Action figures: Survey finds industry response to sustainability is ‘lacking’

When Construction News partnered with Speedy to survey readers and hold a panel discussion on the industry’s response to environmental challenges, the consensus was clear – a lot more needs to be done

An overwhelming majority of companies in the construction sector have pledged positive action on decarbonisation over the last year. But according to a Construction News readers survey on sustainability – commissioned by tool and equipment hire services company Speedy – the industry’s response to environmental challenges so far leaves much to be desired.

Two-thirds of respondents say activity to date has been either “somewhat lacking” or “totally inadequate”. This is despite industry groups, including the Construction Leadership Council with its Co2nstruct Zero initiative, promoting collaboration and setting priorities for the sector to hit the government’s net-zero by 2050 target.

The survey results were discussed by a panel of specialists at an event on 12 October 2022, where a similar consensus was reached about the slow progress. The ‘Accelerating Sustainability’ session took place at Speedy’s annual Expo event in Liverpool, which brings together Speedy’s key suppliers, customers, colleagues and industry experts, chaired by Mike Walter of CN’s content delivery partner Barrett Byrd Associates.

The speakers (l-r): Speedy director of environmental social governance Amelia Woodley; Milwaukee national account manager Andrew Hulme; Supply Chain Sustainability School chair Shaun McCarthy OBE; Siemens category director David Campbell; Morgan Sindall group procurement director Graham Edgell

“I’m leaning towards agreeing with the ‘totally inadequate’ camp,” said Supply Chain Sustainability School chair and founder of consultancy Action Sustainability Shaun McCarthy, commenting on the industry response question. He noted that although the drive to net-zero is now high on the industry’s agenda, “we have known about this for a long time and as a sector we have been far too slow to adopt all the technologies and the ideas that are available”.

“I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen in the last 12 months or so,” he continued, “but it is still too slow and we need to accelerate that change.”

Speedy director of environmental social governance Amelia Woodley agreed with the need to pick up the pace on action towards net-zero and encouraged efforts to phase out fossil fuels in particular. She suggested that 20 years ago, sustainability “wasn’t in the conversation” and only in the last few years has it “really become apparent that this is needed going forward”.

“I think there has been progress,” she told the session. “We are just not moving quickly enough.”

A sizeable problem

Some survey respondents feel that larger contractors are making good progress on decarbonisation but some smaller firms have been much slower to react. Others fear environmental issues are being pushed to the back of the queue due to the current commercial crisis. However, Siemens category director David Campbell said he took encouragement from the fact that over a third of participants believed the industry’s approach had been at least somewhat thorough, adding that a few years ago the figure would have been much lower.

We do need to do things faster and there has to be huge investment to make it happen

David Campbell, Siemens

Further survey results indicate that half of respondents are either somewhat or very confident that the industry can respond fully to the net-zero by 2050 challenge. But Campbell acknowledged: “We do need to do things faster and there has to be significant investment to make it happen.”

Those surveyed who are optimistic about reaching net-zero feel that the issue is being taken seriously and, with the right drivers and investment, the industry will achieve what is needed. One respondent said: “We are a unique industry that can respond well to every eventuality. Take Covid for example; we found solutions to keep working and made it happen.” Another said: “We have been working towards it for some time now and in the same way that we have improved health and safety, we will achieve this.”

However, reasons for pessimism include a “perceived additional cost of low-carbon activities” as well as a shortage of necessary skills to lead the transition and a need for further advances in technology. Indeed, 50 per cent of participants selected remaining cost-competitive as the biggest barrier in taking action on sustainability, with 21 per cent choosing a lack of technology-readiness. One respondent added: “We have a public-sector customer base who do not fully understand what they want or need. We are giving them an array of options, yet they still struggle to make decisions. This is stifling progress.”

Why go green?

When attention turned to businesses’ biggest drivers of sustainability action, panellists at the Speedy Expo welcomed that “doing the right thing” came out as the top result. “I think this is high on the agenda for most organisations,” said David Campbell. “People are looking at sustainability not just from a carbon perspective, but from a social perspective too.”

It is all very well to want to do the right thing, until you have a finance director who doesn’t. It needs to be continuous throughout an organisation

Shaun McCarthy OBE, Supply Chain Sustainability School

Woodley said she was surprised but encouraged by the finding, as she had expected legislation to be the sectorʼs main reason for action: “This is really positive and we should reflect on the fact people want to do the right thing and want to do business in an ethical, responsible way and give back to our communities.”

Power tools specialist Milwaukee’s national account manager Andrew Hulme said his firm is seeing sustainability goals placed “very much at the forefront” of customer requirements.

Keeping the clients happy

The survey also reveals that “meeting client requirements” is the key driver for 28 per cent of respondents, while very few see improving productivity or cutting costs as the most important factor. A further finding is that 85 per cent of firms have experienced increasing tender requirements around sustainability in the last 12 months.

At the Speedy Expo, Morgan Sindall group procurement director Graham Edgell was asked whether more young people will be attracted to the construction sector as it demonstrates its environmental awareness. He said he thought they would, adding that the industry should be “proud” it is behind the sustainability agenda.

McCarthy added that the sector has an opportunity to reposition itself around sustainable development to attract bright young talent, who want roles that involve tackling climate change. However, he also warned: “It is all very well to want to do the right thing, until you have a finance director who doesn’t. It needs to be continuous throughout an organisation.”

When asked whether the survey results indicate that few in the sector fully appreciate the potential cost-cutting or productivity benefits of greater sustainability action, he responded: “I couldn’t agree more. Clearly, operating more efficiently is operating more sustainability.”

Survey participants also gave their views on what the industry’s top focus should be to reduce carbon emissions. Making more efficient use of materials in project design came out as the most prominent choice. Procurement of lower-carbon materials and products, increased recycling and reuse of materials, and greater adoption of low-emission construction plant and machinery also received support.

When asked what the government can do to support decarbonisation in the sector, mandating whole-life carbon assessments for projects and supporting research and development into lower-carbon materials and products came out top.

Getting the right data

Earlier this year, the UK’s Climate Change Committee’s annual progress report said poor availability of relevant emissions data “critically limits monitoring and evaluation of policy implementation”. It added that additional data collection and reporting is needed to allow progress on energy and materials efficiency, fuel-switching and for whole-life carbon to be tracked.

Supply chain data is not readily available… We have to collaborate, we have to find solutions and we have to share data

Amelia Woodley, Speedy

The committee’s concerns were backed up by the survey results, which reveal that while most companies are familiar with the concepts of embodied carbon, scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions and whole-life carbon assessment, a majority are not confident in their ability to measure emissions along their supply chains.

Campbell suggested that many in the industry have a good handle on their scope 1 and 2 emissions – those which can be directly controlled by a business – but the key difficulty arises when it comes to measuring indirect scope 3 emissions.

Sources of scope 3 emissions include carbon embodied in the manufacturing and transportation of purchased materials as well as business travel and employee commuting. Obtaining this data and measuring it in a ‘standardised’ way is a “huge challenge”, he said. “But it is starting to happen, we are seeing it now in logistics.”

Woodley said: “We collect data on the fuel that we put in our vehicles and energy used by our properties, but supply chain data is not readily available.”

She said Speedy is starting to ask suppliers for carbon data but, “it is very early days and we are all in the same boat. We have to collaborate, we have to find solu tions and we have to share data.” She said embodied carbon data would be a “key differentiator” for products. “We know the data can tell us eco is the best way to go,” she added.

Hulme said: “Milwaukee’s tools probably have zero emissions at the point of use. But clearly there is embodied carbon in there that we need to factor in.” He said the firm has a 2030 target to achieve a 60 per cent reduction in its carbon footprint compared with 2021. “We are confident we are moving in the right direction, but this is still in its infancy so there is a long way to go.”

Morgan Sindall’s Edgell noted a further problem is that there are “35-plus” carbon calculators available in the industry, “and not one of them is third-party audited as being correct”.

McCarthy said a key step in measuring embodied carbon must be to “understand what our supply chain is”, with construction felt to be lagging behind other sectors in this. “As an industry, beyond tier one and tier two we don’t know where our supply chain goes. There is much more work to do to understand what that supply chain is before we can answer what the emissions are.”

Economic shocks

The current inflationary pressures and escalating energy prices have led some in the industry to speculate that the sustainability agenda may be forced to take a back seat while firms struggle
for survival.

However, the survey found positive signs that this may not be the case – indeed, an unintended consequence of the global price hikes could be that businesses are placing an increased focus on greener, less energy-intensive ways of working.

Three-quarters of respondents said rising oil and energy prices have made them more likely to invest in low-carbon technology and equipment, while nearly 90 per cent said it is making them think more urgently about the need to reduce energy usage.

Milwaukee’s Hulme said that the rising prices have had an impact on customers’ perception of the tools they use from an energy perspective. “It is now about trying to convince the end user of the benefits of the products we have.”

Woodley pointed out that investments in green technology and equipment often come with a higher upfront cost. “But when you look at sustainability from a whole-life cost-perspective, over a long period of time it does actually pay back,” she emphasised. But Shaun McCarthy warned that many small businesses in the sector are struggling to absorb the current economic shocks. “Sadly, some won’t survive this crisis,” he said.

Panellists were finally asked what they would say to the prime minister regarding efforts to achieve greater sustainability. “For me it would be about not scaling back,” responded Amelia. “We have to keep pushing to get to that net-zero outcome.”

End in sight for fossil-fuelled plant

Adoption of lower-carbon plant and machinery is set to play a critical role in efforts to decarbonise construction, with companies such as Speedy making good progress to ensure sustainable options are available. However, the UK is felt to be a slow adopter of these greener machines and a sparsity of infrastructure for recharging and refuelling is seen as a significant barrier.

Despite this, participants in the ‘Accelerating Sustainability’ session in Liverpool were encouraged by the CN survey results, with 60 per cent of respondents saying their company’s use of low-carbon construction plant or machinery has increased in the last year.

An overwhelming 87 per cent also said they are planning to increase this in the next 12 months. “This is a massive opportunity when you think about the climate-change agenda,” said Speedy director of environmental social governance Amelia Woodley, adding that the firm has made strides in providing solar, battery and hydrogen-powered equipment. “We absolutely have to take fossil fuels out,” she said.

She added that tailpipe emissions are only one part of the challenge and the company is working with consultant Hydrock to understand the whole-life carbon impact of its products.

Shaun McCarthy of Action Sustainability noted that one problem facing firms keen to buy into lower-emissions technology is around charging infrastructure. “If you have nowhere to plug it in, it isn’t a lot of use,” he said.

David Campbell from Siemens agreed. “There needs to be a huge investment to get that infrastructure right,” he said. “I think it will happen, it needs to happen, but you can’t afford to move slowly.”

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