Issue No 368 – On why too many stars are causing confusion and greenwash
7 December 2017
The Fifth Estate is constantly bombarded with press releases on the perceived sustainability wins of residential building projects that, when push comes to shove, are really doing nothing more than meeting the already pretty low minimum standards set by government.
In most jurisdictions, a 6 Star NatHERS rating is now the absolute minimum in terms of a building’s thermal performance. But to many plucky PR firms and developers, it’s an achievement to scream from their poorly performing rooftops.
In NSW where a National Construction Code variation means residential buildings are hitting on average 4.5 stars (and sometimes much less) we’re often furnished with press releases positively glowing about hitting five stars.
We usually put it down to overeager PR firms looking to apply a coat of greenwash for their client, and consequently ignore, but when NAB recently added financing 6 Star NatHERS properties to its low carbon investment achievements, it raised more than a few eyebrows here. It seemed a bit more significant than the usual annoyance confined to a press release.
On face value NAB had eclipsed the rest of the Big Four banks, providing a massive $13.4 billion in financing “to address climate change, and support the transition to a low-carbon economy” (almost double that of closest competitor Westpac on $7 billion). A look at the footnotes, however, revealed that most of the finance – $8.5 billion – was lending to “support development of 6 Star residential properties”.
We were a little confused as to how funding minimum standard residential development was helping the climate, rather than just being business-as-usual practice. You could just as well fund a car company, and say you were actively improving safety because the cars had brakes and met minimum safety standards.
So maybe something else is going on if such a huge corporation can get it wrong. Maybe it’s not greenwash. Maybe it’s plain old confusion.
Looking at the other building rating tools on the market, perhaps the confusion explanation is not such as stretch: 6 Star Green Star? Brilliant. 6 Star NABERS? Industry-leading. 6 Star NatHERS? Bare minimum.
We approached the administrator of NatHERS – the federal Department of Energy and Environment – to see what they were doing to communicate how NatHERS worked to stakeholders and the general public, and whether they were highlighting that a 6 Star NatHERS rating is typically minimum standard. What’s being done to address the confusion?
The answer: not our problem.
“The National Construction Code has a minimum requirement of 6 stars for the majority of climate zones in Australia, although some jurisdictions have varied from this requirement,” a spokesperson said.
“The responsibility for providing advice on minimum requirements are a matter for each state and territory government.”
Saying that, the spokesperson did point to a number of resources NatHERS used for engagement, such as a biannual newsletter, news releases, YouTube videos, an annual face-to-face stakeholder update, and presenting at residential building events and consumer events like Sustainable House Day.
Is it enough, though?
NatHERS has been criticised for poor stakeholder engagement in the past. Last year, an independent review into NatHERS governance by ACIL Allen Consulting found that the body’s communications efforts were widely regarded as substandard, with the need to improve stakeholder engagement on an “urgent basis”.
The spokesman said that NatHERS had responded.
“In accordance with the response from states and territories to the governance review, the NatHERS administrator has, among other things, established the NatHERS Service Charter and a Stakeholder Consultative Group. The Stakeholder Consultative Group had its inaugural meeting in October 2017 and a Terms of Reference for this group will be published on the NatHERS website shortly.”
Although not an issue as big as, say, buildings not even meeting the minimum standards they are legally obliged to, we still hate to see already too low minimum standards promoted as sustainability achievements.
How would you solve the problem? Better engagement of lay stakeholders and the general public? Rescaling the entire NatHERS star rating system? Let us know!