Sustainability strategies – six key steps for hitting a moving target

Sustainability is a rapidly evolving landscape and sometimes it can feel like trying to hit a moving target. As the understanding of our impact evolves, sustainability strategies and calculations increase in complexity to match, writes Sir Robert McAlpine’s sustainability director Simon Richards.

Sustainability strategies – six key steps for hitting a moving target

Transitioning to a low-carbon economy has been one of the top priorities for the built environment sector for years now. With our industry responsible for more than a fifth of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, net-zero agendas have been ever present in boardroom discussions and solid action is being taken on the ground.

Recently, Sir Robert McAlpine was proud to share the strides that we had made towards our 2045 net-zero target – announcing a 71% reduction in our absolute Scope 1 and 2 emissions against our baseline year, in our Sustainability Report. Whilst these reports may sometimes feel grandstanding, the calculations behind them provide essential learning opportunities for businesses as they adapt to the ever-evolving sustainability landscape.

By sharing six key lessons that have taken us years to get right, we hope to turn these moonshots into regular occurrences.

1) Building a solid foundation

An effective sustainability strategy is built upon a foundation of process, tools, and knowledge. At Sir Robert McAlpine, with this foundation in place, our strategy is formed of the four pillars of carbon, resource efficiency, ethical procurement, and social value. These pillars define what sustainability means to us and where to focus.

That focus begins in knowing where your business currently stands. We’ve worked hard to get baseline data to understand what our impact is and what to focus on. It’s then a juggling act to set targets that are both impactful and realistic, and to not disengage those who must act to achieve them.

Our pillars have given us clarity and have ensured that we invest in the processes, tools, and expertise to deliver our plan.

2) Setting clear timescales

Undeniably, there needs to be a shift in how we work, and this transition will take time. However, the timescales we talk about – such as the UK’s commitment to achieve net-zero by 2050 – do not always promote a sense of urgency, with a risk meaningful action goes onto tomorrow’s to do list.

It is therefore key that once a strategy has been defined – the “what” and the “why” – the work on the “how” and “who” is put in place. Action plans should break the task down into bite-sized chunks. As the saying goes, there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.

3) Avoiding carbon tunnel vision

Carbon hogs the limelight, but true sustainability requires a holistic approach to assess impact and consider where effort should be focused. For example, biodiversity, resource use and social impact.

Whilst measures such as social impact may feel nebulous to define, and even harder to track, there is a precedent for the approach and standardisation in quantifying this type of activity.

Organisations such as LOOP and Social Value UK provide measurement and validation of social value. This third-party validation helps to hold your business to the highest standards and ensure bias is taken out of the equation.

At Sir Robert McAlpine, our Social Impact was calculated at £997m for the past year, a combination of Social Return on Investment of our activities and the Economic Impact of money spent in local economies.

4) Governance and validation

Greenwashing is a real risk for businesses, so it’s important to have the right checks and balances in place for your strategies and data.

Any sustainability professional will attest that getting the datasets is difficult, so a key point of action is addressing underreporting. A robust strategy enables investment in the right areas to put in place the necessary data governance, making sure you are reporting an accurate picture.

External validation also provides a mechanism to promote action and that’s why, in April 2023, we became one of the first construction firms to have our Net Zero targets validated by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi). This gives us assurance that our strategy is right, and then holds us to account for its delivery.

Reported data is under an increasing spotlight, so the processes and governance in place need to stand up to scrutiny.

5) Maintaining agility

Strategy and certification are not the end goal. The goal is strategy execution. It is important that sustainability strategies are flexible enough to accommodate further evolution in definition and scope and reflect the latest industry standards and thinking.

This is why, over the years, we’ve evolved our approach to social impact and continually review things like our Net Zero Action Plan to make sure that they are working and remain relevant. For example, we have been revising our management systems to embed the requirements of PAS 2080:2023 Carbon management in buildings and infrastructure into our processes and organisation. While engaging with the ongoing evolution of sustainability may be daunting, it challenges us to think differently and not rest on our laurels.

As the discipline evolves, so must the approach. For example, this year, we have transitioned from a spend-based approach for goods and services to a quantity-based one for the material emission hotspots of concrete, structural steel and steel reinforcement. This has influenced a 54% reduction in Scope 3 emissions.

Evolving methodologies will inevitably bring questions, so it’s key that we’re transparent with both data and claims. Increased scrutiny shouldn’t be a reason to delay action but it does emphasise the importance of a guiding strategy and governance.

6) Embedding education

Finally, amidst the targets and tools of an effective sustainability strategy, people cannot be forgotten. Skilled talent will be the ones to execute it, so it is important that evolving initiatives bring the full team, from the boardroom to the project site, along with them.

This means internal skilling, such as training programmes for sustainability, and embedding a collaborative environment in the workplace where knowledge sharing is encouraged.

It is only when we are able to empower our talent to find and deploy solutions that we will meet our future needs.

Simon Richards is sustainability director at Sir Robert McAlpine

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