It’s not enough for big players in the built environment to go green, they must persuade the rest of the supply chain to do the same

Main contractors are well placed to show leadership and initiative in tackling climate change, the biggest issue of our lifetime. They are able not only to set an example to staff and to clients, but to their supply chains.

As the sector responsible for nearly half the UK’s carbon emissions, the built environment has a huge role to play in helping the country approach the government target for an 80% emissions cut by 2050.

Clients are looking for our expertise to help deliver energy-efficient, low-carbon buildings, whether new or refits. Businesses that do not realise and embrace this will be left behind by those that do. Our advice, knowledge and influence starts at project inception stage and continues past completion with post-occupancy evaluations.

We cannot achieve this low-carbon challenge without engaging and involving our staff and supply chains. We have found that a mix of education and incentives has already had a powerful impact in-house, and we are on track this year to recycle 85% of site waste.

But we know that we can do better, by working with our subcontractors and suppliers. We recognise that sustainable, positive change is possible only through long-term relationships, so our target for 2009 is to increase the number of preferred or partnered supplier relationships by 50%.

This requires honest dialogue and transparency. We presented our supply chain sustainability strategy to all key partners and players during this year. It includes a criteria matrix, making sure suppliers know exactly what we and they need to achieve.

We also hope that we can roll out our online sustainability learning module for staff at suppliers. We engage with them through regular updates on our performance, including making sure they get copies of our annual sustainable development review. It’s a two-way street, but showing our commitment and seriousness is an important element.

We are working with subcontractors to reduce their transport emissions. We are asking each of them to think about their carbon footprint, and ways to reduce it

A sustainable materials policy is now in place, which indicates both minimum and gold standards for materials selection for our projects.

An important area we want to tackle is carbon and we are working with subcontractors to reduce their transport emissions. This also involves asking each of them to think about how to measure their individual carbon footprint and developing strategies for reducing it.

We are moving to a stage where all suppliers will need to measure their own environmental performance in a meaningful, detailed way. This requirement could, of course, feel overwhelming for a small firm owner who may not have the budget or resources to comply. Even medium-size firms could struggle with implementing something as onerous as ISO 14001 for environmental management, which many of the big contractors have as standard.

That’s why we and other big contactors must support this process by setting up training and workshops with our key partners and suppliers, providing environmental systems and management training which should assist towards achieving national and international accreditation schemes in accordance with British Standard BS 8555 such as Acorn or Green Dragon.

By the end of this year, at least 50 supply chain partners will have taken one of our environmental management system training courses. This will be rolled out to other partners next year.

We are already reaping the benefits. To give one example: Brockville Decorators, working on the Epsom grandstand project, found a supplier that recycled its paint pots. They were melted down and have been returned to the racecourse in the form of benches. We estimate that this single initiative saved the equivalent of a 12-yard skip of waste from being sent to landfill. The idea has since been rolled out on sites across the region.

We don’t have all the answers ourselves, but if we work as a team I hope that we will all be able to face one of mankind’s biggest challenges more effectively.