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23. 4. 2024

ESG known and unknown

In order for generations of our descendants to enjoy this blue planet, we should treat it responsibly. Avoiding use of plastic bags, sorting waste and conserving water – we can already do all that. But what about the big buildings around us, the places where we live and work? What are they made of and how does their construction and maintenance affect life on Earth? And how do companies that own or operate them feel about all this? I discussed these points and more with Iveta Králová, Architectural Project Manager/Chairman of CZGBC at SAINT-GOBAIN CONSTRUCTION PRODUCTS CZ a.s., a leader in modern and sustainable construction headquarted in DOCK IN TWO.

We first met in one of the working groups of the Czech Green Building Council associating companies that consider sustainability to be one of the characteristics of their business. This is certainly no different for the Saint-Gobain Group. But what is your approach to sustainability specifically?

Saint-Gobain is a multinational group with French roots, which has fourteen production plants in the Czech Republic and almost 4,500 employees. Sustainability and sustainable construction have resonated in the Group for years now and are vital to it both globally and locally. We focus on sustainability at the level of performance and composition of our materials, as well as production and all its processes. And we introduce aspects of sustainable construction not only in research and development of new products, but also in transport and cooperation with other partners across the supply and customer chain.

Logistics, which has a huge impact on CO2 emissions, is a prime example of the specific measures we are introducing. However, we need cooperation with customers and business partners, and this can sometimes be challenging. We want them to behave like us and provide us with key data, but we’re generally quite successful. For example, at the Rigips drywall plant in Horní Počápy, we built a railway siding from the plant to the train station to ship material by rails instead of on trucks. However, this was preceded by complex negotiations and communication with customers to get them on board with a change in their approach. When calculating the CO2 emissions produced, we found that such a measure not only reduces the traffic load on roads and replaces 40 trucks with a single train set, but also cuts out 350 tons of CO2 per year. In other plants, for example, delivery routes and delivery times have been optimized to reduce emissions. Even in these cases, it was important to talk to customers so they would know why we were doing it and how it would benefit them. This is reflected, for example, in EPD certificates – the shorter the delivery route, the closer the source of raw materials, the better for producers and customers.

The term circular economy is often used in connection with the carbon footprint and its reduction. How close is this concept to you?

One of our priorities is reusing raw materials. We have experience offering glass take-back, applying our recycling technology for drywall, and making use of fiberglass. It is not easy, because not everyone can disassemble the construction into parts and sort them like LEGO, but people gradually learn it. We are trying to stay ahead of the curve and show what we can do now, although we know that the demand for recycling of our products will come in maybe five years. It’s no exception that we come up with a novelty, product or technology, but it falls on deaf ears of the market and experts alike. After a few years, they will know about it, but we are ready now. An example is the EPDs (EPD = Environmental Product Declaration, a detailed product certificate on its environmental impact, editor’s note): we talked about them 15 years ago, but no one caught on. Cut to the present: the situation has changed and we are happy to offer them to customers with a clear conscience. Today, more than 80% of our products are certified in this way, and everything will be certified by 2030.

At the same time, we try to replace natural raw materials as much as possible. Thanks to the fact that the plant in Horní Počáply, where drywall is produced, stands next to the power plant, we replace gypsum with energy gypsum, a bi-product of desulfurization of emissions from the power plant. If I overdo something, we toss it out, replacing it with the original raw material. There are a lot of partial things going on, but they are essential for the overall picture of our Group.

Let’s stay with the Czech Green Building Council for a while, which I consider a great platform for inspiration and sharing. What does membership mean for your company and for you personally, not only as the chairman of the board of directors?

The Saint-Gobain Group is a founding member of the Czech Council and the same is true in other countries where it operates. The Czech Green Building Council is a member of the World Green Building Council. Membership and active involvement in its operation give us the opportunity to meet with partners who, like us, consider the path of green building to be the right one and the only one sustainable in the long run. Thanks to this, we have keen perspective of where our field and related fields are going or where there are issues. Let’s not paint it all in a good light: it is a broad topic and linked to a number of other aspects, including legislative support. For us, the council is a community where we collect information thanks to which we can then influence current events. To maintain efficiency in the council, there are seven working groups, the newest of which focuses on wooden buildings. It is probably no surprise that I support its creation, because wooden buildings are an essential topic requiring much more space and attention of public administration, which is resistant in many ways.

I have been active in the Healthy Indoor Environment group for over ten years. Until recently, I worked at Ecophon, one of the subsidiaries of the Saint-Gobain Group, which focuses on spatial acoustics. I enjoy collaboration, seeking out common solutions, and organizing workshops explaining why we should focus on acoustics and how.

My tenure as chairman is a tremendous calling: to be surrounded by interesting people from the field, to have the owners of different companies next to each other. I am learning and it is a huge experience and an honor at the same time. I mustn’t rest on my laurels, but rather be as prepared as possible at all times. In consequence, I feel the need to constantly educate myself, to broaden my perspectives and learn, because nobody knows everything. I touch on various topics, discovering the respective context to be surprised as little as possible, and then bring everything to our company, because even at the global level, we have discussions on sustainability from different points of view.


In your experience, how do we as the Czech Republic stand in our approach to sustainability and responsible behavior compared to the world? Do we, as individuals, share the belief that we need to do something and ideally start with ourselves, and can we then project this into the everyday functioning of our workplaces? Or do we put ourselves on the back foot and do it just because it should or even must be done?

For individuals, ESG is such an elusive concept that we have to look at specifics – from trifles such as waste sorting, through not wasting water, to even realizing the detrimental effects of fast fashion. The group can always do more than the individual, but getting in the habit and passing it on, for example to our children, is the key. At the corporate level, these habits take the form of certain rules that are gradually tightening – and again from waste sorting to saving energy and water through smart switches and saver gadgetry. We were used to abundance, and suddenly the situation is different. Raw materials are running low, and we need a fresh way of thinking. Companies are becoming cognizant of this and are coming up with more economical approaches to everything. No wonder we’re a little scared. It’s a real challenge.

We lack the young generation of people who have already grown up so far in the environmentally friendly, ecological, sustainable... whatever we call it...approach to life, and are used to it. We are just at the cusp – opportunities to study fields focused on green construction and technologies are only just emerging, we will have to wait for future experts who will live with and practice all the innovations arising in research. The rest of us learn on the fly and some of us don’t forget to shake our heads at the fact that it comes from the European Union. We are in a transition that will take some time. But in 40–50 years, things will be different.

What do you think we can positively influence as individuals? And how is it going in your company?

Regardless of the position I hold, I can come up with a proposal for a positive change that, true, will “only” appear internally in the company culture at the beginning, but will ultimately impact the personal lives of our colleagues as well. I do not have to immediately change the company’s strategy and immediately increase its ESG rating or its perception on the market. At Saint-Gobain, we think from the heart and I am excited because I thrive in this environment. It could concern minor things like “we’re collecting batteries this month”, supported by campaigns emphasizing how it would help and what it would save, and the collection crates would fill up immediately. Or take for example our green wall at reception: a colleague dedicated to blue-green solutions grows plants on it to practically show us the material that we have just developed for growing plants indoors. There is also a lovely story about just how natural greenery was and is to us as humans, and in buildings with white walls we suddenly miss it, which in turns lowers our productivity.

The company is made up of people and the management only shapes it into more specific outlines. Nothing – especially in sustainability – can be mandated. At the end of last year, a series of Climate Fresco workshops took place in our country, where lecturers explained to us, using very specific and understandable examples, how we can influence climate change with our daily activities, whether it is the (non)use of plastic bags, understanding the functions of plankton or grasping the impact of global warming on potential gigantic waves of migration of people from places that will be uninhabitable due to high temperatures. Thanks to this, we could imagine how even a single thing we start doing differently ultimately affects a number of aspects. All colleagues should be trained in the approach to sustainability through this interactive game.

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With the abbreviation ESG lurking behind every corner, it might seem that sustainability from an environmental, social and administrative point of view – not to forget governance, which is an essential component of ESG – is something new. But you will certainly lead me from this hasty conclusion. How is the approach of companies in the Czech Republic to ESG evolving?

ESG is like a term for all things frightening, meanwhile companies have been dealing with many aspects of it for years, they are actually seasoned in it and rules have been put into practice. Suddenly, however, they have to report it somehow, which they do not yet grasp. This relates to the need for technical knowledge, e.g. for calculating emissions, and orientation in many other areas. We lack the practical knowledge that we can only gather from colleagues from abroad, if, of course, the company has a parent or sister company in countries with deeper awareness of ESG and experience with it. Again, we go the way of workshops, seminars and other forms of sharing and learning. There are many pieces of information coming to us, we have to decide which of them concern us or not, and this is no easy task. I believe that we are well on our way to turning theoretical awareness into practical experience.

How does the state, its representatives and public administration help with all this? They should lead by example, and think – like companies – far ahead and make the right decisions. Is that happening? And where could they find inspiration?

For me, the state is slightly frozen. In the construction industry specifically, support is not what it could be. Maybe we were expecting that the requirements we were facing would be softened or deferred, but that is not happening. The Czech Republic has committed to the Green Deal and it must codify individual directives into Czech legislation, but this is happening at a snail’s pace. Another pain when we talk about green buildings is what state-owned buildings look like. They should lead by example and show: this is what it looks like when it is built or reconstructed in accordance with the new standards, and we want to inspire you and help you get through practical uncertainties or barriers. But this is not the case; on the contrary, the private sector provides the public sector with information to know what practical steps to take. I’m certainly not saying that nothing is going on, but it’s slow. In the tender documentation for a specific project, school or kindergarten, the environmental aspect is usually missing and the competition still revolves around price... At the same time, we know that if the product is innovative, it comes with a higher price tag than another at this time, but when it becomes a standard, we will choose only from green solutions and it will be completely normal practice. It is in public procurement that the tender documentation could therefore be one step ahead and elaborated in such a way as to emphasize ESG and facilitate the incorporation of specific progressive solutions into practice. In 50 years, we will be wondering what to do with these ceilings, how to proceed with the demolition of a façade, what to throw away in a landfill, if a certain path is still available and under what conditions, and so on.

Is any country inspiring you in its approach to sustainability in the construction industry?

It is difficult to name one. Different countries can be inspired from different perspectives – somewhere more green buildings are built in cities so that they are not overheated and people can continue to live in them. Elsewhere, the urban concept is well thought out, and yet another country focuses its green efforts on electromobility. I cannot name a single country that plays a leading role in all ESG perspectives. In many countries, this depends on a lifestyle that is more environmentally friendly than elsewhere. On the contrary, overpopulated countries struggling with waste, especially excess plastic, have a rather negative experience. What to do with this situation? Saint-Gobain talks about bringing sustainable solutions to the lives of us all – whether in housing or work, but also in mobility. It certainly means investment in research and innovation, cooperation across sectors, streamlined orientation in technologies and innovation throughout the supply chain.

In your experience, wherein lies the uniqueness of the brands that your parent company associates?

Certainly in the quality of products and transparency. With our products, you know exactly what they are and what their composition is, and you get incredibly sophisticated customer service. It has everyone in mind – from the investor, architect or designer, through the general contractor and assembly company, to the end users themselves. Everyone will find absolute support with us. We have over 350 years of tradition when we had the time and space to perfect our solution.

How has the internal emphasis on sustainability and well-being been (and continues to be) reflected in the office environment on a daily basis after moving to Dock? How does the S aspect of the three letters ESG resonate across your company?

We wanted to turn our offices into our showroom – to show what we produce, what we can do, and what we are currently working on – while ensuring that our offices work as efficiently as possible. For almost 100% of the premises, we managed to provide an all-day supply of daylight, which is essential for productivity and employee satisfaction. Everything was adapted to this – even with the help of lamps, acoustics or a sense of comfort. We focused on the arrangement of spaces: where we sit, how we move, where we have our kitchenettes, where we gather and where we have our relax zone. A big plus is the view of the water, which is pleasing and calming. The only thing I personally regret – as a person who likes to move – is the hidden staircase. I would “offer it more” to the users of the building and show visitors coming to us to the 2nd floor that they can walk there too. Everyone goes by elevator because the staircase is hidden. Moreover, nothing draws me there: it could be interactive and colorful, inviting colleagues to leave messages by it and gently motivating themselves to climb stairs more often.

Ukliďme Česko

And since well-being is closely related to work-life balance, I can’t help but ask, how do you relax and recharge your batteries? You seem highly energetic, even endlessly so, and so you certainly have a recipe that you will hopefully share.

For me, the basis is a good night’s sleep, which in my case is eight or nine hours a night. That’s an absolute must. Then it is the internal setting. Each of us will encounter a lot of situations in life, but ultimately, I can always tell myself that I am essentially carefree. As I get older, my world view and priorities change. I care about striking the balance between private and professional life, but I look at it a little differently: I am used to working a lot and intensively. I can work hard, but then I compensate for it. It also works for me to surround myself with kind people and support those who are experiencing more difficult times, essentially to energize them. Another aspect is staying active. I love sports: running and cycling with my family. And when there is a castle or chateau along the way, my heart rejoices.

Thank you for the interview.