‘Business as usual’ on sustainability is not an option

Sustainability has been a major focus for the construction industry for many years but, while there’s no doubt that progress is being made, the question is whether it is being made quickly enough and with enough zeal.

Recent events in London, which saw Extinction Rebellion protesters target London Concrete, should serve as a reminder that the environmental impact of construction is under the spotlight.

And the figures are stark: a third of waste in the UK comes from the construction industry and the built environment contributes a third of carbon emissions. Around 10 per cent of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions are directly associated with construction activity.

The time when sustainability was a cursory note under the corporate social responsibility section of the agenda is well and truly gone. Those businesses failing to make sustainability a priority will almost certainly pay the price when it comes to reputation, business relationships and ability to attract – and keep – top talent.

Performance and priorities

Earlier this year, we produced a research paper looking at performance and priorities across the industry, receiving input from 1,480 businesses. The results were surprising, and highlighted several clear pain points where the sustainability agenda is being neglected.

For example, just 30 per cent measured their carbon footprint and just 9 per cent completed a carbon footprint measurement audit. Half had no ethical sourcing policy and 20 per cent had no code of ethical conduct.

“It’s positive to see innovations to improve sustainability emerging, but there’s a job to be done in uniting the industry under one single objective”

While the research also showed positive signs that sustainability best practice is improving – there has been a 4 per cent increase in companies identifying their operational impact on the environment and a 2 per cent increase in suppliers with a BIM policy – the pace of change is glacial when considering the challenges ahead.

While improvements to building methods, transport and power sources are essential to reduce the industry’s impact on the environment, there’s a great deal that can be done at an operational level. Sustainability must be integrated into the culture of every business, with everyone on board.

For too many, sustainability remains a ‘floating’ responsibility, leading to a reactive rather than strategic approach without targets or objectives. Just 40 per cent of businesses had a staff member dedicated solely to environmental management and 23 per cent had no environmental management system. While 86 per cent said they identify the environmental impact of their work, the depth and detail of such assessments is unclear.

Introducing innovation

Contractors continue to lead the charge, with the likes of Mace trialling photovoltaic lighting towers and hybrid generators, although such technology remains difficult to source.

Herein lies one of the biggest issues when it comes to supercharging the sustainability agenda within the industry: intentions remain very much client-driven, with too many contractors following suit only when the project specifies that reporting mechanisms and positive tactics must be implemented.

Several major contractors are doing fantastic work to make sustainability a priority – supported by initiatives such as Supply Chain Sustainability School and Action Sustainability – but, without a unified effort to look beyond cost and the balance sheet, the industry will continue to fall short.

Our research has been useful to pinpoint areas where more work needs to be done, but also where opportunity lies. The unification of the Common Assessment Standard means there’s nowhere for under-performers to hide. With everyone working to the same method, the analytical capabilities are more meaningful and will identify areas where gaps need to be plugged. The result is a more accurate view of progress, which hasn’t been possible in the past.

It’s positive to see innovations to improve sustainability emerging, but there’s a job to be done in uniting the industry under one single objective. But ‘business as usual’ isn’t an option any more when it comes to sustainability.


Lee Brunsden, head of construction at AchillesLee Brunsden is head of construction at Achilles

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