Strategic priorities: Should more businesses be pairing sustainability and innovation?

With the recent Net-Zero Review outlining the innovation and economic growth opportunities of the transition, should more British businesses consider merging sustainability and innovation into one department? We speak with Grosvenor Property UK, which has already made this move, to explore the benefits.

Strategic priorities: Should more businesses be pairing sustainability and innovation?

Published last month, the Net-Zero Review sets out more than 120 recommendations for the UK Government to follow to maximise the business, growth, economic and levelling up opportunities of delivering its 2050 climate target.

The headline conclusion of the Review, which drew on evidence from more than 1,800 organisations and expert individuals, is that the transition is a “historic opportunity” for the UK economy – potentially the largest of the century. But Review lead Chris Skidmore MP also warned that “delay is a significant risk”. Postponed policies that are not joined up will lead to a failure to realise the full socio-economic opportunities of a well-managed transition, he stated.

We have a few weeks or months to wait before seeing which Review recommendations Whitehall will pick up, beyond the Chancellor’s warm words on unlocking enterprise and education opportunities for cleantech.

In the meantime, many businesses are forging ahead despite existing policy gaps, changing their own strategic approach to stop commercial sustainability and environmental sustainability from existing in separate siloes.

Among these businesses is Grosvenor Property UK. The business moved a little over three years ago to create a dedicated ‘sustainability and innovation’ team, which was subsequently crowned ‘Team of the Year’ at edie’s 2022 Sustainability Leaders Awards.

The team includes those specialising in environmental and social strategy development, plus delivering on these strategies and reporting progress. It also comprises innovation specialists, with the authority to make decisions about investing in new products, projects, processes and businesses. Crucially, the merging of these two departments means that innovation spending must either improve business efficiency or contribute to environmental and social goals. Ideally, choices must support both priorities.

Heading up the 14-strong team is Tor Burrows, who tells edie that the business “knew it was simply going to need to do things differently” if it was to hit its updated environmental and social targets. These include achieving a net-zero carbon value chain by 2040; delivering “significant” biodiversity net-gain at all new developments and existing assets by 2030 and implementing an updated supply chain charter on worker rights and wellbeing.

Speaking ahead of her appearance at edie 23 (scroll down for details), Burrows explains why she “absolutely” believes that other businesses, large and small, across a range of sectors, can and should be pairing sustainability with innovation.

She says: “I like to see sustainability as the future of the business model. A lot of what I do involves trying to match our carbon model and our biodiversity goals with our financial plan. When they come together, that is the business strategy.

“When I started this role, in some ways, I didn’t particularly like the word innovation – it sounds quite fancy. But innovation is just about doing things differently…. It’s about just doing good business within our planetary boundaries.

“In such a complex world with multiple crises all happening at once, it’s no wonder that we will need to change our business models and think differently.”

With this framing, innovation and sustainability are the essential components of business growth and resilience.

All on board

After updating key targets, Grosvenor Property UK set about not only creating Burrows’ new team, but “changing everything it did and, therefore, every role within the business”, she explains.

She adds: “We see that, whether you’re an asset manager, you’re in HR, you’re a developer, and so on, everyone needs real new skills around sustainability.”

It bears noting that Grosvenor Property UK’s innovation plan, Future Plus, was developed in collaboration with staff members across a range of departments and seniority levels.

For a company in the business of developing and managing real estate, like Grosvenor, reducing emissions across all scopes entails tackling the ever-tricky embodied carbon in buildings – the emissions generated by the materials and processes needed to erect them. As such, you need carbon-literate designers and developers.

Burrows speaks of the company’s recent work on the South Molton Triangle, a new mixed-use commercial development in Mayfair, reflects how pairing sustainability and innovation have made both focuses parts of all jobs. She explains that, to meet embodied carbon targets, “tweaks” had to be made to the design to reduce the use of steel. These included changing the heights of different levels internally.

Reflecting on this case study, Burrows says: “I asked the development team what the financial impact of that was, and they reported huge cost savings as well.. So often, I think, sustainability has been misconstrued as a cost rather than an opportunity – we can be better at framing it as an innovation and cost-saving opportunity.”

This is precisely the crux of the Net-Zero Review.

Burrows also notes that, even in instances where the more sustainable option is still the costlier for a business, there are often other benefits and opportunities. These may play out in the long run and may not be directly financial.

Expertise and advocacy

For years now, debate has been rumbling on about how, if sustainability is part of everyone’s job, sustainability professionals may see their ultimate aim as making themselves redundant.

But most acknowledge that sustainability is a continuous piece of work, with ever-evolving opportunities to improve, even at organisations that claim to have sustainability ‘embedded’ in their culture and processes. Most also acknowledge that deeper specialism can be valuable.

For Burrows, the success of her team lies partly in the fact that it does include dedicated professionals, including those with more top-level skills relating to strategy development and communications, and those with more technical, specific qualifications and experience: “There is the need for really clear business plans and roadmap. You need that technical expertise. But you also need to orientate the business so that we understand the big picture and understand where best to focus so we can really move the dial.

“Possibly most importantly, it is about influencing and aligning stakeholders – internally and externally.”

There are several pieces of external work that Burrows and her team have undertaken that contributed to their edie ‘Team of the Year’ accolade.

Judges were impressed by the team’s open-book approach. Grosvenor Property UK shares not only its environmental targets, but roadmaps to achieving them and tools it uses to drive change, like its supply chain charter and its sustainable development briefs for various projects.

Burrows elaborates: “For me, I really see that there’s no winners in sustainability. There should not be competition. We either all win or we all fail. So, it’s absolutely essential that we collaborate and advocate to share best-practice and push for change.”

The change sought is often in relation to policy, or to the supply chain, which accounts for the bulk of the business’s overall climate footprint.

On the policy side of things, Grosvenor Property UK supported Burrows in becoming one of the UK Green Building Council’s (UKGBC) Built Environment Climate Ambassadors for COP26. The ambassadors were tasked with raising awareness of the need for higher climate ambitions in the sector; garnering increased ambitions under the Race to Zero initiative and developing and delivering clear policy asks to the UK Government.

Regarding supplier engagement, Grosvenor Property UK recently completed a nine-month supplier mentorship programme on climate mitigation. It worked with Heart of the City to provide suppliers with workshops and meetings on measuring emissions, developing science-based emissions goals and planning to deliver these goals.

One-fifth of the business’s SME suppliers have either already had their emissions goals verified or are on track for verification shortly.

Hear more from Tor Burrows at edie 23

Taking place in London on 1-2 March 2023, edie’s biggest annual event has undergone a major revamp to become edie 23, with a new name, new venue, multiple new content streams and myriad innovative event features and networking opportunities.

edie 23 will take place at the state-of-the-art 133 Houndsditch conference venue in central London. Held over two floors, the event will offer up two full days of keynotes, panels, best-practice case studies and audience-led discussions across three themed stages – Strategy, Net-Zero and Action.

Click here for full information and to book your ticket.

Grosvenor Property UK’s executive director of sustainability and innovation, Tor Burrows, will be appearing on the afternoon of 1 March as part of a panel discussion on ‘building a culture of sustainability leadership at your organisation. The panel will be chaired by IEMA’s chief executive Sarah Mukherjee. Speakng alongside Tor and Sarah will be experts from Patagonia, Unilever and Globechain.


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