Show me the money… from sustainability

At my keynote at edie Live, I spoke about a vision of a sustainable built environment, how far away from it we currently are and what the industry is doing to move towards it. It's evident that, despite some positive progress, we need to fast-track the level of change and one way of achieving that is by making the business case for sustainability abundantly clear.

Show me the money… from sustainability

The problems are plain to see. Think climate change, resource depletion, biodiversity loss, health crises and social inequality. The solutions are often less clear, but many exist, and the business world, including property and construction, is attempting to tackle these issues. This has led to an increasingly broad range of activities undertaken in the name of sustainability or responsibility. The language has moved from reductions and ‘doing less bad’, to doing more good and having a net positive impact. At the same time, businesses from all sectors are identifying their purpose and attempting to use it to steer their operations.

To bolster the business case, every week there seems to be another piece of research or an investor announcement stating that undertaking sustainable business activities brings financial rewards. Recent research into B-Corps concluded that they are growing 28 times faster than the national average. An ING report in February found that US firms are using sustainability strategies to boost revenues, cut operating costs, and achieve better borrowing rates. In April, Deutsche Bank proclaimed that investing in eco-friendly and diverse companies brings higher returns, and Legal and General Investment Management told companies that they will divest if they don’t hit climate targets.

However, there is still a feeling in many organisations that the link between sustainable activities and creation of value at the individual business level is unclear. At a UKGBC event earlier this year, 77% of the 150 people who signed up to attend said they received pressure from investors, clients, or employees to prove the business value derived from sustainability activities.

It’s no secret that the costs of sustainability to a business, such as the salaries of many of you reading this, are direct and measurable. However, the effects of the activities are often distributed across differing parts of the business and so the value produced is indirect and often intangible, and consequently difficult to measure.  

One way of identifying and measuring the value is to link the sustainable business activities to existing value drivers for that business, such as talent retention, reputation, customer satisfaction, and innovation. At UKGBC, we’ve worked with our members to identify common value drivers and their links to sustainable business activities, and pull together initial tables of indicators, metrics and methodologies, alongside case studies.

Collecting the data for the metrics requires a range of data sources and stakeholders from within and outside of the business. For example, HR, business development, facilities, research, marketing and finance teams, together with customers and investors. On its own this is a great way to start collaborating on sustainability across business divisions and identifying where the value is manifested.

Through the process it became clear that although many businesses want to demonstrate the value generated by their sustainable activities, few have managed to implement a robust way to do so. The UKGBC report helps sustainability professionals and senior management identify metrics useful to their business, enabling them to demonstrate the value of their sustainability activities and thereby attracting greater investment in them. I hope that by facilitating the ongoing sharing of such metrics amongst the industry we can accelerate the integration of sustainability across all businesses and business functions and can reach the rate of change required to create a sustainable built environment.

UKGBC’s Capturing the Value of Sustainability report is available here

Alastair Mant is head of industry engagement at UKGBC

Comments (1)

  1. Les Ellaby says:

    “The problems are plain to see. Think climate change, resource depletion, biodiversity loss, health crises and social inequality.”
    As the built environment in the UK is responsible for close to half of all carbon emissions, yes, it is plain to see climate change is a big problem.
    Resource depletion, having spoken to the majority of contractors involved in the forthcoming ground works, both temporary and permanent for HS2, there is an anticipation that several million tonnes of quarried stone will be required will be required even in the early stages. Yes, I can see that a massive amount of blasting and crushing will be under way.
    Biodiversity loss, not sure that the built environment is responsible for any loss of biodiversity, but undoubtably more than a few of god’s creatures are inconvenienced when their natural environment is ripped up and paved over.
    Health crisis is however a big problem for the built environment. How does quarried and crushed stone move from our reducing stock of million-year-old rock formations? By thousands of diesel powered trucks, what happens to the weak soils being replaced by stone. Often this is just trucked elsewhere. Is any body keeping a human toxicity count, these diesel emissions are really poisonous?
    Social inequality; the unequal distribution of resources. As this is more of a political problem, perhaps the built environment can be excused from not worrying too much about this hot potato. Maybe the term Social injustice would be more appropriate, to create a moral sanction to seize the production and wealth of the competent and productive and give to the less competent and less unproductive.
    Sustainability begins in the ground for the majority of construction projects, utilising those materials already available at the site to avoid the unsustainable cut and fill scenario is a is the philosophers stone.
    To quote O’Flaherty as far back as 1988: “The alchemist of ancient times sought the philosopher’s stone, which was believed to have the power to transmute the baser metals into gold. The philosopher’s stone that intrigues the imagination of the highways engineer today is the thing or method that will have the power to transmute all kinds of soil into material that will resist abrasion and displacement under traffic in all kinds of weather and retain these properties indefinitely”
    I have been travelling around the UK talking to environmentalists and engineers for several years now, explaining the advantages of the Dutch manufactured PowerCem product RoadCem a soil treatment technology allowing all site soils to be utilised as engineered product.
    Importing stone should be the last option for setting up temporary and permanent works, unfortunately it is still the first choice.
    Will things change quickly, will HS2 be a catalyst for change. I do not think so, I am not aware that any of the major construction companies involved in HS2 own or intend sourcing any plant capable of in-situ soil mixing.
    It is also depressing to note that there are actually very few dedicated specialist soil mixing/stabilisation machines currently available in the UK.

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