10 October 2012 — Many conversations about sustainability remain stuck in the language of greenwash – doing things because we ought to and will feel bad if we don’t “think of the polar bears”.

In other camps, the pendulum swings emphatically to the opposite extreme, where the cold, hard, economically driven business case must justify where every penny is spent. Who is right? Does it matter? How do we find compromise and middle ground?

There doesn’t seem to be a day that passes without a seminar, a conference or an article that refers to the “green agenda”. It’s encouraging that there is a growing awareness and interest from all parts of the industry in finding better ways to develop, build and operate our built environment.

But there is one thing that jars. That word…“green”. It’s everywhere; a convenient shorthand for anything even remotely sustainable. “Greening” this and “greening” that. Are we sure we’ve got this right?

A recent article by the hugely effective and articulate chief executive officer of the UK Green Building Council, Paul King, had the thesis that “green” is simply another way of describing “good”. While we expect a “good” building as a matter of course, it’s often the sustainable elements that deliver these “good” results we all hope for, such as high indoor environmental quality, low running costs or an abundance of natural light.

So what is the big deal? Green means good doesn’t it? Not always – there’s a darker shade of green.

Many of the early advances in sustainability were driven on the “be green or feel guilt” basis; that we ought to be operating differently and that if we didn’t we should feel guilty. It’s well documented that guilt is a poor motivator – effective for the enthusiastic few, but not the vast majority.

For instance, we are now given the option to offset our carbon emissions each time we book a flight. If we do, then we care; but if we don’t then does that mean we don’t care? And if we do care and are prepared to pay a few dollars extra, then why don’t we offset all our other carbon emissions – such as every time we eat a steak, or drink a glass of bottled water imported from France?

Our response to sustainability in our own lives isn’t rational, so why should it be in the corporate world?

The corporate world is a very rational place. Unless you’re lucky enough to own the company or are a wealthy philanthropist, most people’s roles involve a continuous process of justifying decisions.

Additional investment in sustainability “because it feels right” doesn’t carry people very far. It’s probably fair to say that most people do value the sort of outcomes that sustainability is looking for – a prosperous economy, high human happiness and health, rich and abundant ecological systems, zero adverse impact on climate – but justifying investment decisions against these macro outputs is hard.

There needs to be a paradigm shift such that when decisions are made, there is a tangible set of reasons why more sustainable options provide a better solution.

Language here is vital. The way we refer to things affects how we think about them. Our objective should be to move beyond a paradigm where sustainability equals making things less bad (think mitigation), to one where sustainability is linked to realising a wider set of benefits. These benefits could be many and varied, and could accrue directly to a project or indirectly to society. If each investment decision is presented in these terms then that sustainability aspect might stand a better chance of success.

By contrast, the term “green” keeps us locked in a world of emotion and just doesn’t have a home in the rational corporate world.

A recent US research piece, called “Making the Pitch: Selling Sustainability from Inside Corporate America” seems to agree, and makes the case that “(sustainability)…leaders must use communication skills to link sustainability to core business objectives. Rather than using sustainability jargon, they must use words and phrases that are consistent with a company’s culture and business strategy”.

Let’s try with different language.

Sustainable development is a complex web of interdependent issues where we, as society, projects and individuals, need to find the optimum balance across competing issues. It’s about making informed decisions – decisions that are based upon robust business cases which assess the true costs and benefits of alternative options.

Green in this instance is meaningless. We need to be talking about benefits that can be measured, such as lower energy costs, improved biodiversity levels, occupant satisfaction and productivity levels.

Success looks like a project with a balanced set of measurable results – some of these should be functional (teaching outcomes for a new school), some financial (Capex & Opex budgets), some social (job creation), and some environmental (biodiversity). With the exception of the environmental outcomes, the other benefits don’t relate to what we recognise as “green”.

A consistent focus on benefits has to help move the conversation forward and, now that sustainability is coming of age, as an industry we should be able to handle this shift in approach. This change in our thought process instantly moves the sustainability agenda right into the business case. If an investment can’t be justified, then it’s probably the wrong investment – and this should be true of sustainability.

When thinking about benefits, we need to consider the recipients. Traditional business cases put a fence around project cash flows to such an extent that anything outside this fence is incidental. We need to find better ways of valuing benefits (even if qualitatively) that accrue to a wider set of beneficiaries outside the project. If we focus on these and fully appreciate the nature of the benefits, then we might start to make different decisions.

So, there are two possible scenarios for the future:

Future 1 – We continue to commoditise sustainability down to a “green agenda”, and in doing so, encourage projects to jump too quickly to a set of solutions that neatly fit into the green shopping basket.

Future 2 – We reorientate the discussion toward benefit realisation, and spend more time exploring and appraising a set of options and their associated benefits beyond just the environmental. Decisions made are informed by an evidenced set of benefits, whether linked directly to the project or indirectly to society.

The second future is by no means easy and brings with it a wealth of technicalquestions, such as the need to choose between different types of benefits.

But by having these types of conversations, progress is made.

Ed Brown

It’s time sustainability and the green agenda came of age and we evolve the conversation toward the issues that really matter. If we’re going to achieve the type of society, economy and environment we are all looking for then we need to make sure that we’re using the right

language and the right tools to reach our goals.

Ed Brown is Davis Langdon’s existing buildings sector leader for Australia and New Zealand.