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WCC Green Village: a project still in search of a final sustainability label

By Sarah Zeines and Philippe Mottaz

Friday, October 15, 2021



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Labels for sustainable development projects can be confusing, as the case of WCC’s Green Village illustrates. We learned this from our own error. Upon further investigation, we also discovered how self-promoting and arbitrary some sustainability claims can be.

For sustainable construction projects, the One Planet Living® (OPL) label is widely considered to be among the very best. One Planet Living®, a registered brand, is a set of ten sustainability construction goals developed by British enterprise Bioregional in association with WWF International. Why the name ‘One Planet Living’? Because, Bioregional tells us, “We are living as if we have more than one planet. In fact, ecological footprinting shows that if everyone in the world consumed as much as the average person in Western Europe, we’d need three planets to support us.”

You may be familiar with the label, as for the past two years, the new World Council of Churches’ (WCC) Green Village in the heart of International Geneva has been touting the fact that it would meet the most stringent sustainability requirements and be getting the OPL seal of approval.

But which one? For, in reality, it appears there are two distinct sets of One Planet Living standards—as SUSTAINED found out in the course of correcting a story it published last week.

We initially reported that Bioregional had, in our words, “withdrawn its support” from the WCC Green Village project. That information (which came from knowledgeable sources) led all the project’s stakeholders—bar one, the commune du Grand-Saconnex where the project is being built—to ask us to correct our story within 48 hours to “avoid further actions” being taken.

In an earlier communication, Bioregional had told SUSTAINED by email that “WCC Green Village is currently endorsed as One Planet Living by WWF Switzerland, NOT Bioregional,” adding that “Bioregional does not currently endorse WCC Green Village as a One Planet Living® development.” (A search of WCC Green Village on Bioregional website yields no results.)

In their joint communication to SUSTAINED, WCC, Bioregional, ‘Association Suisse pour des quartiers durables (SEED),’ and Implenia further stated that: “The One Planet Living® principles continue to apply for Green Village. The consistent commitment of the WCC and Implenia is to aim to meet (italics ours) the One Planet Living® principles, as developed by Bioregional and WWF International, at Green Village.” The correction adds yet a new layer of confusion to an already convoluted tale but bear with us.

The above paragraphs confirm that the Bioregional One Planet Living® label could not have been withdrawn as it had never been delivered in the first place — we accept that. It also admits that WCC and all its partners “aim” to meet the Bioregional One Label Living® principles. And so, to ensure Green Village does, WCC and Implenia have submitted an action plan to Bioregional “with goals for all ten founding principles of One Planet Living®. Depending on “Bioregional’s assessment,” Green Village “may attain One Planet Living® recognition or other classification.”

What “other classification” the consortium might seek remains unclear. Currently, as Bioregional told SUSTAINED, “Green Village is endorsed as One Planet Living by WWF Switzerland.” According to Bioregional, “One Planet Living is being renamed as SEED”—a Swiss high-quality sustainability label developed jointly by Implenia and WWF. However, the consortium told SUSTAINED that it is “not seeking SEED certification for Green Village at this time.”

One knowledgeable source told SUSTAINED that part of the confusion arises from the fact that the One Planet Living label is “administered by two entities.” According to the same source, in a memorandum of understanding Bioregional agreed that the label One Planet Living could be used by some of its partners in France and Switzerland. As WCC Green Village, endorsed by WWF Switzerland, is seeking Bioregional’s certification under its One Planet Living®, does it mean that the two One Planet Living labels have different criteria? Repeated questions to numerous insiders did not provide a clear answer. Speaking under the condition of anonymity, local sources told SUSTAINED that it might be difficult for WCC Green Village to meet Bioregional’s OPL® standards, as older buildings are on the site and even a thorough renovation won’t be enough to bring them up to Bioregional OPL’s standards. Other sources have described the differences between the two labels as merely “technical,” which again leaves the question open as to why WCC and Implenia are seeking the full OPL® approval.

Who certifies the certifiers?

Green Village’s certification hiccup lays bare the lack of agreed-upon, consistent standards for the industry and raises transparency questions. Part of the problem is systemic: national, regional, and local legislations and regulations differ from one country to another, which can lead to situations like that of Green Village, where builders and their partners develop their own sets of standards in the hope that they can fit into recognized frameworks such as social enterprise Bioregional’s OPL®. By contrast, Implenia is behind the development of SEED, a Swiss standard. Builders such as Implenia have an interest in meeting sustainability standards in their project and claiming credit for it, whereas the label creators have an interest in having their framework become the accepted norm.

In the absence of globally accepted standards, advancing sustainability in the building sector remains fraught with potential conflicts of interest. In the case of Green Village, Bioregional (with the backing of WWF International) is both responsible for the creation of the principles included in its own OPL® and, through its consultancy work, the very company that the Green Village consortium turns to in its hope of meeting those OPL® standards.

“These projects bring capitalistic and environmental criteria together and create ethical tension,” notes Luca Pattaroni, an urban sociologist at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). “In almost every construction project I have participated in, there has been a gap between initial expectations and actual accomplishments. We find ourselves miles away from our original goals.”

Catherine Martinson, President of the SEED Committee and member of WWF Switzerland’s Board of Directors, is more optimistic: “To realise the ambitions and goals of OPL and to be able to apply these objectives in real life, WWF needed the know-how of a construction company,” she says. “This is why WWF and Implenia agreed to collaborate.”

Better than before.”

The new Green Village will demonstrate progress in the city’s development landscape, nonetheless. Elaine Dykes, WCC’s Finance Director, insists on the project’s quality and the validity of the process: “Instead of the more than 300 car parking spaces initially planned for the land surface in Grand-Saconnex, our plan is now to have even more green spaces, landscaped in a natural style.”

Luca Pattaroni views the whole process with a critical yet optimistic eye: “It is a good sign that Bioregional is not willing to endorse a project if it doesn’t meet every single one of its standards,” he told SUSTAINED. “This means that a certain amount of pressure is being put on the building company. Ultimately, this might be a good sign for the future of urban development. It will become harder to greenwash, and the challenges involved in transitioning to green buildings and neighbourhoods will entail a deeper restructuration of urban models, along with stronger social responsibility from investors and builders.”

Sustainability will continue to be the future of construction in Switzerland. WWF Switzerland currently has two other projects underway in Orbe (Vaud), and Marly (Fribourg), and more are planned in Geneva, Delémont, Neuchâtel, and Sion.

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