Sustainability is one of modern construction’s biggest buzzwords – but are we really doing enough? Michele Wietscher, Managing Director of Newview Homes, gives her view.

2018 was the year the environment went mainstream. None of us can have missed the surge in coverage of plastic and the disastrous impacts it’s having on our oceans.

Sunrise and wind turbines

The ‘Blue Planet’ effect is shifting attitudes, and ordinary people are thinking about the environment more than ever before. It’s suddenly at the top of their agenda. And it needs to be at the top of our agenda too.

You may or may not believe the scientists when they say the rate of climate change is rapidly increasing. You may have faith that the planet will cope much better than some are predicting.

But it’s inescapably true that human activity has had a serious negative impact – and that impact has the potential to make life much harder for future generations.

Much more, much faster

Construction has a moral responsibility to drastically reduce its environmental impact.

So do all sectors of the economy. But we do more environmental damage and can have a bigger positive impact, than most.

In developed countries, the built environment accounts for 25-40% of total energy use, 30% of raw material use, and 30-40% of world carbon emissions.

The decisions we make matter, in other words. We can do more than make our own businesses more sustainable – we can help millions of people cut their carbon footprints, too.

But to achieve that, we need to be doing more, faster.

To some, that might sound like a far-fetched claim. Sustainability has become probably construction’s biggest and most inescapable buzzword in recent years, and large clients are already incorporating it into their PQQs as a default.

In glazing, our own sub-section of the construction sector, sustainability is now a major factor in companies securing lucrative commercial projects – and with the public’s environmental awareness at an all-time high, even domestic window fitters risk losing business if their competition care enough to incorporate recycling and eco-friendliness more generally in their sales pitches.

Newview itself achieved ISO14001:2015 accreditation for Environmental Management last year, and we now actively procure suppliers that can demonstrate similar environmental commitment. We should all be thinking like that, in my view.

But before we start patting ourselves on the back, we need to be clear about the scale of the problem, and what’s at stake here.

The challenge

To limit temperature rises to less than 1.5°C – beyond which the droughts, heatwaves, freak storms, melting icecaps, rising seas and global warming’s other negative impacts will rapidly accelerate – the world’s carbon emissions have to halve between now and 2030.

Those negative impacts are already happening, of course, and making life worse for some of the world’s most vulnerable people. Fourteen of the fifteen hottest years on record have occurred since 2000.

But without drastic action to halt rising temperatures at 1.5°C, we’ll see frequent food shortages in already precarious parts of the world, millions more people pushed into poverty, and many island nations will disappear entirely.

Before we start congratulating ourselves for our commitment to sustainability, in other words, we need to soberly assess exactly what we’re up against – and work out what we’re going to do in the next few years to help us hit that 2030 deadline.

What needs to be done?

Sunset skyline

So, as construction businesses, what exactly should we be doing?

In my experience, companies in our sector know very well the sort of action they should be taking – eliminating waste, recycling as much as possible, using renewable energy and materials, and striving to create high-quality, long-lasting built environments that deliver outstanding thermal efficiency. Engage with your staff and you’ll be amazed at how keen people are to do things better.

We also need to do as much as possible to offset our environmental impact – by supporting tree-planting schemes, for example, something we’re doing at Newview by working with Sussex Wildlife Trust on their River Ouse initiative.

But while most businesses know exactly the sort of action they should be taking, many of them aren’t taking it – and nine times out of ten, it’s for the same reason. Fears about the cost.

How do you pay for it?

Whenever you talk to business owners about sustainability, the question of cost inevitably arises. How do we allow for the high cost of recycling and ‘trying to be better?’

Well, initially, this is something we were concerned about too. But by investing in sustainability measures, you make savings in other areas.

For example, at Newview, we’ve taken steps to reduce the environmental impact of our vehicles, and our vans are now all less than four years old.

Yes, we’ve had to lease new vans at a cost of £250 a month – but we’ve been able to cut our fuel bill for each van by £80 per week because the new vehicles are much more fuel-efficient.

As I’ve said, our sector is complex, and there’s no such thing as one size fits all.  But to me, it’s all about baby steps – in your personal life, if you do one small thing every day, before you know it you’ve changed your habits, reduced your carbon footprint and started lighter living.

It’s the same in business. If every construction business found a way to honour and apply those principles to their particular niche, the sector’s environmental impact would be drastically reduced – and we genuinely would have the right to brag about our green credentials.

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