Joe Van Belleghem

On the fatigue factor as a good sign, market failures and counter cyclical smarts

23 May 2013 — After the tough news last week that Stockland had cut its sustainability team by more than half, we took a look at how other companies and sectors in the market are faring.

Not everyone is shedding staff in their sustainability teams, and not everyone is “fatigued” by green buildings and the word sustainability, as one of our readers put it.

“Change the word if you like, call it Green Frog,” Sustainability at Work director Tania Crosbie said. “To me it shows people need a gimmick and fad to plug into. Sustainability is hard work and long term. And people are still arguing about it.”

Crosbie said she and fellow director Melissa Houghton have plenty of work from corporates keen to embed sustainability within their staff culture.

“Companies have done their retrofits and their lighting upgrade and now they’ve got a few years of reporting under their belt they’re starting to look at their staff.”

Some say they’ve got all that sorted but the moment they take their eyes off, people go back to old habits, Crosbie says.

Another area that will stay strong is the energy efficiency retrofit market for existing buildings, says NDY’s sustainability leader Chris Nunn. Thank the mandatory NABERS energy rating for larger offices for that, he says.

“The legislative drivers will continue to operate, particularly in existing buildings,” Nunn says.

Of course there are no such mandatory drivers for new buildings.

Recruiter Matthew Belleghem, principal consultant at envirosearch, says that in the new build sectors the pushback on green buildings, green ratings and sustainability staff is precisely because there’s no legislative requirement for minimum performance.

“Too much carrot, no stick,” he says.

Hmmm, the trouble with market drivers.

Belleghem says that another area that will need to keep strong on sustainability is the contractor market. And placing these teams in the marketing department won’t work.

“The Leightons, the John Hollands, Abigroups or Thiess… they can’t afford to. They’re moving dirt around at major projects and they still have strong environmental credentials that can’t be devolved to a marketing function.

“It’s not just about marketing. It has to be about substance,” Belleghem says.

“We saw [the downplay of sustainability] in the manufacturing sector – what was more substantive was moved into the comms area. It was about maintaining the façade, the appearance, and getting the outward value but do you get the same inward value with the team?”

We asked Thiess. A spokesman said there were 420 people employed in the fields of environment, safety, people, diversity and community.

An astounding amount? Not really, he said, considering there are more than 100 projects the company is working on.

John Holland didn’t provide numbers but said “accountability for our sustainability approach sits at our executive level.

“We incorporate the principles of sustainability into the full life cycle of our operations and procedures, from the initial design of our projects, through to the type of materials used, our waste management procedures, governance and safety protocols and our engagement with the community.”

Claire Orton, who is co-director with Simon Carter at consultancy Morphosis, and who was previously sustainability manager with Charter Hall, says that there is definitely a big cost savings drive in play with the reductions in staff in property companies.

“In some way some people are surprised that we didn’t have the reductions [in the sustainability area] several years ago, so why now?”

Among her peers, says Orton, “Our mantra was always about building capacity and embedding sustainability in the industry so part of that was the expectation that you would not need the big teams because you would get the businesses living and breathing it. That’s how I see it, almost like a natural progression.”

The question is whether or not the organisations shedding staff have achieved that goal, she says.

On the question of sustainability fatigue, Orton has some sympathy that people are “not all that excited” about it. “But the fundamental issues of sustainability haven’t changed: how do we live on this planet?

“If you resolve something then absolutely you move onto the next thing, but I don’t see that we’ve resolved it.”

The Lend Lease commitment

So what is Lend Lease doing?

After the loss of Maria Atkinson as global head of sustainability and Ché Wall from the eight-strong sustainability solutions team last year, there were plenty of questions.

On Thursday Lend Lease’s director sustainable solutions Joe Van Belleghem was happy to elaborate.

He confirmed he would move from his current role as head of sustainability to take up a position in the company’s Centre of Excellence for Development, reporting to group head of development, David Hutton, as announced in September last year. But for now he will remain in place to deliver the 2014 sustainability strategy, reporting direct to group chief operating officer Dan Labbad, he said.

Labbad, we know, is a fan of sustainability (see our interview with him earlier this year).

According to Van Belleghem, the company is hiring in the sustainability space, looking not only for a new urban regeneration manager but a global sustainability manager.

The strategy is deliberately anti-cyclical, he said.

“We really decided in the last eight months to buck the trend and to really embrace sustainability for a couple of reasons.

“One was that when the GFC hit a few of the companies who viewed sustainability as a cost [and shed staff] were early on their journey so they haven’t seen the value of the corporate social responsibility and sustainability.”

Next is that most people from Atkinson’s team have been redeployed into other areas of the business; they haven’t left the company.

For Lend Lease, Van Belleghem says, there’s “no question” that sustainability is “a big – a huge – part of who we are, not just in projects but an essential part of our people first policy”.

Instead of shedding staff, it was a question of greater embedding of sustainability. “It’s by no means a retraction – that would be dumb of us. A retraction would make no sense when we’ve invested so much in skills and when we’re just starting to gain value from it.”

Van Belleghem points to new company office buildings in Singapore and the UK that have achieved the highest environmental ratings.

“When you focus on carbon and energy reduction it allows you to drive new efficiencies. But it’s not just the projects. It’s essential to our people-first policies. It helps your people; it helps attract and retain the best people.

“You can’t create the best places unless you follow the triple bottom line principles.”

One of the searches for new blood is for a head of national urban regeneration, Van Belleghem says.

But that’s not easy, because a special skill set is required.

“We’re looking for people who have a deep allegiance to sustainability but who also have the business experience in development management.”

Van Belleghem has been strongly associated with sustainability; he was co-founder of Canada Green Building Council and also served on the board of the United States Green Building Council, yet he says his roots are in development, but as someone who recognised early that sustainability makes sense.

“I never went to school to train in sustainability, but I don’t believe anyone shouldn’t embrace sustainability and we’re trying to embed that in our people.”

The new group head of sustainability will replace Van Belleghem.

“That was always the plan – for me to focus the system to build up a commitment of where we’re headed and then to move to the Sustainability Centre of Excellence in Development.”

So why does he think there’s a backlash, a “fatigue” with the concept of sustainability and with the word itself?

Van Belleghem sees this as a positive, a symptom of a driver to greater achievements, not less.

Partly it’s because “it’s not about the building anymore”.

“If you look a the office sector in Australia the quality is just fantastic compared with product in the rest of the world, and that’s because of the knowledge base, which is growing so much.

Today people want to know about more than the buildings, and tenants ask very penetrating questions, he says: “What are the amenities? Do they connect with nature? Where is the training program, such as for indigenous people at Barangaroo?”

On the Lend Lease team these days, he says, is a psychologist, because the company is “growing and pushing the envelope”.

What’s missing here is a value shift

But he understands the word sustainable is not so exciting.

“I don’t necessarily wake up every morning and get excited because I’m going to be sustainable; that’s not exciting,” he says. “What people are asking is what are we trying to do here? What they’re saying is that they want a value shift.”

So whether it’s in development or manufacturing, Van Belleghem says, the drive is to be more responsible, socially, ecologically, in every way.

“Sustainability isn’t just environment.

“The definition of that is changing. The discussion we’re having with tenants is phenomenal… about biophillic design, healthier workplaces… the level of discussion is going so far.

“It’s no surprise that people are searching for more meaning.”

Here’s the Lend Lease line-up:

Regional Head of Sustainability

Sustainability Manager Project Management & Construction

Sustainability Manager Abigroup

Sustainability Manager Baulderstone

Sustainability Manager Investment Management

Sustainability Development

Sustainability Manager Retirement Living