Sustainability represents a near-universal core value across the corporate landscape: 95% of CBRE’s top 40 enterprise clients have made a public emission-reduction commitment.
Unfortunately, the pandemic-related challenges of 2020 impeded progress toward those ambitious emission reduction goals. But such challenges also provide an impetus to conceptualize sustainability programming in ways that buffer against future unexpected events. The speed with which companies like CBRE responded to the pandemic highlights their global capacity to address longer-term issues like climate change.
Balancing Well-Being and Safety with Sustainability
The pandemic forced companies to make decisions that negatively impacted sustainability in the short term. For starters, ensuring that employees returning to the workplace had access to fresh air meant opening windows, which increased direct emissions from assets now running longer and harder to heat and cool buildings.
On top of that, indirect emissions – a broad category with different parameters depending on industry sector – also increased and will likely continue to rise in the short term as more people return to the office. In part, this increase occurred because single-use plastics and other disposable items previously targeted for elimination from workplaces now serve an important role in return-to-work safety. And supply chains still face challenges, with suppliers that had previously sourced sustainable products now face logistics hurdles getting products to their destinations and backfilling shortages with non-sustainable alternatives.
Now that the implementation of comprehensive vaccination programs has enabled employees to return to the workplace in significant numbers, sustainability programming also must prioritize the impact of these returning employees and account for the impact of employees working from home. The long-term data collection this entails will provide a clearer picture of how hybrid working models positively or negatively influence the future state of sustainability.
Sustainability Means Energy Management – and Much More
Prior to the pandemic, the field of sustainability evolved significantly. Advances in technology fueled this evolution, with superior data collection methods enabling measurement, accountability, and management of a corporation’s entire carbon footprint – an important demand of corporate leaders and key stakeholders. These technological advances allow companies to meet those demands by establishing science-based emission reduction goals and making “net-zero” carbon commitments.
Sustainability programming has shifted from investments in energy-reduction systems with predefined cost-saving ROIs. In their place, we find more complex solutions that preserve existing mission-critical energy goals while also fostering the development of sustainable supply chains, renewable natural resources, wellness, inclusivity, and diversity.
Challenges to Meet
Achieving these priorities means meeting several challenges. At a minimum, up-to-date sustainability programming must address critical issues such as access to sustainable supply chains, measurement of overall environmental impact, maintenance of operational efficiency, cost containment, and regulatory compliance. Disruptions like the pandemic can catch companies flat-footed if they lack a sustainability methodology that allows them to pivot quickly in new directions.
Clear Criteria Leads to Reliable Data
A robust, scalable sustainability program begins with the establishment of clear measurement criteria. The data collected by ever-improving sustainability technologies serves little purpose without well-defined standards of measurement.
In the absence of valid and reliable data, companies cannot determine if they have properly leveraged their capital expenditures to verifiably reduce emissions.
Once companies have clear measurement criteria in place, they can focus on improving data collection quality, which in turn increases their ability to analyze and then optimize costs, efficiencies, and compliance. This data also enables them to quantify their impact to employees and key stakeholders, as well as within their industry sector.
In the event of another major disruption to business operations, companies can then use this data to make the best possible sustainability choices available under adverse circumstances.
Take This with You
Although the short-term challenges of the pandemic added to operational complexity, they also afford companies an opportunity to reset data-collection strategies and discover new ways of optimizing sustainability. Even as the direct costs of asset operation and cleaning increase, data about space utilization allow companies to discover new areas for cost efficiencies and resource saving. Supply-chain delays and shortages prompted companies to look past tier-one suppliers to develop strategic relationships with secondary suppliers that might provide ongoing access to sustainable products.
Future-state sustainability programming must remain riveted to achieving energy cost reduction, energy source transformation, and de-carbonization while also accounting for ongoing or unexpected local and global business disruptions. But as essential as that is, companies should recognize sustainability doesn’t stop there – it also encompasses sustainable supply chains, wellness, inclusivity, and diversity initiatives. To facilitate the development of a holistic sustainability program like this, reliable data can serve as a critical element enabling a better understanding of the state of play and allowing for rapid reallocation of resources and costs.
Finally, at the front-line level, sustainability programming starts and ends with all employees, not just individuals tasked with implementing such initiatives. After all, a sustainable future belongs to everyone.