Interserve digs deep for data to keep green goals in sight

When Interserve embarked on its ambitious sustainability plan last year, it discovered a pressing need for better data capture. Maxine Perella looks at the challenges this presented, and asks if the company is on is track against its early goals.

Bridging the gap between sustainability and finance is a tough ask of most companies, especially given the perceived conflict between the two disciplines. Interserve’s Tim Haywood knows this only too well – the generally held view that finance directors know the cost of everything and the value of nothing, while sustainability directors know all about values but little about budgets, is one that constantly frustrates him.

Haywood, however, is in a great position to challenge these stereotypes. His dual role at the global construction and support services firm – group finance director and head of sustainability – enables him to lend some economic measurement to the company’s green ambition. He says being able to present a compelling business case for corporate sustainability has ensured rapid buy-in and acceptance across all tiers of the corporation.

“What I try to do in mixing the two roles is to find that balancing point where good sustainable business actually makes good business sense. This means putting in place proper discipline and rigour, proper measurement, and a proper investment case,” he says. Haywood won’t disclose the level of funding his company has injected so far to power its SustainAbilities plan launched just over a year ago, but says one of the primary investment principles is to embed the strategy into job function so costs get absorbed in the operational day-to-day running.

What he is prepared to reveal is the ‘few hundreds of thousands’ spent on strategy development and enabling infrastructure, which mainly centres on the development of an in-house IT/data capture tool called ‘Insight’. Earlier this month, the company released its first SustainAbilities progress report, which identified a pressing need for better data capture and measurement relating to the 48 sustainability goals it is working towards. This is especially true for the group’s construction division, where one of the earliest targets is to increase reuse of construction waste by 15% by 2014.

Asked how Interserve is progressing against that target, Haywood says he remains confident the company is on track, but cautions that it is early days. “In construction we have made some very good progress already, certainly in recycling [but] reuse on-site, that comes with a bunch of challenges, one of which is being able to measure something without overburdening the business with bureaucracy.”

Grey areas

Data gathered to date shows an estimated 69,323 tonnes of total waste arisings across the business during 2013, including overseas territories. The vast majority (90%) comprises construction waste – while in the UK, 79% of this is recycled, Interserve is looking to push its activities up the waste hierarchy through designing out waste and orchestrating better reuse on-site. Prior to the SustainAbilities plan, waste data wasn’t systematically collected across the business and while the Insight system is starting to address this, the company is still wrestling with what precisely constitutes ‘reuse’.

Haywood says in measuring reuse of waste, there are no clear boundaries – items are often not identified as waste until they have reached the end of their reuse period, for instance. “There’s a whole set of grey areas in the definitions around this, and we are coming across those as we are now in the data collection business,” he reflects. “What we are going to try to do is be open in identifying what those challenges are.”

He cites one example in the company’s equipment services division. Here, plywood that is attached to steel frames periodically gets recycled – it is either taken away, cleaned and put back into the product if it is fit for purpose, or chipped and sent elsewhere. “The grey area here is how to cost-effectively track that,” explains Haywood. “What is waste cost? Where has it ended up? How often does it get reused? If you get multiple reuse, does that count as one piece of reused waste or a few occasions of reuse?” 

He continues: “I think at the moment we are broader brush than some of the practitioners in the materials recycling world would like us to be. Some of the work we are doing in defining these processes is worth the effort, and some of it frankly is not worth fighting over whether it is recycling, downcycling, or upcycling. We must ask ourselves the question how much effort is valuable to do the data collection.”

Supply chain management

As the company hasn’t traditionally measured its reuse activities, there is no baseline to compare the 15% reuse target against if it is achieved, but Haywood says plans are already being put in place to intensify efforts on this front. One project Interserve is working on is off-site modular construction – standardising builds to reduce waste through design. This requires deeper conversations with the supply chain, something Haywood is mindful of.

“To eliminate site-specific design, to standardise shapes and sizes and lengths … that’s going to be very offensive to some customers and architects and designers, who want to design in uniqueness,” he says, adding that it is an ongoing educational process to try and eliminate unnecessary waste down the supply chain. “Getting the design process to specify the right products, those with low waste content – that’s probably the biggest challenge.”

One supply chain area where Interserve is making good progress is in the sourcing of timber and forest products. Its use of timber represents one of its biggest supply chain impacts and it is just a whisker away from achieving another early target – to use sustainable forest products by 2014. “In 2013, our construction division had already got to 99% of certified timber from sustainable sources, so getting that final percent feels like it should be doable,” notes Haywood.

However, the remaining 1% represents a far more complex challenge – measuring and tracing forest products that are constituent parts of manufactured products, such as the raw material used in composite materials within furniture. To extract that level of information, Interserve has had to take a number of measures – strengthening procurement and accreditation processes, undertaking supplier desktop audits, and specifying compliance as part of the purchase order.

It’s a lot of work to undertake to capture that last percentage point, and illustrates just how difficult it is to make the business case explicit for sustainability. Haywood acknowledges it is a delicate balancing act. “We really are now in a world of diminishing returns, there’s more and more effort required to get those last little bits across the line. One of the challenges we face in our plan is just how far to push the measurement and at what stage it is good enough.”

Interserve’s SustainAbility: In numbers

  • 2,269 – The absolute reduction in tonnes of C02 equivalent emissions from business travel in 2013 compared with 2012 
  • 52,200m3 – The quantity of timber used by Interserve’s construction division in 2013 – 99% of which was certified from a sustainable source 
  • 38,403m3 – Water consumption in 2013, down from 42,090 in 2012 
  • 51,000m3 – The amount of reused water from within Middle East operations during 2013 
  • 100% – All of Interserve’s UK operating divisions have incorporated sustainable procurement requirements into their supplier codes of conduct 

Tim Haywood’s key learnings

  • “One of the learnings we are going through right now is how far we can push the boundaries of data availability – at what point does it cease to be sensible to go right the way to the end. We haven’t come up with all the answers yet.” 
  • “It’s wise to remember that it’s not all about financial payback – there are other things that make [sustainability] a good business case. For example, long-term security of supply, reputational risk and being seen to be a good partner as well as a good employer.” 
  • “What we would like to do is engage more fully with the supply chain. Get more standard design, get more standard supply and get more control of the construction environment so we can eliminate unnecessary waste.” 

Maxine Perella is a freelance journalist

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