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The evolution of a Sustainability Strategy

6 October 2020
Reading Time: 3 mins

Simon Richards, Head of Sustainability, Sir Robert McAlpine

The word ’sustainability’ has become embedded in the public mindset. However, what it means, how you measure it and define success varies depending on your own personal or professional standpoint. It could be delivering Net Zero Carbon buildings, addressing the skills shortage or even securing a robust and profitable pipeline.

With that in mind, try and create a strategy for a business to deliver it.

For me, an effective sustainability strategy needs to get senior leadership and staff buy in, educate, deliver for our clients, drive innovation and be flexible enough to deliver in an evolving sector with increasing legislative oversight. And if you stand still or become complacent, your objectives and delivery models quickly become obsolete.

For Sir Robert McAlpine, in 2015 we set out to define what Sustainability meant to us. Our vision was to become the sustainable contractor of choice. Our resultant Sustainability Roadmap was released and implemented in 2016, a strategy which looked to embed sustainable development into our operations.

Sustainability is a broad discipline, touching every part of our business.  As a result, our roadmap attempted to target every aspect of social, environment and economic sustainability, and it ended up with a rigid set of deliverables for all of our projects to deliver.

Our teams worked tirelessly to embed the targets into our projects and delivered exceptional performance. However, in retrospect, we found that rigid company requirements actually stifled creativity. In some instances, they contradicted client drivers and targets, increased workload, fostering a negative mindset. It was counterproductive for what was essentially something designed with best intentions.

Sustainability requirements and focus have evolved considerably within the built environment since 2015. Governments and regulators are placing more emphasis on it and society is becoming more engaged, expecting it to be addressed.

In truth, when we sat down five years ago to design our strategy, we were pushing to be better in a space where sustainability was merely seen by some as “added value”.  Now in 2020, we find ourselves in a position where sustainability is a key driver of project success, an important element of work winning and something which our clients expect us to deliver.

The past five years were not in vain, however. The lessons, skills, and expertise that we gained through targeting everything in our original strategy has ensured that, as an organisation, we can deliver for our clients, whatever they ask.

As with the direction of sustainability, our strategy has evolved too. We’ve distilled our learning and in 2020 revised our sustainability direction to be client led and project focussed.

It promotes active engagement with our clients to understand their definition of sustainability, what they want to achieve and establish what is possible. We have confidence in what we can deliver. Ultimately, that approach leads to a joined-up vision with our clients, which means we maximise the benefits to the local communities and environment.

With a clear, project specific vision in place, instead of a rigid central strategy dictating project requirement, our teams have a strategy that is tailored for their project with ownership on how to achieve it. This helps them see the benefit, increasing buy in, and ultimately delivering value for our clients. It is supported, rather than dictated, and driven, by our inhouse sustainability professionals and wider subject matter expertise.

We also recognised that to maximise the benefit to the environment and drive the necessary change needed to address the global issues we face, we shouldn’t just be looking inwards. Our strategy needed to facilitate collaboration at an industry level to deliver the collective desire to make sustainable development the norm.

We therefore place industry collaboration and the sharing of lessons learnt as a key driver. This approach is already bearing fruits through our involvement in the establishment of initiatives like Contractors Declare, helping to address the Climate and Biodiversity emergencies.

Our sustainability journey thus far has taught me the following things:

  • Set clear, relatable goals
  • Get buy in at all levels
  • Trust the people
  • Relentlessly collaborate to drive innovation
  • Don’t forget to celebrate the successes!

We haven’t got all the answers yet, and are by no means finished, but we’ve come a long way from a one size fits all model of sustainability! I am excited for the future and the changes that we can collectively implement together.