In conversation with Legal & General’s Debbie Hobbs

Legal & General's sustainability manager, Debbie Hobbs tells edie about the challenges of embedding sustainability across an entire supply chain and how sustainability professionals need to "educate, support, encourage and monitor".

What area will you be focusing on next in terms of sustainability?

We will be continuing to focus our energy on tenant engagement. This is not just a question of engaging with those in our managed properties but all those with fully repairing leases (FRI), to see if we can help them reduce their environmental impacts.

What are the major changes you see happening in your industry?

Sustainability is now arguably one of the most critical agents of change in real estate ownership. It can no longer acceptably be ignored. From a fund management perspective, the drivers of behaviour are primarily about protecting the medium to long term value of portfolios, on behalf of investors, as well as acting in a socially responsible manner.

There is a growing bank of international data proving the relationship between sustainability and performance and, increasing awareness amongst managers that sustainability risk is a real threat, as well as recognition that there is a duty to manage this issue. Future proofing portfolios against this is therefore not only a prudent action but necessary to delivering long term performance.

What are the challenges for someone in your position?

Embedding sustainability across our entire supply chain to make sure it is part of everyone’s ‘day job’. All too often we get the response:.”Great – we have a specialist group who ‘do’ sustainability”. I then go on to explain that they are therefore probably not somebody we want to work with, as we believe that it needs to be a collegiate effort in order to bring about real change and therefore part of what everybody does to make it work. Often people look very surprised and then a little wary of the future!

What motivates you?

Wanting to make sure I ‘do my bit’. Given the technology is there, I see it as a challenge to work out how to make sure as many people ‘get it’ as I can, so we can achieve progress together.

What’s the most exciting part of your job?

Sadly, being a physicist and engineer at heart, I love being on site, with some complicated plant and control systems to audit and work out how to improve their performance.

What green innovation do you think can revolutionise the economy?

As an industry, we need wake up to the fact that it is the existing building stock that needs to be improved, not just future developments which form only a small fragment of the UK’s energy output. Indeed the built environment accounts for nearly 45% of UK emissions and, whilst new properties are becoming ever more environmentally friendly, only 2% of the UK’s existing stock is less than five years old. There are lots of technologies we can already apply, especially with new paints and coatings, which can improve the thermal properties of fabric and windows already on the market.

What’s the big focus in 2013 for the environment?

Making sure we embed sustainability into everything we do, both in work and at home.

What tips or advice would you give to newly appointed sustainability professionals?

Make sure you are there to educate, support, encourage and monitor, not to ‘do everything’ for everybody else. All too often people don’t think that sustainability is something they can positively impact themselves but rather something they need an ‘expert’ for.

What do you like most about your job?

The support and encouragement I get from our senior management and other colleagues.

What do you think 2013 has in store for the green economy?

I don’t like the term ‘green economy’. I think it ‘marginalises’ environmental issues, when they need to be discussed in terms of risks and opportunities, within daily businesses.

What period of time would you visit if you had access to a time machine?

Probably circa 2050, to see what real progress has been made.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Realising that it was time to sell my small company and get some ‘quality of life back’. Doing employee tax returns and accounts on a sunny Sunday can get very tiresome!

If you could go back in time, who would you like to meet?

Probably my great grandmother to show her how much things will change both in terms of technology and women’s roles in society.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

”It’s always simpler to say ‘sorry’ than to ask permission!”

Worst advice?

When I was about 18 and getting stressed over A Levels our family doctor told me …’ don’t worry you will make just as good a Grandmother with or without A Levels.’ I think my next question was ‘oh – weren’t qualifications important to you becoming a doctor then!’

What’s your top tip for employee engagement?

Make it fun. With sustainability, there have been so many negative messages ie: ‘don’t do this, turn that off ‘that its time we made it more positive and more accessible.

What state do you see the planet in 30 years?

Having worked in the industry for 27 years now and seen how slowly things change or even sometimes go backwards, I am not very optimistic. I think it will take something like the lights being turned off, food rationing or water shortages, to make people realise that it is going to affect them if they don’t ‘do their bit’ .

What do you say to the climate change sceptics?

Don’t worry you will work it out one day.

What’s been your biggest win (environmentally)?

One I remember quite distinctly is with my first job in the corporate world at MEPC in 1992. After my appointment there was pressure on me from the board to justify why MEPC needed an environmental manager. I audited our own headquarters building where the refurbishment, two years previously, had been project managed by our CEO. I immediately saved 30% of the energy costs (£60K) as the plant timeclocks had never been set up in two years and got an immediate water rebate of £120K as they had been paying on rateable value, when they had a water meter. Needless to say I didn’t get any more trouble about justifying my worth, when I said ‘If you are doing this under your own noses in your own building, just think what else might be going on in your portfolio?’

If there was one word you could remove from the English language what would it be?

Sustainability – it’s time we got more specific about environmental and social risks and opportunities in everything we do, rather than trying to make it a separate subject

Books or kindle?

Both – I like them both in different situations.

Read last week’s ‘In conversation with Eurostar’s Peter Bragg’

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