The built environment needs sustainability leadership

Posted on: 18 January, 2024

If our sector is to successfully address its role in the climate crisis, we need leaders with sustainability expertise to drive and influence organisational change.

The built environment’s impact on global warming has been well documented. By most estimates, our sector contributes around 40% of all CO2 emissions every year. However, with three-quarters of the built environment infrastructure that will exist in 2050 yet to be built, and 40-50 million tonnes of CO2 emitted every year from the construction lifecycle, we’re running out of time to decarbonise and ensure future developments align with the 2050 net zero goal set by the United Nations.

We have an enormous task ahead of us to shift our approach to one of sustainability before the damage becomes irreversible. However, we simply don’t have a choice – without action on our part, the consequences for the planet will be disastrous.

The sustainability leadership gap in the built environment

To address our sector’s role in the climate crisis, the built environment needs to take ownership and make sustainability an operational priority. However, while we are starting to see the necessary shift in culture, it’s slow progress.

For some, sustainability is still not a high priority. Sustainability can often be treated as a ‘nice-to-have’ and considered optional. Furthermore, some choose to externalise their carbon reduction measures through initiatives like offsetting, which can bring good publicity in the short term but fail to address the fundamental problem in the long term.

For those that do decide to take action on sustainability, imbuing it across an entire organisation is a tall order. Limiting your understanding and expertise to individual hires or small teams rather than spreading it across the business and within different departments creates sustainability knowledge silos. These can present several obstacles, including:

  • Knowledge bottlenecks: Sustainability initiatives applied without appropriate visibility into business operations can hamper their effectiveness – or worse even render then unsustainable and environmentally damaging.
  • Operational blind spots: Without the context of how different departments function, your sustainability initiatives will miss the nuances of where they can be best implemented and have the strongest impact.
  • Lack of buy-in: People in different departments and functions need to understand their impact and how sustainability affects them if they are to authentically buy in and participate with sustainability initiatives.

Clearly, you need competence, expertise and participation across your organisation if you want your business to make a success of sustainability. But sourcing the appropriate skills in the first place is yet another challenge facing our sector.

Learn more: 7 reasons to start a career in the built environment

Green skills are hard to come by

Sustainability literacy is just one of several green skills the sector – and the UK as a whole – is currently facing a shortage of. The green skills gap is one of the biggest obstacles to meeting our 2050 net zero targets. Sustainability expertise is hard to come by, with few true ‘specialists’ existing in such an ever-evolving field and those that do exist in extremely high demand.

As Ashley Wheaton, Vice Chancellor of UCEM, commented in an interview:

“I had a conversation with a Head of Sustainability in one of the world’s largest real estate firms. I asked them if they needed academic programmes to develop the necessary skills, and their answer was firmly ‘no’, but that what they needed most was competence and also confidence.

“In order to help their clients become more sustainable, what they need is to develop their staff rapidly in areas of sustainability expertise. They need competence in those new technical areas, but most importantly, they need people who are confident to use those skills to deploy the right solutions.

“There are few people who are genuine, lifelong sustainability specialists – not nearly enough of them exist.”

Learn more: Adopting a sustainability lens in everything we do – a Q&A with UCEM Vice Chancellor Ashley Wheaton

The challenge of connecting sustainability with value

Before an organisation can even consider embedding sustainability literacy and green skills into its workforce and operations, the biggest question is one which is difficult to answer – the question of value.

As Ashley Wheaton commented:

“The challenge for the built environment is to demonstrate the value of being sustainable in terms that people already understand. Monetary value is an obvious one, but there are others, such as corporate social responsibility and employee engagement. However, these links are not yet categoric – a definitive link between value and sustainability is quite possibly the the silver bullet we need in this sector to bring about systemic and rapid change.”

There’s undoubtedly a strong business case for sustainability. It can offer a number of benefits for built environment organisations, including:

  • Improved customer loyalty and better talent acquisition/retention: New generations of consumers and workers are placing sustainability high on their criteria for who they choose to purchase from or work for.
  • Cost savings and revenue benefits: The built environment in particular is well placed to benefit from sustainability, particularly as the cost of energy begins to mount and with stronger legislation on its way. Sustainable initiatives like adaptive re-use and retrofitting, as well as energy efficient technologies like heat pumps, can offer long-term cost-saving opportunities.

However, the above benefits are not universal for all, and for many large organisations, the case currently isn’t yet compelling enough.

Against the backdrop of other financial and economic pressures, the upfront cost of overhauling an organisation’s operations to make way for sustainable initiatives is often too daunting in the short-term to justify the long-term reward. And even with greater pressure on businesses to report on their Environment, Social & Governance figures and legislation like the Green Claims Code introducing the potential for financial penalties, many businesses would rather take these risks than change their ways.

Learn more: Green Claims Code checklist: are you guilty of greenwashing?

Tellingly, a survey of 2,000 EU and US decision makers found that a shocking 82% would rather accept regulatory penalties than take on sustainability initiatives.

So where does the built environment go from here?

We’re running out of time to ubiquitously embrace sustainability. The built environment has an opportunity as a sector to place itself at the forefront of a sustainable future, but many firms are understandably hesitant to take all the neccesary action. We’re also suffering from a shortage of expertise and environmental literacy, and we’re in dire need of sustainability leadership throughout all levels of organisational hierarchy.

To address the crisis and advocate for change in our sector UCEM we have launched Globe – our framework to combat the climate emergency, challenge the status quo, and champion sustainability in the built environment.

As Ashley Wheaton commented upon the launch of Globe:

“We made a decision two years ago that sustainability leadership in the built environment was lacking, and that we had an important role to play in leading the sector and higher education in resolving the deepening crisis.

“As probably the sole ‘mono-technical’ institution in the system (after the demise of polytechnic institutions post-1992) with a by-design sector focus in what it delivers, UCEM is in a unique position to influence the built environment. The reach we have with our students is completely different to most other institutions… our students are typically practitioners – they’re in work and they’re doing this. It’s not about creating a funnel or a pipeline of people who one day may have influence – they’re already in it.

“This is an institution-wide and focused on both our external delivery and our own internal approach. I think it’s hypocritical to ask others to do things that you’re not prepared to do yourself. We want our own operational focus on sustainability to be exemplary and to inspire others to follow suit, and I believe firmly that by following our own example we enhance the credibility of our academic programmes.”

To find out more about Globe and our ambitions, read our full Q&A with Ashley Wheaton.