We’ll see automated technology that seamlessly integrates into our workspaces — like automated doorways and fixtures. A phased reduction in density will be evident via people and spaces.”

  • Ahmad, Sustainable Architect

“While we use floor design for aesthetics, branding, and wayfinding, it will also become more prominent in terms of safety — especially to provide visual cues to keep occupants connected but at a safe distance.”

  • Conway, Interface

“I believe that the circular economy will ebb and flow, based on needs and demands…the innovative mindset of the new entrepreneur will help accelerate the movement and steer it in a great direction.” 

  • George Bandy, Global Leader for CSR and Sustainability 

“I’ve become more cognizant of the need to design and build for the challenges of the next decades…not just today.”

  • Sims, American Chemistry Council

For more on this topic, download our new whitepaper, “Sustainability: Yesterday vs. Tomorrow.” You’ll learn the 7 must-know insights defining the future of our industry, post-COVID-19 transformation, powerful innovations, and how companies are becoming more socially responsible.

The term “future-proofing” first came into use in 2007. Originally applied to technology security, it was embraced rapidly by the sustainability community. Natural disasters and the damage to the planet caused by irresponsible human decision-making prompted the building industry to look at how the choices they make can result in irreparable damage to individuals, neighborhoods, and the planet. Today (and tomorrow) everyone involved in the design, development, and building process is held to a higher standard. 

We reached out to professionals who are changing the trajectory of green building and sustainability. This “green dream team” represents a broad and diverse cross-section of sustainability and business leaders, including architecture, manufacturing, design, consulting, and real estate.

They spoke to us about the post-COVID-19 transformation, how innovation will need powerful new solutions, and how companies and brands are expanding their knowledge and commitment to social responsibility.

Common themes that emerged about the future of sustainability from this group are:

  1. The need for true collaboration and sharing of best practices across industries
  2. Automation as a lever in creating solutions and in data reporting
  3. An expanded role of socially-responsible corporations in facilitating change and innovation
  4. Emphasis on health and well-being of individuals and communities in the post-COVID-19 environment
  5. The ongoing need to track and report the short- and long-term financial benefits of sustainable building

 Here are their powerful insights for the next decade. 

“Along with the continued move toward collaboration, I am excited to see the impact institutional investors can have on effecting change. I look forward to the changes future generations will dream up that are unimaginable today.” 

“There will be a huge focus on people and the impacts of all actions that affect people’s lives, quality, accessibility, equality, health, etc.….We will see a major shift in how all stakeholders approach corporate sustainability. In the long-term, there really needs to be a better plan for infrastructure in cities and overall public transportation.”

“In 10 years, I believe we will improve reporting and move the needle on social impact. There is no better time to redesign the new normal.”

Solar photovoltaic technology, battery storage, and the use of electric vehicles will be at the forefront of commercial energy storage. National energy codes and local state financial incentives will recognize and mandate the implementation of solar-ready infrastructure and electric vehicle charging infrastructure.”

“In three years, automated sustainability will take hold as the wave of IoT (Internet of Things) and 5G spread across the nation. I expect to see many smart devices that help homeowners and building operators monitor electricity, water use, and potentially trash and recycling volumes. Automation will pave the way towards inherent building sustainability. Within 10 years, I expect to see huge strides towards carbon neutrality nationwide. The major changes will be around energy use rates and grid mix transactions to renewables. I would also expect a higher responsibility of action placed on major manufacturers.”

  • Maria Agazio, Sustainability and Energy Efficiency Lead, Motili

“In the short-term, I think environmental sustainability will take a back seat to health and wellness in the built environment. I think we’ll see larger strides in the electrification of buildings, renewable energy, and energy efficiency as more new buildings move toward net zero goals and have carbon neutrality goals.”

“We’ll see materials advances – especially nanotechnology based advances in areas like insulation and super windows. 3D printing will be applied to affordable housing using sustainable materials and reducing construction times. AI tools will lead to the expansion of generative design and integrative design.”

  • Roger Duncan, Author, former Research Fellow at the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, and former General Manager of Austin Energy. Co-author with Michael E. Webber of the upcoming book, The Future of Buildings, Transportation and Power (August 2020)

“There will be an increasing focus on understanding physical climate risk, and disclosing that financial impact to investors.”

“In the near future, sustainability will be better focused on our independence and interconnectedness. Stakeholders are starting to align their contributions to the broader interrelated system to achieve better results. An excellent example is how utilities, solar companies, and builders all impact the sustainability and monthly cost of buildings — the largest segment of energy consumption globally…Sustainable energy doesn’t result unless these separate groups coordinate the results and support each other’s initiatives.” 

For more on this topic, download our new whitepaper, “Sustainability: Yesterday vs. Tomorrow.” You’ll learn the 7 must-know insights defining the future of our industry, post-COVID-19 transformation, powerful innovations, and how companies are becoming more socially responsible.