Getting serious about corporate sustainability

Willmott Dixon is Construction News’ 2019 Environmental Contractor of the Year. Jonathon Porritt talks about the journey so far….

Back in 2013, when we developed our 2013-2020 Sustainable Development Strategy, we used a tried and trusted method. We looked at the impact of our operations on people and the environment, and then identified actions that would lead to us doing a lot less harm – and a bit more good at the same time.

The approach has stood us in good stead. By setting key headline targets, it’s allowed the business to focus attention on how we achieve them.

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It’s already paid dividends. The first was smashing our 2020 target of 50% reduction in carbon emissions intensity (2010 baseline) by 2017; now data in Q3 of 2018 showed that reduction totalling 61% since 2010. We also reduced our waste intensity in 2018, giving a total reduction of 56% (against a 2012 baseline) meaning we are on track to hit our 60% 2020 target.

We capped 2018 by ensuring all our sites and offices (where we pay the bills) are powered by 100% clean renewable energy.

We’re also doing our bit upskilling our supply-chain partners’ sustainability processes. In 2018 we mandated membership of the Supply Chain Sustainability School (of which we are a founding partner) for all our Cat-A supply-chain and were the only contractor to hold the Carbon Trust’s Supply-Chain-Standard. We are also one of only seven companies achieving Level-2 of this standard.

So much more to do.....

I’m really proud of what we’ve done. But now, as we enter into the next chapter of our sustainable development story, we will need to adapt and renew our approach.

Last year, the world’s scientists at the International Panel on Climate Change told us we have just 12 years to start getting serious about climate change. Global wildlife populations have fallen by 60% in the last four decades. Closer to home, nearly one in three children in the UK lives in poverty, and the use of food banks is rising. The list goes on.

The good news is that many businesses are now leading the way on tackling these issues. In many cases, they are moving faster than politicians: just look at the flurry of activity in the run up to COP24 last year in Poland, with many of the world’s most well-known brands announcing plans to cut carbon emissions. And many businesses are using the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to help them the areas in which they can make a difference.

This isn’t just altruism. It’s also smart business. According to the Business & Sustainable Development Commission, delivering on the SDGs could open up market opportunities worth trillions of dollars.

How do buildings perform after handover

In construction, the commercial opportunities are huge. Companies which succeed in eliminating the gap between the predicted energy performance of a building, and its ‘as-built and in-use’ performance, will become increasingly competitive. There’ll be substantial rewards for businesses which can address the housing crisis by developing ways of delivering affordable and sustainable housing at scale.

Contractors which help people develop new skills will insulate themselves against the massive skills threatening our industry. And any company able to think differently about how best to support the health, well-being and independence of our growing aging population will be tapping into a potentially very lucrative market.

These are just some of things we are thinking about as we develop our 2020-2030 Sustainable Development Strategy. Starting with what the world needs, rather than ‘managing our impacts’ can be daunting. But I believe this is now the only way to rise to our collective challenge. We understand just how high the stakes are here, but the rewards for those companies that double down on the sustainability challenge are huge.