The excitement was in the air at this year’s Greenbuild International Conference and Expo in Washington, D.C., in late September. About a year earlier, the Inflation Reduction Act had been signed into law by President Joe Biden, establishing new tax benefits to boost green-friendly construction. Vendors at the world’s largest green building symposium were buzzing.
The expo featured rows of exhibitions on the environmental virtues of companies involved with every stage of the construction process, from insulated concrete manufacturers to wastewater management companies. Lectures and panel discussions peppered the sprawling convention center hall, featuring industry luminaries waxing poetic about the challenges and promises of green capitalism. Many of these companies will likely benefit from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA); the federal government is expected to spend about $369 billion on green building investments because of the law’s tax provisions.
One company that appeared particularly giddy about the new law was an Irish building products manufacturer, the Kingspan Group, known primarily for its insulation panels. A Kingspan representative at the expo said firms will know more about any potential benefits from the Inflation Reduction Act in the next 18 months, as tax authorities determine eligibility in practice. But the company — a major player in the green building materials industry, according to market analysts — is positioning itself to reap the rewards.
In the weeks leading up to Greenbuild, Kingspan proposed a merger with its industry rival Carlisle Companies, an Arizona-based construction firm. Carlisle’s environmentally-certified roofing products will also be eligible for IRA incentives, according to a Carlisle company rep at the expo. (Carlisle turned down the proposal, before encouraging the Irish firm to submit a higher offer.) And at Greenbuild itself, Kingspan sponsored four booths and a panel discussion featuring federal officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and the General Services Administration.
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But according to critics, Kingspan is a textbook example of a corporation greenwashing its own harmful environmental practices while also glossing over criticism of its safety and labor practices. Now, as an ostensibly “green” operation, the company is likely to receive lucrative U.S. tax benefits.
Kingspan’s most controversial moment came in December 2020, when British parliamentary investigators shed light on the company’s indifference toward fire safety while investigating the role its insulation materials played in the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, the deadliest residential fire in Britain since the end of the Second World War. As public scrutiny over Kingspan’s role in the Grenfell Tower fire intensified in the U.K., in the months leading up to the bombshell revelations Kingspan launched a new long-term strategy: a sustainability campaign called “Planet Passionate.”
Now critics say Kingspan could be replicating its worrisome conduct in the U.S. green building materials market.
Employees at Kingspan’s plants in California have raised concerns about the firm’s environmental practices, dubious green certifications, unsafe working conditions, and alleged union-busting tactics.
Federal environmental regulators say there is nothing they can do to verify Kingspan’s “green” claims, deferring questions about potentially misleading marketing to another government agency. The current U.S. environmental certification system for manufactured goods is based on private third-party audits and self-regulation — just like the British building materials fire safety certificate system in the lead-up to the Grenfell fire.
If Kingspan’s plan to expand its business in the United States succeeds, the company will have effectively used the green building boom to pivot away from fallout it suffered from its role in one of the deadliest building accidents in the 21st century.
“The U.S. offers the chance of big growth to Kingspan,” The Irish Times said in September, reporting on the proposed Carlisle merger, noting the “attraction of access to green subsidies from the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, which offers companies state aid in a way that is next to impossible in Europe.”
The authors also note, “Kingspan’s interest in a big deal also shows that the company’s ambitions have not been shrunk by the ongoing fallout from the Grenfell Tower inquiry.”
“All Lies, Mate”
In October 2008, Philip Heath, technical manager for Kingspan, let loose. In the second half of the 20th century, Kingspan had transformed from a local contractor to construction product multinational by snapping up businesses in Eastern and Central Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, as the subprime mortgage collapse menaced the construction industry’s long-term growth, Heath briefly focused on another threat to Kingspan: A prominent contracting company had raised concerns about the integrity of the fire safety certificates for one of its signature insulation products, Kooltherm K15.
“[They] are getting me confused with someone who gives a dam [sic],” Health told a friend by email. “I’m trying to think of a way out of this one, imagine a fire running up this tower.”
Almost nine years later, in June 2017, flames ran up Grenfell Tower, a 24-story public housing development in West London. After an electric fire broke out on the fourth floor, insulation materials in scaffolding around the building at the time acted like kindling, engulfing the tower in flames. Kooltherm K15 was part of that insulation system.
The email from Heath was part of reporting and testimony by Kingspan executives and employees released by U.K. parliament in December 2020. The inquiry, which has yet to issue its final report, revealed that Kingspan’s insulation product appeared to be a known fire hazard and that its safety ratings were based on misrepresentations by the company.
According to investigators, Kingspan kept secret the fact that K15 failed several fire safety tests in 2007 and 2008 that were conducted after the company changed the insulation’s composite materials.
In March 2009, a private-sector fire safety certification program raised questions about the wording in one of the K15 safety certificates. In response, Heath instructed subordinates to “let the file gather dust.” Two months later, when British building authorities approved K15 based on the certification in question, Heath told a colleague, “We can be very convincing when we need to be, we threw every bit of fire test data we could at him, we probably blocked his server.”
The company maintained K15’s inaccurate safety certification for years, withdrawing it just before executives were scheduled to give testimony to parliamentary investigators in November 2020.
In a 2008 WhatsApp chat uncovered by parliamentary investigators, a Kingspan technical expert declared K15’s fire safety bonafides were, “All lies mate… Alls we do is lie in here.”
The revelations made Kingspan synonymous with corporate malfeasance in the U.K., Ireland, and throughout Europe. The company’s stock price dropped 23 percent on the Dublin-based Euronext stock exchange between December 2020 and February 2021, as asset managers rushed to rid themselves of exposure to the company. And by that December, Kingspan lost a high-profile global sponsorship with Mercedes’ Formula One racing team, after Grenfell survivors and Britain’s Housing Secretary urged the team to drop the deal.
In response to a series of questions from The Lever, Pat Walsh, CEO of a Dublin-based PR firm, the Murray Group, responded on behalf of Kingspan. Walsh pointed to recent public statements made by the company denying responsibility for the fire.
But few in the U.S. are aware of the company’s reputation, let alone its existence. That could soon change, thanks to Biden’s climate agenda and Kingspan’s international ambitions, which have been spearheaded, in part, by Heath himself. Heath was involved with Kingspan’s 2018 bid to find “business opportunities” in the U.S. not long after the Grenfell disaster, according to his parliamentary testimony in December 2020.
When asked if Philip Heath and other executives associated with the Grenfell fire scandal were still with the company, Walsh noted, “On individual staff or former staff, as you will appreciate, that is not something any organization can comment on.”
Two years after Heath helped the company sharpen its focus on the U.S. market, Kingspan launched its Planet Passionate endeavor, a sustainability program aimed at reducing the company’s carbon emissions by 2030.
According to Walsh, Kingspan was motivated by the fact that “buildings are responsible for 39 percent of global carbon emissions.” But market opportunity also likely had something to do with it.
The price of carbon credits, which allow companies to fund emissions reduction efforts if they pollute more than allowed by law, more than doubled in the European Union between 2017-2020, in anticipation of cap-and-trade reforms sparked by the Paris Climate Accord of 2015. The development boded well for the value of environmental efforts like Planet Passionate.
The global payoff of green capitalism has only become more lucrative since then, on the heels of President Biden’s election and multilateral efforts to build on the Paris agreement.
“This Raises New Questions”
On September 28, Kingspan sponsored a Greenbuild Expo panel featuring Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulators on how the U.S. government is leading efforts to lower the carbon footprint of building projects. That same day, the EPA made a big announcement: The agency would be giving $100 million in grants for construction product manufacturers, including funds to help companies develop standardized reports detailing their products’ environmental impacts called Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) — voluntary certifications that are proudly touted by Kingspan.
According to the company, the production process for its flagship insulation products boast EPDs certified by the third-party environmental auditing company SCS Global Services as “part of our mounting effort for transparency and sustainability throughout the manufacturing process and supply chain.”
But Meredith Schafer, a researcher with the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART), a union working with Kingspan workers to organize the company’s U.S. and Canadian factories, says SCS Global didn’t independently verify the manufacturing data Kingspan provided to the certifier, and therefore overlooked labor- and waste-intensive elements of the production process, which were omitted from its environmental certifications.
“We are concerned to learn from SCS Global that they do not conduct site visits or audits to verify the accuracy of the data provided by Kingspan for Environmental Product Declarations,” said Schafer.
SMART organizers also point out that the foam core of Kingspan’s flagship insulation product contains a substance called Isocyanate, which belongs to a family of chemicals the EPA has declared to be “known dermal and inhalation sensitizers in the workplace and have been documented to cause asthma, lung damage, and in severe cases, fatal reactions.”
They also cite another environmental certificate, issued by the nonprofit Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, that found substances in these products were “highly problematic; targeted for phase-out,” “moderately problematic, but acceptable for use,” or “unassessed.”
On Sept. 6, workers at Kingspan’s plant in Modesto, California, filed a complaint with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) alleging the company was failing to adequately protect its staff from harmful airborne particulate matter at the facility as a byproduct of the manufacturing process. In the complaint, workers say foam dust is so pervasive that they can see it in tissues after blowing their nose, and that the particles must be swept up and disposed of in “large garbage bins at least once a day.”
“It leaves a cloud in the air. You can see the particles,” said Rafael Cabrera, a worker at the Modesto plant, describing the effect of three foam-cutting machines in the shop running simultaneously.
A similar air-quality complaint was filed by workers at a Kingspan plant in Santa Ana, California, in October 2021. In response, regulators ruled last year that the company committed 22 violations, including five serious infringements, and fined it $21,785.
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SMART and national environmental organizations have also raised concerns about the Santa Ana facility discharging runoff into an “impaired watershed” in an area that includes residential housing mostly for people of color. They accused Kingspan of “misrepresenting” environmental clean-up efforts by plant managers.
None of these concerns are reflected in Kingspan’s environmental certifications.
“Given the history of mismarketing the fire testing of K15 in the UK from 2006 until 2020, this raises new questions about the green marketing of its current star panel product,” said SMART researcher Meaghan LaSala.
SMART representatives told The Lever that when they relayed their concerns to sales executives at SCS Global, they were told to present the information to Kingspan.
When asked for comment on worker and environmental concerns, SCS Global said in an email to The Lever that the company “acted as the verifier for this [Environmental Product Declaration],” and that it was not required to perform a site audit “[a]s the verifier.”
“We cannot comment on the data collection that was used to create the [life cycle assessment] models or EPD content statements,” said SCS Global’s vice president of corporate marketing, Karen Righthand. She noted that SCS was only responsible for “verifying type of data, data sources, assumptions, plausibility of results,” and compliance with industry standards, and that other auditing duties were performed by another company called WAP Sustainability.
WAP Sustainability, an environmental consulting company based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, did not respond to a request for comment.
“If SMART feels the data, or the content of the EPD are misrepresented they should approach both the [life cycle assessment] practitioners and Kingspan directly,” added Righthand.
Righthand also said that SMART had not filed its complaint through the SCS Global website feedback channel, and that the company’s “EPD program is only just now being made aware of these allegations through an email to management team members listed on our website.”
In response, Schafer said that SMART representatives had “clearly” and “repeatedly” asked SCS Global executives “for the protocol for raising issues with an EPD.”
SMART organizers say their concerns highlight potential problems with the Environmental Product Declaration certification process that federal regulators are now working to expand.
“[EPDs] rely on self-disclosed data from manufacturers, and the third-party ‘verifiers’ do not typically audit this data or conduct site visits.” said LaSala.“I spoke to many people at Greenbuild about the fact that there are not enough stopgaps in the industry to prevent manufacturers from greenwashing to gain access to lucrative green markets.”
When asked how the EPA will ensure the integrity of certification programs developed by its grants, agency spokesperson Jeffrey Landis told The Lever in an email that the Federal Trade Commission is responsible for cases involving private companies making “misleading environmental claims.”
Landis also said that the agency’s grants will “support projects that improve the standardization and integrity of EPDs and help manufacturers and others in producing robust EPDs that are integrated throughout the construction design and procurement process.”
Landis noted that Kingspan sponsoring the building projects panel at Greenbuild “had no bearing on the EPD grant announcement or grant decision,” He also noted that: “EPA has not endorsed any EPDs, including Kingspan’s EPDs.”
“Kingspan Fully Respects The Right Of Its Employees”
Outside the convention center where the Greenbuild Expo was taking place, SMART organizers handed out leaflets to attendees about the discrepancies between Kingspan’s “green” claims and workers’ accounts of safety and environmental conditions. The leaflets alleged that Kingspan was making bogus assertions about its Modesto facility separating metal and foam scraps from its general waste to reduce the amount of trash going to landfills.
Nearby, The Lever observed a Greenbuild attendee pausing to monitor the activity. Around her neck hung a conference lanyard noting her name and affiliation: Siobhan O’Dwyer, Kingspan’s head of global marketing.
SMART has made several attempts, unsuccessfully, to unionize Kingspan’s U.S. facilities since the 1990s. Workers at the company’s Santa Ana industry rekindled interest in the campaign in 2021, motivated by concerns about COVID-19 and indoor air quality.
Not long after, workers at the Modesto plant launched efforts to unionize with SMART. Cabrera, a worker at the facility, said safety issues were among the primary factors that motivated him to become a union advocate.
He pointed to one incident where he was asked to work with an industrial glue without being forewarned that it was activated by water. Cabrera said he rubbed his forehead after working with the product, and it stuck to him after coming into contact with his sweat. He was subsequently given stinging paint thinner to remove the adhesive. The incident is cited in the Cal/OSHA complaint filed by Modesto workers last month.
However their Cal/OSHA complaint is resolved, workers at the Modesto facility say they have already seen an improvement in working conditions, as management scrambles to respond to union activity.
“It wasn’t until the organizing happened that we got ear protection,” said Cabrera. The plant manager instructed maintenance workers to erect additional safeguards around heavy machinery, Cabrera added. “We also started getting safety goggles for certain work machines.”
When asked about management’s response to the union drive, Kingspan’s PR manager Pat Walsh said, “Kingspan fully respects the right of its employees to decide in an election if they want to be represented by a union or not.”
But organizers say the company has resisted the prospect of collective bargaining, despite the fact that working to address staff claims about environmental hazards might lend credibility to Kingspan’s “Planet Passionate” campaign. Cabrera said managers have held captive audience meetings — in which workers are forced to watch anti-union presentations or be disciplined — to bash SMART.
According to Schafer, one worker who was part of a delegation that presented the OSHA complaint to the Modesto plant manager was also terminated for an alleged time-keeping related offense, but the company hasn’t put the reason for the firing in writing. SMART accused Kingspan of firing the worker in retaliation for protected activity. A supplemental Cal/OSHA filing shared with The Lever notes the fired worker suffers from “chronic symptoms” of exposure to chemicals used at the plant, and has had issues with coughing, headaches, and respiratory irritation.
In November 2021, Kingspan threatened to sue SMART for publishing a critical report on Kingspan’s corporate culture — based on public excerpts from the U.K. parliament’s Grenfell tower inquiry.
Labor organizers say they will continue to publicize Kingspan’s troubling activities, both in the U.K. and the U.S., since they say such behavior doesn’t just threaten the well-being of workers — it could also undermine the green building industry in general.
“Unfortunately, while Kingspan is one of the most prominent firms touting its green credentials, its production workers at two of its factories allege unhealthy and unsafe working conditions,” said LaSala. “This could potentially harm the credibility of EPDs and other efforts at transparency.”