Membership to the Green Building Council of Australia could become open to trade associations if approved at an Extraordinary General Meeting convened for Tuesday 1 September. The GBCA says the move is in line with best practice, though some industry sources are concerned it could lead to trade associations with anti-green agendas wielding excessive influence within the organisation, and are calling on members to voice their concerns.
Proposed changes to the GBCA’s constitution follow a governance review by the board, a GBCA spokeswoman told The Fifth Estate.
She said the objectives of the changes were to:
- remove barriers to directorship so as to ensure optimal representation on the board
- provide for all directors to be subject to election by members and to the rotation rules
- move to the Board Charter certain requirements relating to board meetings, the tenure of the chair and of directors, recognising that some flexibility in these matters is at times desirable
- remove the exclusion of trade associations to membership
“The changes will enable the GBCA to attract a wider range of talented and experienced directors to further the Council’s ambitious strategic agenda,” the spokeswoman said.
“Further, and subject to membership requirements, the proposal opens membership to all like-minded organisations, the only exclusion being to individuals.
“The proposed changes to the Constitution are consistent with best practice in corporate governance.”
Members of the GBCA were notified of the changes on Thursday 20 August, and have been given just under two weeks to consider them. The board governance and membership changes will voted on as a single resolution.
Context from the US
Trade association membership to the US Green Building Council was granted back in 2005, but not without years of debate, including a 27-page background paper on “What options for participation should the USGBC extend to trade associations or other organisations that are not currently allowed to join USGBC as member?”
The background paper said the USGBC in its infancy had banned trade associations because:
- they would be able to exert too strong an influence in a small, fledgling organisation
- their involvement would limit membership revenues from the individual companies on which the USGBC depended
Other concerns raised in the paper included that trade associations might “pack the membership” to get representatives elected to the Board and that some trade associations had opposed policies that were supported by the Council.
USGBC founder and chief executive Rick Fedrizzi, who is stepping down at the end of 2016, said that by 2005 the USGBC membership base had broadened significantly enough for trade association membership to become less of a concern – membership was at around 6000 members.
In the US context, the ban of trade associations had also been used by opponents to argue against the LEED green building tool being used in federal, state and local government contracts, due to charges of exclusivity and “closed processes”. Another point was that federal policy required “consensus-based standards”.
“While USGBC has determined that LEED generally meets such criteria, the exclusion of trade association stakeholders is used as an argument to challenge widespread support of LEED,” the paper stated.
Another argument for inclusion was that there were a number of trade associations that had values aligned with the Council.
GBCA founder sounds warning
In Australia there is concern the GBCA’s membership base of under 500 is not large enough to temper the effects of trade association membership.
GBCA co-founder Che Wall, who last year controversially criticised the GBCA for risking watering down its standards, told The Fifth Estate the changes could have serious effects.
“Trade associations were excluded in the drafting of the original constitution for the Green Building Council of Australia at the encouragement of the founders of the USGBC,” Mr Wall said.
“Importantly, the exclusion of a trade associations did not prevent any of the trade associations’ member companies from joining in their own right, and this was encouraged.”
When the USGBC was debating the issue, the Healthy Building Network’s Bill Walsh – well-known for battles with trade associations like the Vinyl Institute and his critique of the Australian corollary Vinyl Council of Australia and the GBCA’s “best practice” PVC credit – said trade associations were “nothing more than groupings of companies that individually already have membership rights”.
“Why grant them an additional unique membership status? It seems unfair after all – like double dipping. In truth, it’s worse,” he said.
“Trade associations do the dirty work while their manufacturer members market themselves as ‘green’.”
Mr Wall said he would be cautious about letting trade association become ordinary members at this time.
“Trade associations are funded to run campaigns in their own members’ interests, often at odds to progressive sustainability outcomes and continued industry transformation,” he said.
“I am not sure the GBCA’s membership base is broad enough to temper whatever influence they might seek to exert on the direction of the council and rating tools.”
However, there are trade associations whose values are aligned with that of the GBCA, which could have a positive influence.
One source told The Fifth Estate there wasn’t all that much to be concerned about. The US precedent was instructive in that “the world didn’t end”, they said.
Mr Wall said it was up to the GBCA’s members to let the board know whether it was the right time to allow trade associations to join, and whether there had been appropriate consultation on the proposition.
“Ultimately, the GBCA was established as a membership organisation and it is the members who will rightfully decide whether the time is right to allow trade associations to have member rights,” he said.
“When the USGBC changed its stance in 2005 it did so after extensive consultation and debate, and I hope the membership in Australia are similarly motivated to test the merits of the proposal.”
The GBCA has been approached for further comment.