“The best energy is the energy we don’t use”

Benoit Bazin, CEO of Saint-Gobain, shares his analysis of lightweight and sustainable construction, a key point in the Group’s Grow & Impact strategy targeting carbon neutrality by 2050.

Benoit Bazin

What exactly are we talking about when we refer to “sustainable construction”?

It is a comprehensive approach to the entire life of a building, from its design to its eventual demolition, which takes into account its impact on the planet.

This approach is essential and necessary: 40% of CO2 emissions come from public and private buildings. This is by far the largest source of emissions, hence the importance of energy renovation to reduce them in older buildings. 97% of the existing stock in Europe is indeed in need of renovation. For new buildings, new construction methods are reducing the drain on natural resources. Lightweight construction, based on a timber, concrete or steel framework, can save up to 50% of the weight of materials compared to traditional solid wall construction.

Underlying the notion of sustainable construction is also the question of comfort and quality of life. This affects the private sphere, since it concerns the personal space where we enjoy ourselves but also where we teach and work with the rise of telecommuting. We don't live in the same way when there is no natural light or adapted acoustics, for example.


How do you implement this transition to new approaches within a corporation the size of Saint-Gobain?

With locations in 75 countries, we are able to deploy our solutions all over the world. In addition to this capacity for scale, we are involved in all stages of the value chain, from research and development to the manufacture of materials, then their distribution, to the training of trade professionals or the recycling of end-of-life materials. Becoming a leader in sustainable construction is not just about inventing new materials, it is also about being able to move this sometimes still fragmented and conservative value chain. In the world of construction, we already have specific, tangible solutions for building passive or even positive energy houses.

Internally, we are also encouraging employee initiatives to decarbonize our processes and individual practices. More than a thousand such initiatives were identified last year in Europe alone. At the local level, innovations are springing up everywhere. I am thinking in particular of the forthcoming opening of our sixth plasterboard plant in India, in Vizag. This is a rice-growing region, so we are going to use the rice husks that will be compacted to make briquettes. The briquettes will then provide the energy for the dryers used to make the gypsum board. This use of biomass from a local resource will replace the use of gas to provide the necessary energy. Another example is in Norway, where a gypsum factory is being transformed to become zero carbon. Instead of gas, the site will be powered by hydroelectricity from a nearby fjord. Technology is making great strides, and the Group recently became the first player in the world to achieve zero-carbon production of flat glass in a plant in northern France.


Time is precious to manage such a transition, but is it possible to go fast for a multinational with over 166,000 employees?

If it is well organized around a reasonable number of clear priorities, a large group can act quickly. The climate emergency requires us to move very quickly, and the world itself is frequently turned upside down, as shown by the Covid crisis and the war in Ukraine. Today, there is a constrained alignment between the need to decarbonize buildings for the environment, for the purchasing power of households threatened by rising energy prices, and for national sovereignty linked to energy independence. The best energy is the one we don't use when we have insulated our homes properly! Our strategy leads us to measure the impact of our solutions. Today, sustainable solutions represent 72% of the Group's revenue.

Our plan is to measure the impact of our products on a range of use cases, whether for renovation or construction, individual or collective buildings, etc. For each case, we evaluate the impact of our products on the environment. For each case, we evaluate the benefits of our solutions in terms of acoustics, energy performance, visual comfort, air quality, etc. We aim for a virtuous snowball effect: the more positive the impact, the greater the growth, and vice versa.


In many countries, the construction sector is struggling to fill vacancies. How can we make it more attractive?

Our purpose, "Making the World a Better Home", is very attractive. It is also reflected in the physical achievements that we can show to our friends and family. At work, if you are an engineer in one of our factories, you will literally see what comes off the production lines, which is a far more tangible reality compared to the worlds of tech or finance for example.

Last year in France, of the 5,800 people hired by Saint-Gobain, half were under 26. We have set up an apprentice training center (CFA) with three courses of study - sales and marketing, industrial maintenance and logistics - which is gaining momentum and has more than tripled its intake capacity since its creation in 2020.

We need to make people understand that the world of construction is changing. It is modern, innovative and digital. Nowadays, we use digital models, we are able to measure CO2 emissions per square meter, and refine the energy performance of a building via Building Management Systems. And whatever the trade, let's not forget that the craft industry is a source of local jobs, which we should promote more. I often say to the representatives of these trades that we need a flagship television program, the equivalent of what Top Chef was for the restaurant industry. Why not a Top Renovator? These are noble trades that have meaning and allow people to earn a decent living. The number of opportunities is monumental because the order books are full. It is imperative to rejuvenate this innovative sector.


As a citizen, not only as a business leader, what is particularly important to you in social and environmental matters?

The social issue that is closest to my heart is education, transmission. It is a duty to the new generations. I think that a country that no longer invests enough in education is dying. This commitment to transmission also involves recruitment and support. Every year, Saint-Gobain takes on 500 interns and 2,000 work-study students in France. I myself started out as an intern with the company at the age of 23!

As for environmental protection, this issue goes far beyond the preservation of one species or another, since it concerns all living things in the broadest sense. It is fundamentally a question of survival. By environment, I also mean in the sociological sense, i.e., the places where we live and work. This environment must also be protected, to guarantee the well-being and balance of our societies.

Credits : Eric Garault / © Saint-Gobain ISOVER / © iStock/GettyImages