Businesses are Getting Sustainability Dangerously Wrong

Sustainability is no longer a ‘nice-to-have’ – it’s a mission critical undertaking for every business and organisation in the construction industry

From improved customer and employee retention to driving down energy costs, increasing revenue and keeping in line with legislation, the benefits of sustainability are well-documented. But despite this, the vast majority of organisations are falling far short of their sustainability goals.

A survey of over 300 businesses by Bain & Company found that a shocking 98% of sustainability initiatives fail to meet their objectives. The average organisation is finding sustainability so challenging in fact that, according to Software AG research, 82% of decision makers would rather accept regulatory penalties than launch sustainability initiatives.

For the construction industry, there’s never been a more important time to take action on sustainability. Around 40% of all global carbon emissions come from the construction, operation and maintenance of buildings. 

If our industry fails to address its impact through sustainability initiatives, the UK won’t achieve net zero by 2050, and the damage to our climate will be irreversible.

Why do so many sustainability initiatives fail?

Here are some key reasons why so many sustainability initiatives are failing to have any meaningful impact:

1. Operating in silos

A common approach to sustainability initiatives is to hire individual specialists or small teams. While these professionals will have the relevant environmental expertise, reserving sustainability knowledge within small groups creates silos that will limit the impact of your initiatives. 

If you want your initiatives to succeed, you need to take an interdisciplinary approach and imbue sustainability literacy throughout all of your organisation’s departments and functions. 

2. Lack of buy-in

Just as your firm’s sustainability knowledge should be spread among disciplines, there also needs to be buy-in throughout the entire organisational structure – from entry-level workers all the way to the C-Suite. 

Without an effective business case that garners sufficient engagement across of your organisation’s processes, you won’t have the buy-in you need to implement your initiatives effectively.

3. Poor implementation of technology

Technology has been rightly touted as the key to achieving our ambitions for a sustainable future. From building information modelling (BIM) to digital twins and energy modelling, there are a wide range of innovations that will play a crucial part in helping construction businesses address their environmental impact.

However, all of our best laid plans won’t come to fruition without proper implementation. Implementing a new technology or process requires effective buy-in as much as it does innovative thinking. For the end-users who have to implement it and the decision-makers that hold the budget to make it happen, a compelling business case is needed to convince them to change their existing processes or part with their money. 

4. Skills gaps

The UK is short of the green skills and expertise it needs to make net zero a reality by 2050 – particularly in construction. 400,000 jobs need to be filled to help drive the demand for new energy, but the number of vacancies requiring green expertise are significantly outpacing the rate we’re training and upskilling workers.

As a constantly evolving and relatively new field for businesses, sustainability knowledge is hard to come by. That makes attracting (and retaining) workers with green skills extremely competitive, pitting the construction industry against lucrative sectors like IT, business and finance.

5. Insufficient and poor use of data

Without data and measurement, you won’t be able to determine the success of your initiatives, much less report on them effectively. However, gathering an entire organisation’s data means collating information across multiple departments, systems, and even reporting frameworks.

Reporting on environmental performance targets is crucial for adhering to new environmental legislation. While it’s a huge challenge for businesses to get the data they need, these regulations can bring about significant financial penalties if they’re not stringently adhered to.

So what’s the solution?

It’s impossible to become 100% literate in sustainability – it’s an ever-changing field that requires more than keeping up to date with the latest innovations.

If construction businesses want to turn the dial on their sustainability initiatives, they’ll need buy-in, support from upper management and a unified approach throughout departments, disciplines and functions. To achieve this, they need to establish a bedrock of sustainability knowledge.

University College of Estate Management (UCEM) have launched the MSc Innovation in Sustainable Built Environments and Level 7 Sustainability Business Specialist Apprenticeship to help address the challenge of sustainability in the built environment. 

Both of these provisions are designed to upskill students with the knowledge and competencies they need to become future leaders. Through building their critical thinking skills and literacy, students will be able to challenge misconceptions, create effective business cases and place their decisions in an environmental context.

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