For the sixth interview in our Good Business series, Jo Sutherland spoke with Alistair Blackmore, head of sustainability at Bidwells. Alistair discussed his background and how legislation can shape a sustainable future for the built environment.
Walk us through your background, Alistair. How did you get to where you are today – and what excites you about your role?
For 15 years, I worked as a sustainability consultant for multinational businesses, primarily focusing on data acquisition and analysis to inform decisions. That skillset informs my current work and means that when I look at goals now, I frame them around what we can achieve by the internationally agreed 2050 target to reach net zero carbon emissions.
In January 2022, Bidwells appointed a new senior partner, Nick Pettit. He made it clear that he wanted the legacy of his tenure to be a financially, socially and environmentally sustainable business. That led to the addition of my post, which I started in March 2022.
As the head of sustainability, the first role was to define our ESG strategy. This could not be done in a silo and involved the leadership of the business to understand our ambition as well as looking at the data so we can understand what is achievable. This enabled us to capture the “right” data to track progress against our ambitious targets.
My role is split between defining and delivering our internal ESG strategy and advising our clients on their sustainability impact. I often introduce clients to services they may not have realised are relevant to their business. That excites me about my role; it lets us achieve our sustainability goals whilst supporting our clients in achieving theirs.
What’s the business case for organisations to think more carefully about their role in sustainable development?
Sustainability covers a breadth of topics, from environmental impact to business governance. To answer the business case for sustainable development, we focus on just one of those topics: climate change.
196 countries agreed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees by 2050 as part of the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference, which we now refer to as The Paris Agreement. The UK was one of the first countries to enshrine that in law. The UK government is responsible for developing achievable targets and frameworks that help us hit that emission reduction goal. Bidwells, along with all other businesses in the UK, is responsible for adapting to and working within those regulations.
By doing this quickly, you can create a competitive advantage. Your business can become more agile and better able to change its direction as you meet those goals. Those who are the first to implement these changes will adapt to survive and thrive in future markets. Those who don’t will lose out on future work as clients increasingly expect this level of non-financial performance as table stakes when appointing a supplier. Even if current legislation falls short, the market has an overwhelming desire to achieve net zero by 2050 and is driving that through its supply chain.
Additionally, why wouldn’t you if there’s no loss of revenue and no potential negative impact from improving your practices?
What difficulties does the built environment industry face when developing sustainable building practices?
One issue facing several development projects involves insurance. For example, if we want to use reclaimed steel in a project to reduce embodied emissions in building construction, the insurers still have to underwrite using that material. Insurers may be unfamiliar with some of the more modern materials we specify, which can create a barrier to their use.
Regarding project management, we specialise in incredibly complex projects. The last thing people want is additional complexity and risk added to the situation. This makes for a nuanced conversation with our clients regarding achieving environmental goals while delivering the space. We always seek to provide best practice regarding sustainability while meeting the client’s objectives.
There is also a skills gap. Modern methods of construction require buildings to use newer technologies that may not be universally understood by the building trade. If we look at the government’s recent consultation on the Future Homes and Buildings Standards published on 13th December, this calls for the installation of local heat networks and air source heat pumps. The days of a gas boiler in the kitchen are ending, which is fantastic from an environmental perspective and will require plumbers across the country to up-skill to support the rise in air source and ground source heat pumps that we will all have in our homes.
These two elements need not conflict: upskilling our existing labour force to deliver environmentally positive outcomes can drive huge social value feedback loops as we have better-skilled, happier people, houses that are cheaper to run, and improved air quality locally and nationally. This requires investment in training today to deliver these outcomes soon.
Based on the expertise and insight Bidwells offers the market, what would you say is the main thing that needs to change at the UK government level, whether legislative or regulatory reform?
To incentivise businesses to transition from shareholder primacy to stakeholder primacy. Shareholders should still realise a financial return as they have risked their capital to generate a return on investment – that’s how our economy functions. However, the business world must listen to various stakeholders, including employees and those with environment concerns, when making decisions; otherwise, they risk operating in silos and failing to deliver for society.
In September, I was personally and professionally disappointed by the government’s watering down of our country’s net zero 2050 action plan. The market needs stability, and the original goal for Energy Performance Certificates (EPC) meant that businesses had some clarity for working towards better EPC ratings. Now that these policies have been scaled back, asset owners are less likely to review their portfolios. EPCs may not be the best representations of building operations, but their monitoring can encourage organisations to invest in the fabric of their buildings. Dialling back this plan doesn’t help.
Keeping the same 2050 net zero goal while pushing back on short-term incentives compresses actual achievable goals into a tighter and more difficult timeframe. For example, when will we ban the sale of fossil fuel-burning engines?
These changes reflect a more extended history of prioritising shareholders over stakeholders. Prioritising only those with capital leads to a fractured society. I want to see a regulatory framework to ensure that organisations use their wealth to invest in communities, achieve their environmental targets, and help deliver a sustainable society by 2050.
We’re moving in the right direction. The EU taxonomy for sustainable activities evidences that change and the UK is due to follow suit and deliver its corporate responsibility reporting framework.
However, we still have a way to go from an ESG perspective. How can we deliver a sustainable, net zero future by 2050? Through legislation that makes planned, actionable, and deliverable goals for a better future.
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