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Imagine a sustainable construction company: what do you picture? Luke Deamer provides an answer such as Sustainable construction must consider the whole business operation . . .

Luke Deamer

Often our first thought is to imagine a construction site. With COP26 now wrapped up, perhaps we think of zero emission piling rigs and construction equipment. Perhaps we picture innovative low carbon cements, or designs that make use of off-site construction. In fact, it can be easy to forget all the other operations of a construction company. Yet other parts of our businesses, such as HR and finance, have a big impact on sustainability. It’s time to start thinking outside of our projects.

There is still a lot of work to be done on site projects. But solely focusing sustainability improvements on site processes limits what we can achieve. Likewise, only focusing on environmental accreditations and innovations means we miss opportunities to improve social and economic sustainability. We need to think bigger. Every business function, from procurement to IT, has a role to play in improving sustainability.

This was the challenge addressed in a research collaboration between Keller and the University of Surrey’s Centre for Environment and Sustainability. Together, they assessed the sustainability of every process carried out across a construction company. This investigation covered everything from annual leave policies to the way piling rigs are washed down in maintenance yards. The results were surprising – it turns out nearly every process has an impact on sustainability.

Some of these impacts are more obvious than others. Take how HR processes impact social sustainability. It is probably no surprise that key processes impact employee education and diversity, equity and inclusion. But HR also has other impacts. For example, by controlling the company car scheme, HR can have a big impact on carbon emissions and air quality. Likewise, through managing subsistence allowances on site, HR have an impact on reducing hunger and improving the health of employees.

We see these same hidden impacts across other functions as well. As it turns out, many are of these impacts are positive. IT use firewalls to help prevent online discrimination and harassment. Procurement help reduce modern slavery in the supply chain through pre-qualifications and audits. Finance help cost out climate risks and opportunities, as well as planning for green capital expenditure. By diving into individual procedures, method statements and policies, we can reveal these additional sustainability impacts.

So, what does this mean for construction companies?

Firstly, we need to look outside our site projects. This means encouraging all functions to investigate and improve their own sustainability impacts. Across environmental, social and economic sustainability, functions are often surprised by what they can impact.

Secondly, once we know about these wider impacts, we need to capture them. Sustainability reporting shouldn’t be restricted to sites and maintenance yards. Likewise, companies shouldn’t stop at carbon or diversity reporting. As important as these metrics are, we impact far more areas of sustainability. There are great things going on already, we just need to make sure we record them.

Thirdly, we need to look at the process level. Too often, we just focus on pushing sustainability from the top-down. There is still a place for corporate targets and metrics, but great sustainability reporting is meaningless unless we know how we can improve those metrics. To make these improvements, we need to look at the individual tasks we all carry out. It’s these individual changes to key procedures, approaches and policies that actually make a difference. No matter what function or role we’re in, we can drive actual change from the bottom-up.

Finally, everyone has a part to play in improving sustainability. We all have a different impact on sustainability, but we can all do something about it. Everyone, from site operatives to the finance team, can improve company sustainability. Sustainability is not someone else’s problem. It’s an opportunity for us all.

Luke Deamer is a doctoral practitioner in sustainability with Keller