By Tina Perinotto, published in The Fifth Estate, 20th August 2015
After eight-and-a-half years, Robin Mellon, the Green Building Council of Australia’s renowned chief operating officer, is heading off in a new direction.
First stop a long overseas sojourn in Sri Lanka to “see the elephants, the temples and the tea plantations, and do a lot of eating”, relaxing and to undertake a reboot. And then, who knows?
The Fifth Estate wagers he will land somewhere back in the industry, so deeply embedded does he seem to have become in the space.
But before Mellon can reset his internal computer, there’s a bit of defragging that needs to be carried out. Hence an exit interview to get a few things off his chest.
First, to be absolutely clear, now that he’s free from the constraints of the advocacy game, Mellon would like it known that he does not think much of this current federal government. It’s a “pathetic excuse” for leadership, he says. On climate, for example, the government simply “won’t take the lead”.
He says conservative British MP and former Environment Minister in the UK Lord Richard Benyon put it best recently when he said the Abbott government’s response to climate change was “incomprehensible” and “bewildering” (a sentiment the majority of Australian population seems to agree with, given recent opinion polls pointing to a surge in support for climate action).
“Abbott’s dismissal of climate science and his belief that Australia must choose between economic growth and tackling climate change speak to a distorted vision of what it means to be a conservative,” Benyon said.
“True conservative values include distaste for over-regulation and enthusiasm for entrepreneurialism. But they also include a respect for sound science and economics, a belief in protecting the natural world and a responsibility to do the best for the biggest possible number of one’s citizens.”
Mellon would have quite a deep understanding of conservative British politics, perhaps more than the avowedly Anglophillic Abbott could rightly lay claim to.
His background is as a valuer in the Department of Environment and Planning at the City of Westminster in London, marketing and property management at Woodhams London, and policy adviser for the Heritage Lottery Fund in the UK, before moving to Australia fourteen years ago.
Mellon says Benyon is “as blue as they come”, and he’s nailed the issue.
The choice, Mellon says, is not between development and the environment.
“It’s not buildings or green buildings; it’s both. It’s about green building, a productive workforce and a sustainable economy. If you want to, say ‘it’s the economy, stupid’.”
The recent emissions reductions targets announced by the federal government were a “disappointing excuse for emissions reductions, making it 26-28 per cent by 2030 with Abbott’s ‘captain’s pick’ of 2005 when everyone else is at 2000 [levels] because that’s easier.
“When you couple that with the woeful emissions reductions fund, which frankly had nothing in it for buildings…” Mellon trails off.
The ERF could have been good for buildings, Mellon says.
Together with the weakness on same-sex marriage, it all adds up to more reason for people to ignore the federal government and simply “get on with it”, he says.
Certainly local councils are doing that.
Mellon says some are doing outstanding work.
“I take my hat off to them,” he says.
A recent workshop in Melbourne on resilience organised by the City of Melbourne’s new chief resilience officer Toby Kent, who is part funded by the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Network, was particularly inspirational.
“Councils are leading the world, not just in Melbourne,” Mellon says.
In evidence, he says, was a load of commitment.
“Not just admiring the problem, but people putting things together, a spirit of collaboration that together we can achieve something much greater.”
Mellon also liked the broader sense of resilience in the discussion – a sense that a resilient community is critical to bouncing back after a disaster.
“Resilience, not just to floods and so on, but looking to having jobs, and residents and community in the future. It speaks to a better quality of life.”
Brisbane bounced back after devastating floods because it had a resilient community. In some places, such as the poorest parts of New Orleans, the community did not go back.
Mellon loves to visit places such as Gosnells in Western Australia and Melton in Melbourne where “world class buildings” such as civic centres, sports facilities, libraries and learning hubs have been developed by the local councils.
“The point is that Australian councils are really leading the charge now although I have no doubt the Abbott government would use these developments to say it means the market is working perfectly well without any intervention.”
What’s more important, he says, is that “any idiot” would look at these initiatives and say, “How do we create the best policies and market conditions to foster them and spread them around the country?”
There’s another issue he wants to bring up, and that’s the unintended consequence of success of the green building and sustainability sectors.
It’s around the fragmentation that’s happened with a growing host of organisations setting up and competing for the same space.
The industry, Mellon says, “will probably not sustain many more of these organisations.
“It’s not that the GBCA is an early mover and everyone should support the GBCA. But I see more fragmentation. There is a limit to the size of the market.”
If there are 200 organisations all after the same members, and all after the same pot of sponsorship, it’s going to be harder to make progress as a whole.
The answer, he says, is greater collaboration. If organisations are aligned then maybe they should start to work together instead of working on their own small patch.
The fallout is a waste of people’s energy, goodwill and trust.
Division may be what a very conservative federal government is going to rely on.
“I’ve never been prouder of Australia… as when the built environment put in one submission to the Emissions Reduction Fund” under the banner of the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council.
For the GBCA the path is inevitably one of greater collaboration – with other ratings systems such as Living Building Challenge, WELL and One Planet Living. Each has their own emphasis and part to play, he says.
And on the subject of ratings, Mellon is keen to say how important it is to keep pushing the ratings agenda.
If you design and build to GS standards, he says, “then prove it, otherwise you won’t be believed.”
He thinks verified ratings will be the future, countering the trend for companies to claim they’ve built to GS standards but have saved themselves the expense of official ratings.
In the future we will have more ratings, across a greater range of products, he says. You can already see the strong makings of this trend in third party certification for items such as furniture that is “mainstreaming” sustainability, he says.
As evidence, he points to IKEA, which now claims it will make its entire supply chain green. This means green products will be making their way “through to everyone’s living room”.
Besides, having the ratings is a way to stop accusations of greenwash that can emerge very quickly with items that are not rated.
What about the opposite – having a green building and not promoting your green credentials? This has been a trend picked up by people such as Danielle King of Green Moves Australia in an article penned for The Fifth Estate, There’s great value in green credentials, so why are commercial agents so shy?
That’s changing, Mellon says. Marketing for homes and communities are starting to show Green Star ratings in the collateral, often with descriptors of what a 6 Star Communities rating means, for instance.
What about his move then? We know it’s come about because of restructuring within the organisation.
Mellon totally endorses the evolution of the GBCA.
“Every business goes through a period of reflection and reassessment.”
He thinks what will happen is that the GBCA will increasingly turn outwards. He hopes the industry and aligned interest groups will do the same and be part of greater collaboration.
“Not just in Australia but internationally” in order to achieve greater objectives.
The GBCA is very well positioned for the next stage, he says. It’s strong financially, it’s got good transparency, it’s taking aboard feedback and it’s got good governance.
In fact, “some of the best governance I’ve seen in any organisation,” Mellon says.
That’s an attribute that Mellon has clearly had a role in creating, judging by the comments from industry observers hearing about his departure. And partly the restructure is a function of the leaner more efficient organisation that chief executive Romilly Madew recently cited after the departure was announced.
And that’s not a bad juncture to sign out on.
Robin Mellon is one of Australia’s experts on sustainability in the built environment and is determined to leave the planet in a better shape than it was when he found it. Robin believes in a Better Sydney – better buildings, better communities and a better quality of life.