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Redefining sustainability

The recent Building magazine / Ecobuild roundtable ‘The New Normal: Redefining Sustainability’ threw up a mixed response in terms of what does sustainability really mean.

The recent Building magazine / Ecobuild roundtable – ‘The New Normal: redefining sustainability’ – threw up a mixed response in terms of what does sustainability really mean. It was acknowledged that great progress and thought leadership has been achieved by many leading industry figures as well as those that silently drive sustainability. However, when you consider the progress that has been made against the 2007 UK Sustainable Development strategy, it would appear that our efforts have been short term and driven by other motives. For example, carbon reduction, with the driver being energy cost cutting rather than resource efficiency. As such this begs the question: if companies continue to invest in short term decisions and we are swayed by other more financial motives, how can we utilise long-term capital investment to drive the wider performance/resource efficiency measures for the built environment?

A question prompted by UKGBC, which chaired the event, was that the business case isn’t truly understood, taken that many companies are pushing the limits of what they can do despite neither having regulatory support nor customer demand. To drive real change do we need to shift the conversation on sustainability to one that involves the consumer?

 Perhaps this is essential if we need to shift the debate without government mandate to create a broader mandate to ensure change happens. In the period since the UK Sustainable Development strategy was launched, we have learnt that sustainability is no longer of merely academic interest. From 2007 to 2016, we have had numerous indications that not only do we live in a changing world from a climate perspective, but many of the mega trends which will shape our environment and society in the future need to be addressed. This takes long term planning, longer than any single term of government.

Having had a previous career, with the Environment Agency, I’m forever mindful that throughout the northern hemisphere, record droughts, high temperatures and floods are never far from our screens. Counter this with the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) continuing to report that limited progress had been made on the most important environmental goals.

There is still a remarkable lack of political leadership regarding sustainability, which forces well-intentioned companies into tight corners. Such firms are able to read the news and see the possibilities and threats ahead, but find it difficult to realise the opportunities in sustainability. Perhaps such a view was re-enforced by a recent international survey of professionals which revealed that customers in UK and US are much less likely to believe in a causal connection between human action and climate impacts. With all the politics that fill our TV screens and notify us of the continual change in UK and world politics, our political leaders need to understand the connection and messages they give to the market, and not just drive behaviour through improved regulation and business policy.

I went back to a survey of property investors held in 2010 that posed the question, ‘How will green buildings perform against non-green buildings?’ An overwhelming 86% of respondents said that green buildings will become more valuable. Since that survey was conducted, pressures on real estate owners and managers to make their properties more sustainable have continued to grow.

So the question is how do we address the bigger picture of sustainability and can we really achieve change across all generations, occupations and beliefs? It largely comes down to reframing sustainability so that it makes more sense to everyone, and providing sensible reasons for implementing change for long terms gain for both the environment and the individual.

We have come a long way but there is still a long way to go – especially when you consider we are living in a world that is constantly changing and under continual pressure from so many factors, from political to environmental. Sustainability is firmly on the agenda. We need to make sure it stays there and becomes the norm that we all think about and act upon.