What makes a sustainability leader? Meet Willmott Dixon’s chief sustainability officer Julia Barrett

With the entry deadline for edie's 2022 Sustainability Leaders Awards approaching, this new feature series showcases the achievements of previous winners and reveals their secrets to success. Up first: Our Sustainability Leader of the Year, Julia Barrett.

What makes a sustainability leader? Meet Willmott Dixon’s chief sustainability officer Julia Barrett

Ready to follow in Julia's footsteps? Entries for the 2022 Awards close on 1 October 2021


Julia Barrett has led Willmott Dixon’s sustainability and social value work for more than eight years, leading to three Queen’s Awards for Enterprise – two for sustainable development and one for improving social mobility.

Willmott Dixon has been carbon-neutral in operation since 2012 – a feat spearheaded by Julia and delivered in less than a year of her joining the business. Building on this milestone, she recently led the development and launch of its 2030 sustainability strategy – Now or Never – which includes bold targets and ambitions.

Now or Never is the next phase for the business’s sustainability approach, after the firm’s first sustainable development strategy target deadlines came in 2020. That strategy delivered achievements such as enhancing the life-chances of 10,000 young people, reducing waste intensity by 56%, and slashing carbon emissions intensity by 61% since 2010.

These successes were instrumental in Willmott Dixon being recognised with three Queen’s Awards for Enterprise, for Sustainable Development (2019 and 2015), and for Social Mobility (2018).

In developing Now or Never, Julia made it clear that the development journey was as important as the final strategy itself. For two years her team engaged with staff, customers, supply-chain partners, and more than 1,200 students. She even brought together competitors and peers to challenge the level of ambition in the strategy. Due to the coronavirus crisis, the planned conference launch was rescheduled as a webinar transmitting to 1,670 people (50% external). Now or Never was WD’s most-visited webpage during launch, with 2766 hits and a total of 300,000 impressions across its social media channels.

Julia is a passionate advocate for sustainability in construction and beyond. She frequently speaks on panels alongside ministers to influence government policy and highlight the importance of skills and the opportunities of a low-carbon economy. During summer 2020, Julia presented at the Aldersgate Group’s policy briefings and events promoting the importance of building a sustainable and resilient economy post-Covid-19.

Julia’s role is to advise, support and facilitate – but she has no jurisdiction over other parts of the business and, therefore, cannot turn around sustainability performance on her own. Her considerable achievements, therefore, have been secured through her ability to inspire, influence and persuade others – no mean feat when you realise that Willmott Dixon has around 130 buildings sites at any time, with contracts lasting from six to 36 months, meaning that behaviour change must be embedded in people to sustain improvement. She has developed and empowered her team – 14 individuals with expertise across the sustainability spectrum – into a respected and award-winning team (edie’s Team of the Year 2020). This paid dividends when she was out of the business for four months in 2015 following a serious car accident; the team was able to continue to support the business with minimal long-term impact.

She also developed a bespoke in-house data-collection and reporting tool which allows everyone from the board down to individual project workers to receive monthly performance reports. She established a nominated sustainable development director role to support each of the regional managing directors to engender local leadership and responsibility for delivery supported by a team of environmental and social sustainability managers.

Julia has been clear that the way to get buy-in from the business has been by building the cost-benefit case and demonstrating the commercial benefits. Whether that is by saving circa £22m in carbon and waste reductions, winning projects, securing new customers, or attracting new recruits and retaining existing staff.

Julia’s colleagues described her, in her entry, as a passionate advocate for sustainability, with a personal style that is engaging and fearless. In an industry renowned for its masculine, hard-nosed culture, she has the emotional intelligence combined with the strength of character to push boundaries and persuade people to change not just their perspective, but their behaviour too, co-workers said.

For example, Julia persuaded the board that its aim for the business should be “to be the sector leader in sustainable development”. In doing so, the board agreed that it was important to look outside construction and beyond the UK for best practice. As a result, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provided the guiding framework for the Now or Never Strategy. Additionally, Willmott Dixon has set the most ambitious science-based target in the construction sector, aligning to a 1.5C pathway. On climate action, the business is aiming for zero emissions in its operations by 2030 and in its supply chain by 2040.

What edie’s judges said: “Julia has built up incredible levels of internal buy-in and engagement – most notably with the board – to drive the creation and delivery of an ambitious sustainability strategy that touches all areas of the organisation.”

Are you our next winner?

After a tough and extraordinary year, edie’s RSA-accredited Sustainability Leaders Awards are back for 2022, bigger and better than ever – celebrating the incredible people, projects and partnerships that are accelerating climate action and transforming business, for good. 

Entries are now OPEN. The submission deadline for the 2022 Sustainability Leaders Awards is Friday 1 October 2021. The Awards is then set to take place as a live ceremony on the night of Wednesday 2 February 2022 at the Park Plaza London, Westminster. 

Our ‘Sustainability Leader of the Year’ category is among the 23 categories to choose from. Make sure you get the recognition you, and your team, deserve. ENTER THE SUSTAINABILITY LEADERS AWARDS 2022 HERE.

edie Staff

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