25 August 2010 – Corin Millais, Mirvac’s relatively new sustainability manager, comes with an impressive background.
He was at the lead of intensive campaigns for renewable energy by Greenpeace. He took the European Wind Energy Association in Brussels from a three-person operation to a turnover of 7-8 million Euro turnover. He worked on Sydney’s Green Olympics and in 2006 came back to Australia to head up the Climate Institute. In the last two years he sandwiched in a role as sustainability manager for Westfield.
Not bad for someone who grew up in the south of England, wanted to be a professional conservationist, studied environmental science and at the age of 23 moved to Uganda to pursue his goals.
As you would expect of someone with these credentials, Millais comes with no shortage of challenging notions but a huge shortage of conventional reticence.
For instance he doesn’t want to offend but the idea of chasing five-star buildings, is not his primary goal. Nor the debate about whether the NABERS methodology is out of whack between Melbourne and Sydney.
“NABERS is important but we are not that bothered whether there’s a technical difference between Melbourne and Sydney. Frankly, who cares?” he says.
Millais concedes there is “some technical impact in terms of cost” for green buildings, but at the “business perspective level, it’s not the biggest issue at the director level
“NABERS is important but it’s not the main game.”
No, Millais’ ideas for a more sustainable Mirvac will be more far-reaching than individual buildings and will go beyond a discrete sustainability unit. And besides the idea of a separate team is out of date, Millais says.
“If the whole business isn’t doing it then what’s the point of having a sustainability team?” he asks.
“There are great opportunities for Mirvac to move its strategy forward to the next level in the business.
“It was a similar role in Westfield, in the sense of helping to define their core sustainability strategy: what’s the potential; where can a property company like that take it?”
So how far can a property company take it?
“Much further,” says Millais. “It’s an exciting period of innovation in property and in the country and world wide.”
Companies can take “faster stronger, tougher actions. Sustainability – that’s only the beginning of the journey.”
Millais also is sceptical about the various indices to prove sustainability.
“We would never say that Mirvac was number one in sustainability but if you look at the top five companies we are all number one in different things.”
And besides, he’s a little dismissive about the global indices that rank the companies.
“It’s sometimes just a question of downloading the forms and paying $20,000 to an expert to work out how to fill it in,” he says.
“External benchmarks are important but they’re one view.”
There are bigger drivers looming in any case, he thinks: “huge movements” in policy and regulations.
So he sees the regulatory environment moving quite fast?
“Not fast enough,” he answers.
Of his earlier background, Millais will only say, intriguingly, that he ” grew up in the South of England…I’m just a foreigner.”
But he is forthcoming on his career choice.
His entrée to environmental issues was simple: “I did environmental studies and went to live in Africa, in Uganda, when I was 23. I wanted to become a professional conservationist but ended up in Greenpeace.
“It was brilliant. I spent 12 years there and learnt a lot – a huge amount.
“There was a lot of engagement with the public and with business, behind the scenes and in front.”
At that time in the 90s Greenpeace was a big player, he explains. It was involved in the major climate change negotiations of the time that preceded the COP15 talks last year, and in writing the texts of various policies and agreement, especially in renewable energy.
Renewable energy was where Millais made his mark – windpower in particular.
“Renewables was a big push for Green Peace.
“We wrote a global plan. I wrote that for wind energy, pushing for 10 per cent of the world’s energy to be run by wind power in 2020 .
“Ten years ago it was seen to be a complete fantasy but now it’s coming true. In those days it was fringe and I guess we helped make renewables successful and mainstream.”
A key, he wants to point out, is that regulation was critical to the establishment of this kind of new industry – but it must be restricted to temporary intervention.
“You needed regulation to make it happen. You’re going from ideals to building [business] value, that’s been the difference. Now it’s a $150 billion industry world-wide.
“All you ever wanted to do in Greenpeace was to prove that scenario and make it profitable, so it’s self-propelling.You don’t really want it to be subsidised; you want it rolling off the factory lines like TVs. That’s what you want – for these things to be like cars or computers…millions of them being made.”
So what were the highlights of his Greenpeace days?
No ambivalence here: “It was winning, really winning campaigns. Greenpeace is driven about goals and success. Very driven. It’s a very hard-nosed group. Sometimes people think it’s quite woolly but it’s not.”
In Australia it will be the 20 per cent target for renewable energy that drives the renewables business, he says.
But Millais is not so sure about the role of buildings in producing renewable energy.
“Change the supply chain to 50 per cent renewable and you make every building green. We’re all paying the price of plugging into coal fired power stations.”
But the more you delve into the costs of co-gen or on-site renewable energy, the more complex the issue becomes, Millais says.
Mirvac has integrated co-generation into its developments and has a zero carbon house in Victoria but “how much can you really spend to pull industry technology forward? I don’t think it’s our job to make co-gen plug and play buildings,” Millais says.
The view from here
Right now Millais is in the final stages of recruiting a new team of up to four people to assist him.
“My job is to make the process effective and inclusive and ensure more and more analytical skills about opportunities rather than must-do green star or reputations.
On a personal level Millais says he likes to be involved in industry bodies and public speaking.
“I like committees, like the Property Council sustainability committee. It works very well. It’s got 10 major property companies. It’s a really good group.
“I like to be the person for Mirvac who goes into the public space and gives a view. I like to speak at conferences too.
“I’m really excited and motivated about this role. It’s a very rewarding role and I chased the opportunity. It’s a good time for the industry.
“Post GFC [global financial crisis] everyone’s got space for this and time and money, there’s not a staff freeze on these things and there’s a bit more resources to get things done.
[Allowing for the hiatus of the election, which Millais might concede has had a dampening effect, and this interview was conducted prior to the election] Millais says the atmosphere has been positive for sustainability.
“It’s been a good time to recruit. And a good time to reflect on the past five yeas and what’s happened – a reflective period, not just putting things out the door and the environment we’re operating in will be very different than the last five years.
“Everyone’ is more battle hardened and experienced and it’s an exciting phase to be moving forward. Like phase two.”
In terms of sustainability, says Millais, the property industry, relative to the Australian corporate scene, is “very strong”.
“You’ve got to look at the corporates – how many corporates are into sustainability – are over the line in sustainability? Who else is there?
“It’s a powerful industry group that is in the right location, the best industry.”
A brilliant day
Millais’s sense that anything can happen, is infectious, perhaps because he brings with his attitude none of the “wooliness” that he says people sometimes associate with green movements and all of the “hard-nosed” focus on creating business value and real-world outcomes.
Tallking to Millais you get the sense that big change is not only possible but probable.
He points out that today he says, it’s possible to work in a “mainstream” job and still pursue core environmental values – almost an impossibility when he started in his career.
In neat symbolism of his point he says that the day he got this particular “mainstream” job he arrived home to final touches being applied to a new solar array on his northern beaches home.
Only 15 years ago in the UK when Millais at Greenpeace launched the first solar array on the home of Susan Roaf [see our articles on Ms Roaf] the cost was 90,000 pounds.
[Today it is about $7,000 to $10,000 and the price has been falling.]
“It was a brilliant day,” he says, “brilliant.”
You get the sense that for this man with a most interesting past, there will be plenty more such days.