Maria Atkinson

By Maria Atkinson, Maria Atkinson Consultancy

13 March 2014 – “There’s a lot of talk about green buildings but they are still a relatively new concept in Australia and at the moment a lot of people in the industry don’t know how to build green or who to turn to for advice.”

Hard to believe I said that just over 10 years ago.

It was October 2003 and, as the founding chief executive officer of the Green Building Council of Australia, I was looking forward to Australia’s first green building conference.

We’ve obviously come a long way since then, and we should celebrate that progress.

But have we, as a movement, come far enough? And can we be sure that we’re heading in the right direction and focusing on the right things? Or have we reached a sort of fatigue after that first rush and now we’re stagnating, resting on our laurels?

Avastone Consulting refers to the five Gears of Gearing Up, starting with compliance.

To pardon the pun, I think we can tick that one off! While there will always be some who will stay stuck on the tick-a-box approach to just complying, most have moved beyond this.

I think it’s fair to say that in achieving compliance, many have realised that there are efficiencies which can be achieved, and moving up another gear, even new market opportunities. The raft of 5 and 6 Star Green Star certifications and the co-benefits of productivity linked to health and wellbeing, and market valuation speak to this.

But while we celebrate certifications and the unequivocal shift from niche to mainstream for commercial offices, is that enough?

Have we progressed to the point where sustainability is integrated; where strategy and sustainability are one and the same?

And even further, how many of us have reached that holy grail of recognising that we need a whole new system, a new way of thinking, a new economy?

As Avastone puts it: “Embracing the complexity of sustainability calls for understanding it at a new level of consciousness.”

For the food industry, it’s farm-to-fork as consumers increasingly demand to know the provenance of food.

In the fashion industry, it’s fashion houses that ensure sustainable fabrics, ethical manufacturing, and labels that tell the consumer not only where the garment was made, but about its social and environmental credentials.

So, for the property industry, it is not just about complying with government regulations or achieving credits for certification, or about measuring impacts and a commitment to building green.

Nor is it just having a sustainability report; in fact, it’s perhaps when there is no need for a separate sustainability report – not because it doesn’t matter anymore, but because it’s an integral part of the company’s business strategy, operations and culture.

It’s when the CEO lives and breathes sustainability – supported by an engaged board, when the motive is doing good rather than less bad, and when corporate values are lived – rather than mere words on a website.

This is when sustainability goes beyond the company’s corporate headquarters or the buildings that are designed, built and managed – where the value goes to the communities in which the organisation operates and to the outer reaches of the supply chain.

So while we have come a long way since that first conference in October 2003, from my vantage point, we still have a long way still to go. Let’s keep a focus on sustainability in line with social viability and competitiveness and, with renewed enthusiasm, let’s demand leadership theory and practice that facilitates the transition to real sustainability.

Maria Atkinson AM is a sustainability consultant, advisor and investor. She was a co-founder and the founding CEO of the GBCA, a former global sustainability executive for an ASX50 company, and an internationally recognised expert in sustainability.

12 replies on “Maria Atkinson on real sustainability and 10 years on”

  1. Thank you Maria – an inspiring article.
    I loved the lines….’where strategy and sustainability are one and the same’, and….’we need a whole new system, a new way of thinking, a new economy’ and ‘Embracing the complexity of sustainability calls for understanding it at a new level of consciousness.”

    It reminds me of what Buckminster Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

    One of the amazing things of working as an ESD consultant is that you get to research, workshop, advocate, integrate and design. Also, you often get to manage corporate sustainability and review client sustainability policies and programs. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that after looking at hundreds of these projects you get to think, why am I, in effect, providing social licence to operate for organisations and systems that are not really part of the ‘new economy’, let alone restoring the damage done over the last hundred or so years.

    Ten years ago and before the early meeting agendas for ESD people was to share the woeful existing situation and show the bright new sustainability future for issues like energy, waste, land-use, water etc, liberally dispersed with real like examples from Germany or Sweden. This approach is still valid, and, increasingly, everyone gets it; especially thanks to institutions like the GBCA. However, I think it would be great to add to this the examples of fundamentally different business models that show what could be. The training and resource kit for this could be like a Green Star mark II.

    This is a megga challenge that excites me and I hope inspires all readers. Thanks again.

  2. Thank you Maria – an inspiring article.
    I loved the lines….’where strategy and sustainability are one and the same’, and….’we need a whole new system, a new way of thinking, a new economy’ and ‘Embracing the complexity of sustainability calls for understanding it at a new level of consciousness.”

    It reminds me of what Buckminster Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

    One of the amazing things of working as an ESD consultant is that you get to research, workshop, advocate, integrate and design. Also, you often get to manage corporate sustainability and review client sustainability policies and programs. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that after looking at hundreds of these projects you get to think, why am I, in effect, providing social licence to operate for organisations and systems that are not really part of the ‘new economy’, let alone restoring the damage done over the last hundred or so years.

    Ten years ago and before the early meeting agendas for ESD people was to share the woeful existing situation and show the bright new sustainability future for issues like energy, waste, land-use, water etc, liberally dispersed with real like examples from Germany or Sweden. This approach is still valid, and, increasingly, everyone gets it; especially thanks to institutions like the GBCA. However, I think it would be great to add to this the examples of fundamentally different business models that show what could be. The training and resource kit for this could be like a Green Star mark II.

    This is a megga challenge that excites me and I hope inspires all readers. Thanks again.

  3. Yes progress has been made of the past 10 years, but then the starting point was pretty low. There is still a lot to do in the average Australians attitude to sustainability, and this does start at home, with the choices made from the food people choose to eat, where their clothes come from, let alone how many TVs are in the average home. The odd green star rated building whilst commendable, and setting an example needs to be a launch pad for a more holistic approach to sustainability. ……..

  4. Yes progress has been made of the past 10 years, but then the starting point was pretty low. There is still a lot to do in the average Australians attitude to sustainability, and this does start at home, with the choices made from the food people choose to eat, where their clothes come from, let alone how many TVs are in the average home. The odd green star rated building whilst commendable, and setting an example needs to be a launch pad for a more holistic approach to sustainability. ……..

  5. Thank you Maria for a well versed and real article. Often forgotten is that sustainability starts at home like everything else. Sustainability in the commercial sector has a long way to go but sustainability in the single dwelling sector has a long long long way to go. How many people working in green buildings or in the green building industry actually live in green homes? Not that many. The industry needs a good lesson in psychology.

  6. Thank you Maria for a well versed and real article. Often forgotten is that sustainability starts at home like everything else. Sustainability in the commercial sector has a long way to go but sustainability in the single dwelling sector has a long long long way to go. How many people working in green buildings or in the green building industry actually live in green homes? Not that many. The industry needs a good lesson in psychology.

  7. Green building is starting to flow in peoples blood, the issue is the large stock of small to medium commercial buildings, warehouses, small factories etc, that exist where the owner, owner occupier or tenant understand a little bit about the energy efficiency message but don’t understand how it applies to them. There is an underlying need and want to become energy efficient but limited knowledge on how to achieve it when the barriers around tightening profit margins, I know I need to but can I afford to, difference between the tenant, opex, vs owner, capex, drivers and the perception that it costs a lot of money are all holding adoption energy efficiency back. To make it worse, some have tried and have been caught out by gimmicks and hard sell that don’t take a holistic approach. These negative experiences create a cautious approach towards giving it another attempt. For this audience if you could solve these issues/perceptions a real wave of change would happen.

  8. Green building is starting to flow in peoples blood, the issue is the large stock of small to medium commercial buildings, warehouses, small factories etc, that exist where the owner, owner occupier or tenant understand a little bit about the energy efficiency message but don’t understand how it applies to them. There is an underlying need and want to become energy efficient but limited knowledge on how to achieve it when the barriers around tightening profit margins, I know I need to but can I afford to, difference between the tenant, opex, vs owner, capex, drivers and the perception that it costs a lot of money are all holding adoption energy efficiency back. To make it worse, some have tried and have been caught out by gimmicks and hard sell that don’t take a holistic approach. These negative experiences create a cautious approach towards giving it another attempt. For this audience if you could solve these issues/perceptions a real wave of change would happen.

  9. Sustainability could best be looked at from the Zero Waste perspective, where all business inputs and outputs are measured, monitored, and managed to ensure absolute efficiencies are achieved in a safe, financially responsible manner that provides benefits to people and the natural environment. Manufacturing is now looking at this via the Principles of Industrial Ecology. Groups like the Ellen MacCarthur Foundation, NSW OEH Sustainability Advantage and others are seeking this principle to go beyond energy efficiency (which many equate to being sustainable) to seed the beginnings of establishing circular economies and multiple circular loops of materials which deliver circular value to supply chains. But this is many years over the horizon.

  10. Sustainability could best be looked at from the Zero Waste perspective, where all business inputs and outputs are measured, monitored, and managed to ensure absolute efficiencies are achieved in a safe, financially responsible manner that provides benefits to people and the natural environment. Manufacturing is now looking at this via the Principles of Industrial Ecology. Groups like the Ellen MacCarthur Foundation, NSW OEH Sustainability Advantage and others are seeking this principle to go beyond energy efficiency (which many equate to being sustainable) to seed the beginnings of establishing circular economies and multiple circular loops of materials which deliver circular value to supply chains. But this is many years over the horizon.

  11. We have come a long way in the last 10 years, but still much further to go in greening the built environment. I think retrofits and energy efficiency upgrades will rise to prominence in the rest of this decade

  12. We have come a long way in the last 10 years, but still much further to go in greening the built environment. I think retrofits and energy efficiency upgrades will rise to prominence in the rest of this decade

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