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A big, hungry and dirty beast, the construction industry stands apart as a sustainability challenge. That said, there are still lessons to be learned from other sectors, suggests Jim McClelland…

Construction is a big beast. In the UK, it is worth more than three times the value of the aerospace and automotive sectors combined. A major source of revenue and employment, it has generated over £109 billion in new work for some 314,590 firms in Great Britain alone.

The supply chains, though, are both long and global, with the UK trade deficit in construction materials and components widening to almost £10 million, with imports double the value of exports.

Construction needs to be open and receptive to learning lessons

Jim McClelland Jim McClelland Sustainable futurist, editor, journalist, speaker

Insatiable appetite

Construction is also a hungry beast. The built environment consumes a staggering 42.4 billion tonnes of materials every year — almost half the entire volume used the world over.

Not only hungry, it is dirty, too.

According to the International Energy Agency, buildings and construction account for 36% of global final energy consumption and almost 40% of CO2 emissions. Furthermore, figures for the 222.9 million tonnes of waste generated in the UK in 2016, when split by source, show construction demolition and excavation (CD&E) responsible for 61% of that total.

Taming this big, hungry, dirty beast is therefore a monster ask — and the industry needs all the sustainability help it can get, including the input of ideas and innovations from elsewhere.

So, looking to other mainstream business sectors, what sustainability lessons can construction learn?

Cars: the clean power shift is on

Who would have thought the tag ‘petrolhead’ would start to sound so old, so soon?

Facing the prospect of peak oil, plus challenges to its licence to operate in a pollution-light, low-carbon world, the automotive industry became compelled to make the seismic shift to move beyond mere efficiency and miles per gallon, to go progressively all-electric and fossil free.

Now, with a clean and green Grand Prix already a reality, the electric vehicle (EV) market has come a long way from the trailblazing global launch of the hybrid Toyota Prius, back in the year 2000. Today, with the energy transition in full flow, Daimler has developed its last combustion engine and Ford describes itself more as a provider of Smart Mobility services, than a car manufacturer.

Ultimately, the lesson here is not so much about changing the fuel source, but radically redesigning the product range and transforming the business model, to futureproof against climate risk.

Fashion: bad trends are there to be bucked

Fast fashion remains an easy target for finger-pointing on unsustainability. Whether it is Extinction Rebellion protesting at London Fashion Week, or Members of Parliament writing to bosses of major UK brands and retailers, public criticism of the environmental impacts is visible and vocal.

Stories of ethical issues also still abound in supply chains, adding to an unenviable back-catalogue of reputational and humanitarian disasters, ranging from desperate ‘cry for help’ notes found in clothes for sale on the High Street, to the human-rights horror of 1,134 lives lost in the Rana Plaza tragedy.

The issues seem systemic and almost insurmountable, but innovators can still buck the trend.

Take the example of Rapanui Clothing, started around a decade ago in a shed on the Isle of Wight. The pioneering brand now uses low-waste print technology to make garments from organic cotton, in a factory run on wind power. It has also developed a leading-edge traceability tool that can track the T-shirt threads all the way back to the farmer’s field ­– plus a circular-economy take-back arm, Teemill, that pays customers to return their product for remanufacturing at end-of-life.

Renewable, recyclable, traceable and transparent – small can be sustainable, too.

Food: local provenance has global appeal

Provenance is the popular USP of the artisan food movement and its exclusive deli counters stocked with small-batch goodies. Towards the other end of the cost scale sit the likes of unpackaged produce from the market-stall greengrocer, pitching value-for-money with quality assured. What these two have in common is that they both trade on goods being locally sourced.

Whilst cutting air miles might shrink the carbon footprint, the authentic appeal to pride in local production is the real sustainability story. Such community cachet is admittedly not a natural fit for construction dependent on high-volume, low-cost global supply chains for its profit margin.

Sense of place is nevertheless a strong component of local planning success, especially for residential development and civic schemes. The question for construction, then, is how does it reconnect with the communities in which it operates, plus embrace regional cultural and craft traditions, without turning back the technology clock and indulging in nostalgia?

In short, can construction truly think local and act global, in a modern way?

Sources of inspiration, from subs to stats

Motors, fashion and food are by no means the only sources of inspiration…

From the worlds of media and entertainment, construction might do well to take heed of the rise of subscription services in a digital universe. As epitomised by the convenience and customisation of streaming platforms such as Spotify and Netflix, these offer customers the prospect of getting what they want, when and where they like, without the ownership burden of a physical asset.

Alternatively, the application of performance statistics in professional sport might be a growth area worth watching, with the winning combination of analytics and artificial intelligence fast popularising the ‘science’ of what happens on the football pitch any given Saturday.

The point is construction needs to be open and receptive to learning lessons and a quick study — after all, dinosaurs were big, hungry, dirty beasts, too…

Jim McClelland is a Sustainable futurist, editor, journalist, speaker