Making Sustainability Real: Inside Canary Wharf Group’s bold net positive strategy

EXCLUSIVE: British property giant Canary Wharf Group (CWG) has this week unveiled a sweeping new 2030 sustainability strategy, including goals of becoming a circular economy leader, transforming its estate into the world's first 'SDG-compliant micro-city' and becoming net positive.

The firm’s ‘Making Sustainability Real’ strategy, which includes ambitious targets for waste, carbon and water stewardship, sees CWG align itself with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the first time as it pledges to put more back into society, the environment and the global economy than it takes out within the next 12 years, in line with the net positive ethos.

Headline pledges include switching to zero-carbon vehicles on the 128-acre Canary Wharf Estate, ensuring all new developments are either carbon net-zero or net positive and “aspiring to establish the world’s leading circular economy”.

After cutting its carbon emissions by 14.4% in 2016 despite increasing its portfolio, the bold strategy sees CWG go one step further and set a target of making its developments net-zero carbon as it works towards making them carbon net positive post-2030.

SDG city

One of the strategy’s flagship goals is seeing the Group’s estate become “the world’s first SDG compliant city”, that contributes to all 17 goals both at a local level and across its supply chain.

Speaking exclusively to edie, the group’s head of sustainability Martin Gettings explained that while the Canary Wharf Estate in East London could already be classed as “SDG compliant, at a local level”, there is much more to be done by “interrogating” the firm’s value chain to ensure compliance in less regulated countries in a way that makes the CWG’s impact “more transparent, crystallised and visible”.

“A lot of corporates are grabbing the [SDG] logos, putting them in their report and pledging to become SDG compliant but not digging into their supply chains,” Gettings said. “We don’t know how big the problem is in our supply and value chains, but by interrogating them, we will better understand the areas we have to address.”

The aim will be achieved by mapping all 17 SDGS onto each part of the company’s operations, Gettings said, adding that the goals will act as a “common language” between the corporate and public spheres. The mapping exercise is due to be completed within the next year.

Gettings added that while some SDGs are “more material than others” for the property firm, he believes that no corporate can “escape” any of them. Goals which he believes will have the most material impact on the group are SDG 11, ‘sustainable cities and communities’; SDG 9, ‘industry, innovation and infrastructure’; SDG 8, ‘decent work and economic growth’; and SDG 3, ‘good health and wellbeing’.

While several big-name corporates including Tesco have set about embedding the SDGs in their sustainability strategies in recent months, one study found that up to 40% of corporates are failing to meaningfully engage with the 17 goals and 169 targets, with Gettings hoping it encourages other businesses to follow suit.

Leading the circular economy

Another notably bold commitment is CWG’s 2030 ambition of “aspiring to establish the world’s leading circular economy”, which Gettings defined as “aiming to facilitate the perfect conditions to create a true mobius loop around waste”.

He explained that the word “aspire” had been used in lieu of a percentage target as the firm does not believe reliable metrics to track how circular a business is have been created yet, adding that such aspiration has the potential to go further than percentage goals.

“We have metrics to tell us when we have achieved zero waste or how much we have recycled, but metrics to tell us that we have created a perfectly circular system don’t exist,” Gettings said. “We are conscious that we have not got all the answers, but by setting these ambitious goals, we will find a way together and that’s something I don’t hear a lot of corporates say; the tendency is not to set challenging objectives because the route is not known.”  

The closed-loop ambition builds on CWG’s waste reduction efforts to date, which has seen the group generate 89.87% less waste than the 657,785 tonnes recorded in 2016. The company also recycled 96% of its waste and sent 3.56% to landfill as of 2016.

CWG also implemented a closed-loop ‘Clean Coffee Zone‘, which saw 450,000 coffee cups and 95 tonnes of coffee grounds diverted from landfill within nine months, saving 85 tonnes of carbon in the process. The pioneering initiative, launched in 2017, saw the property developer join forces with British paper cup recycler Simply Cups and biomass recycler Bio-Bean to ensure circularity in waste streams and transport.

Collaborating towards net positive

The strategy also sees CWG become the latest in a string of corporates to announce net positive goals, following similar moves by home improvement retailer Kingfisher, IT consultancy Capgemini and computer manufacturer Dell.

But as the company sets its sights on ensuring net-positive contributions to carbon and biodiversity, Gettings highlighted the importance of CWG’s commitment to ensuring that it does not act in isolation as a leader by excluding competitors or SMEs in the same sector.

“[Net positive] will be a business norm when there is a level playing field, so what we have to think about is ensuring we don’t create a breakaway set of corporates who perpetually congratulate themselves for being leaders,” he added.

“Bringing the rest of the sector along is true leadership and I think we need to consider how leading businesses can establish ambitious targets while finding ways to encourage their peers to join the journey. This makes for far more interesting conversations than just putting yourself in an elite group. With sustainability, it’s no good being just in the top 10% because we are all on the same planet at the end of the day.”

As it works towards its 2030 goals, CWG is currently compiling a 12-year roadmap with additional short-term milestones. The roadmap is due to be completed within 12 months.

Sarah George

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