Why are UK contractors less sustainable than European firms?

Small contractors and specialists in the UK are slower to embrace sustainability than their counterparts in mainland Europe, according to a new report.

In its second annual European Contractor Survey, released earlier this month, consultancy giant LEK Consulting details responses from more than 1,000 construction companies in France, Germany, Spain and the UK.

The report reveals that 55 per cent of UK contractors and tradespeople view sustainability as a top strategic priority – significantly less than the proportion in France (80 per cent), Germany and Spain (70 per cent each).


Part of the reason is the price-sensitive and client behaviour-led nature of the UK construction market, according to Tom Diplock (pictured), partner and head of the European building and construction practice at LEK Consulting.

He told Construction News that the UK building industry is more fragmented than in mainland Europe – which “makes getting a temperature check on the attitudes and choices taken quite challenging”, as “key decision-makers on the ground are often members of that fragmented supply base”.

Diplock added that the major contractors in the UK are not big enough to influence the rest of the supply chain in the way that much larger multinational firms like Bouygues, Dragados or Vinci can in mainland Europe.

“There is a slightly depressing lack of awareness amongst the client base [in the UK], and a lack of push from the contractor base to really drive sustainability,” he noted.

“A lot of that comes down to commercial terms. All contractors operate on thin margins but in the UK they are thinner, and generally the balance of risk and reward is worse than a lot of other European markets.”

Barriers to adoption

Price also contributes to reluctance to embrace the sustainability agenda, with 54 per cent of UK respondents in the LEK survey – a higher proportion than in France, Germany or Spain – saying that sustainable building materials are too expensive.

Additionally, 43 per cent of UK respondents said there is limited awareness of various sustainable products; 42 per cent said there are not enough sustainable product options on the market; and 22 per cent said sustainable products are harder to install than traditional alternatives.

Diplock also said that there has been “slow progress” in removing barriers to adoption in the UK, but added that “the extent to which this has flown up the agenda even in the last 12-18 months is quite astonishing”.

“Part of the challenge here is the same thing that has sort of encumbered other elements that change in the industry, which is the complexity and fragmentation of the value chain […] It takes time for the message to push through,” he added.

Subcontractors and suppliers need to arm contractors with relevant information on options to adopt sustainable materials and products, Diplock said. “So it is partly about product innovation, but also a lot of it is around communicating the right messages to the right people,” he explained.

Sustainability data is a ‘Wild West’

The construction sector has a vital role to play in the UK’s aim of achieving net zero by 2050, but Diplock warned: “We’re still in the discovery phase when it comes to the feasibility of net zero […] If you look at the reporting around sustainability performance, it’s the Wild West, frankly, in terms of how things are measured and what data is used to inform it.”

Sustainability claims “need to be transparent and evidence-based”, he added. “Otherwise, one of the biggest risks we face is that if all of this is felt to just be greenwash, then the likelihood of adoption slows markedly.”

Diplock argued that real delivery of net zero comes through understanding the whole-life performance of construction materials and buildings – “and the honest answer is no one knows [and] we just fundamentally can’t measure this stuff yet properly. There’s a knotty web of poor data, poorly understood metrics, and some creativity around how those get reported.”

As a result, Diplock said the construction sector is “probably still a few years away from really understanding the scale of the problem, let alone being able to commit to a solution” for achieving net zero by 2050.

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