Clients now regard sustainability as a requirement when choosing a contractor. But how can contractors tackle such a huge subject given what they’ve got on their plate already?

There’s something about August. Not so many meetings. Less traffic. Fewer children – unless yours are school age, of course, in which case, more children. And a collective amnesia about what happened before we went on holiday. Occasionally, though, things happen in July that are worth remembering. One is the message on the cover of Building on 21 July about “jolly green clients”, which immediately made me think of tinned sweetcorn, but which turned out to be about sustainability.

The findings of a survey of the top 50 clients in the UK were so striking that they should remain lodged in the minds of contractors. The central message was that they care about a contractor’s credentials in this area. In fact, they really care – more than 75% of them rate it as “vital” or “important”.

It would be easy to dismiss this as motherhood and apple pie, but I think that would be a mistake. Clients drive this industry and there is a clear message in this survey that they are looking to drive the sustainability agenda within it.

There is also a barrage of signals that suggest that this is not a fad. The government recently published an action plan with the objective of making the UK a leader in sustainable procurement. It identifies a list of priority areas for spending and guess which is top? Construction. The Code for Sustainable Homes is due to emerge shortly from the DCLG and, despite its fraught birth, it is likely to raise the bar in terms of what is expected of housebuilders.

And as I write, the papers are full of the debate about silicon chips in wheelie bins and “pay as you throw” schemes for household waste. At the root of this is a need to put less waste in landfills and there is a remarkable degree of consensus about that objective. Inevitably, this raises the questions “what about all the stuff business throws away?” and “what about the stuff that comes off building sites?” The Independent on Monday said, for example: “UK industry is not doing enough. Some 70 million tonnes of industrial waste is sent to landfill every year, of which 13 million are surplus materials delivered to building sites.”

With climate change high on the news agenda and politicians from both sides of the Atlantic wearing their green credentials on their sleeves, it really does look like sustainability will influence decision-making for the foreseeable future.

The less straightforward question is how contractors and their supply chains should respond. This is a big agenda and it’s tempting to take a glance at the range and complexity of the issues it encompasses and move on – until someone gives you no choice.

The key is to get started. Top of clients’ lists is more recycling. Not surprising, really, as this is likely to save them money

I think the key is to get started. This is an elephant best eaten one bite at a time. The Building survey gives you some clues: top of clients’ lists is more recycling. Not surprising, really, as this is likely to save them money and we know roughly how to do it. You can also measure it, which helps enormously. Decent recycling facilities on site and the use of materials with high recycled content are simple starting points and some contractors, such as Skanska, are leading the way. In its PFI contract for schools in Bristol, Skanska’s KPIs include waste management, recycling and recycled content.

More complex – but just as important – is designing out waste and tackling logistics. Current statistics indicate that between 10% and 15% of all the materials delivered to site never get used and that over-ordering, particularly of cheaper materials, is common practice.

At its root is a belief that materials are much less important than time and labour – this is one of the things we need to change. Materials may be cheap in financial terms, but making and disposing of them has a big environmental impact.

Logistics is a discipline that has had a relatively low profile in construction, but I see a great future for the company that can offer just-in-time delivery directly to where work is being carried out on site. Big sites such as Terminal 5 are already using this approach, but we need a service provider that can make this work on smaller jobs, particularly inner-city contracts where space is tight.

The other piece of good news is that help is available. My organisation, WRAP ( has a whole programme of work dedicated to helping the industry improve its performance on waste and recycling, and there are similar bodies working on energy issues.

Overall, the message is clear. August is over. And as the fashion journalists would say, green is the new black this autumn.