Flexibility essential for post-Brexit sustainability, says JLL UK

Sustainability professionals must be flexible in their pursuit of long-term CSR goals during the current period of political and business uncertainty created by Brexit, the head of sustainability at property and investment management firm JLL UK has said.

Sophie Walker believes sustainability professionals may have more difficulty adjusting to the “tensions” of Brexit than other staff members, due to the sustainability department’s necessity to operate with a long-term mindset during a period dominated by short-termism.

“Post-Brexit, I think we’re operating under assumptions of EU roadmaps on a variety of business issues, including sustainability,” Walker told edie. “Things are up for debate and discussion over the next few years and everybody in every sector has to be more flexible than they’ve had to be in their entire career.

“You have to be brave, bold and ambitious when setting out your targets. At some point, you’ll have to take that step. But, you have to be prepared to pivot and be more nimble. It’s an interesting challenge for sustainability professionals, who always try to take the longest view possible but are now being asked to think across a three to six-month spectrum. It’s definitely a tension.”

Former business secretary Vince Cable has likened Brexit to the financial crash in 2008. Walker joined JLL’s Upstream Sustainability Services team around the time of the crash, before becoming head of sustainability in 2016. However, Walker claims that the recession was inadvertently “one of the best things” to happen to sustainability in the UK because it placed a heightened financial focus on what aspects of sustainability would drive business value in the long-term.

According to Walker, the financial crash meant that companies couldn’t spend on “green bling”, but instead had to refocus sustainability to become an integral strategy rather than a selling point. In the past few years, some of JLL UK’s real-estate clients have introduced all-encompassing, long-term strategies that match this trend, including Hammerson’s “net positive” initiative, and Land Securities’ approved science-based goals.

JLL UK recently announced its own 2020 sustainability goals, including a 100% renewables target and zero-waste-to-landfill aspirations. Walker anticipates that focus will change over the next six months as Brexit negotiations become clearer, but claimed that pushing towards goals was the best way to ensure that progress was being made during the Brexit timeframe.

“Business hates uncertainty, it makes it really hard to make investment decisions that are effective, and you can waste time second-guessing what might happen,” Walker said. “But, we are in business to serve our clients and provide them with real-estate solutions. Ultimately, that isn’t going to shift, Brexit or no Brexit, and we have to align our sustainability trajectories to support that ambition and purpose.

“Our clients aren’t going anywhere and they continue to need our support. It’s a helpful mindset to keep, to try not to worry about all the shifting parts. I fully anticipate that within the next six months I’ll have to pivot again and slightly change focus. If you’re operating in the UK you have to expect that.”

While Walker believes Brexit will sharpen the focus on sustainability within the private sector, she also noted that regulation was essential in acting as a “safety net” for smaller firms that lacked the knowledge or resources to fully explore sustainability. Some businesses are able to enhance sustainability without the assistance of regulation, but for companies in the built environment, legislation ensures that they meet minimum requirements for environmental protection and sustainability.

Circular Economy Package

In the EU, for example, buildings account for around 50% of extracted materials, 50% of energy consumption and a third of generated waste. The European Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan focuses on the lifetime of buildings, ensuring that regulation encourages design improvements that will reduce environmental impacts and increase the durability and recyclability of building components.

Walker believes that the circular economy can have a “significant impact” in the UK. But little is known as to whether the UK Government will actually adhere to the Circular Economy Package or will introduce new legislation.

This lack of clarity surrounding the UK’s long-term involvement with the Package is a prime example of how businesses should pursue goals without the aid of regulations, but be prepared to change course once more information becomes available. JLL has itself taken steps alongside other companies in the construction industry to back Business in the Community’s (BITC) new circular offices campaign, which attempts to use circular economy principles to reduce the estimated £15bn waste costs incurred by the private sector.

“I don’t think anyone knows about the timeline for circular economy,” Walker added. “It does have the potential to have a really significant impact on the UK, but only once resource input prices become very expensive or volatile.

“We do need to start to see some of the really simple legislation come in. Those simple things could create quite a lot of momentum, and it is definitely in the Government’s gift to make happen. From the built environment perspective, a piece of work needs to be done to determine whether a wholesale adoption of the circular economy package is beneficial.”

Matt Mace

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