There’s plenty of enthusiasm among sustainability professionals, but it may take a new professional chartership to make our message heard

Isabel McAllister

A few weeks ago the latest climate change report was released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It distils the key policy messages from the IPPC’s assessment of more than 9,000 scientific articles, written by 259 leading scientists from 30 countries worldwide. In short, it says the science community now has 95% confidence that human activity has caused most, and probably all of the rapid global warming over the past 60 years. 

The implications are more concerning than previously thought. Within 20-30 years the world will face nearly inevitable warming of over 2°C, resulting in rising sea levels, heat waves, droughts and more extreme weather.

In the UK, there has been mixed reaction to the IPCC report from scientists, politicians, economists and climate sceptics. Chancellor George Osborne and environment minister Owen Paterson have been as blinkered as ever, and are seemingly out of kilter with their voting public. Being a bit greener is becoming part of mainstream consciousness and the public are mostly on board. Ikea is now selling solar panels without the Green Deal wallet-busting 7% interest rate, so we’ll soon all be picking one up on the way out of the store, when all we wanted to buy was a few tea lights, a flat-pack bookshelf and some meatballs.

Meanwhile, Ecobuild is revving up for next year. Earlier in 2013, 43,000 people attended the world’s biggest event for sustainable design, construction and the built environment. Professionals, experts and academics attended to stimulate debate, and to promote new ideas. The scale of the event shows the relevance and rapid growth of sustainability in our sector, and the appetite for us to knowledge-share and continue to grow this network of talent.

However, the construction industry is still on a steep learning curve. Many project teams struggle with setbacks following receipt of wobbly technical advice from professionals and suppliers, or discover that a lack of investment in training and skills results in project delivery partners being unable to meet new requirements. 
Similarly, many of us will have had to endure an overly-long workshop where the “sustainability consultant” knows little beyond the paragraph numbering in the BREEAM manual, and offers bland statements such as “whole-life costing is really important, guys”.

So, what’s the answer? I believe that a professional chartership for built environment sustainability advisers would be an amazing start. Many professional bodies have shoe-horned sustainability criteria into their existing assessment routes or they align with a recognised qualification such as chartered environmentalist. However, none of the current charterships fully address all the criteria a successful sustainability professional should know and fully understand.

A key attribute of a successful sustainability professional is to facilitate and understand the repercussions of choices for the regulator, client, funder, design team, commercial team, contractor, end user, and so on. Currently, the most popular certification routes require built environment sustainability professionals to write essays on, for example, sewage farms, the use of fertilisers in agriculture, environmental risks of coal mining, and implementation of an effective environmental management system in a zoo. All good stuff, but not very relevant to our industry.

Soon we’ll all be picking up a solar panel on our way out of IKEA, when all we wanted to buy was a few tea lights, a flat-pack bookshelf and some meatballs

To be efficient, and effectively lead on sustainability, sustainability professionals must understand all aspects of the property and construction life cycles, including: policy and regulations (current and forthcoming); relevant fiscal measures; market conditions and end-user requirements; building economics and development appraisals; green architecture and engineering solutions; procurement; construction delivery; post-occupancy evaluation; and much more.

It is perhaps this lack of property and construction focus in sustainability charterships that results in a lot of the eco-world scrabbling around at grassroots level, converting the already-converted, instead of influencing property and construction business leaders and key decision-makers. Eco-warriors and sustainability champions (this includes me) must engage with the right people and develop compelling and relevant arguments, rather than continue to communicate theoretically or too deep-greenly, which rapidly disengages most of their audience.

Professional chartership and industry events are excellent forums in which to address these challenges, to continue to learn about what works and what doesn’t, and to celebrate the successes of what we’ve collectively achieved as an industry already. We should be proud of where we’ve got to and not be disheartened by our political “leaders”.

Happily, I’m not a lone voice regarding this issue, and a few of us eco-champs are currently hatching a plan with one of the leading institutes. Watch this space.

Isabel McAllister is director of sustainability at Mace