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Under construction – how Willmott Dixon built an inspirational net zero strategy

  • Article

Securing a sustainability-linked credit facility is just one part of Willmott Dixon’s net zero strategy. Chief Sustainability Officer, Julia Barrett, shares the construction company’s experiences and explains how it’s supporting the wider industry to meet key targets.

Once you start asking the right questions, sustainability becomes a lens for innovation and efficiency, reducing your waste, helping you attract and retain talent, and win work

Julia Barrett | Chief Sustainability Officer, Willmott Dixon

“To have an effective net zero strategy it’s really important that every part of the business is part of the journey,” says Julia Barrett, Chief Sustainability Officer at Willmott Dixon. “So, in the case of the sustainability-linked credit facility provided by our banking partners, including HSBC, our Finance team were looking at how they could put sustainability at the heart of our funding. And the rate on our loan facility reduces if we do the right thing and meet our sustainability targets.”

It's that kind of win:win that Julia believes makes embracing the whole ESG agenda so compelling for all businesses – that and the realisation that the legislation and regulation currently targeting the largest companies will start filtering down to SMEs.

“You can wait and react when you have to, but our experience is that if you get on the front foot, it will save you money,” she explains. “Once you start asking the right questions, sustainability becomes a lens for innovation and efficiency, reducing your waste, helping you attract and retain talent, and win work.”

Challenging targets

Julia’s experience is telling. When she joined the privately-owned contractor and interior fit-out group in 2012 there was already a small team looking at the environmental credentials of the business and the sustainability of the buildings Willmott Dixon created. A year later, in 2013, and the company launched its first sustainability strategy, setting challenging targets around carbon emissions, waste and social value across its operations by 2020.

Working with the Carbon Trust, Willmott Dixon rigorously measured outputs and costs, creating a baseline that enabled them to benchmark and monitor progress and ensure that they were moving in the right direction and, as Julia says, “doing the right things”. With their target to reduce carbon emissions intensity relative to turnover by 50% achieved ahead of schedule by 2017, they clearly were.

Opportunity in sustainability

More specifically, as well as being carbon neutral (or net zero) since 2012, Willmott Dixon has reduced its own carbon emissions (relative to turnover) by 66% since 2010, and reduced construction waste (relative to turnover) by 58% since 2012.

“We’ve smashed our carbon target,” explains Julia. “We’ve doubled turnover and burnt no more fuel, so we broke that link that would have seen doubling the size of the company create double emissions. And we’ve really started seeing it as an opportunity to be more effective and save money.”

It’s led to Willmott Dixon shifting its focus from just cost, time and quality. “It’s about taking sustainability and putting it all at the heart of all our business decisions,” Julia says. “So how can we use that insight to reduce project times, how can we use it to reduce project costs, how can we use it as a lever to improve project quality?”

Supply chain accountability

Spurred on by the success of the company’s net zero strategy for its operations and own carbon footprint, Willmott Dixon agreed to take part in a pilot scheme being set up by the Carbon Trust around carbon in the supply chain. It was, says Julia, a real eye opener that led to the creation of a new phase of the company’s strategy.

“I’ve always seen us like the stone you throw in a pond, that creates ripples. For example, if we weren’t building a building, we wouldn’t need timber and cement and people traveling to our sites and raw materials being consumed to manufacture products, so the ripples in the supply chain are quite significant. But there are also ripples the other way too, in the way our customers operate and use the buildings we build for them.

“As part of the work with the Carbon Trust, we did some hot spotting of our supply chain and we soon realised that what we’d been focusing on for the first 10 years (our own operations), was less than 1% of the ripples we were creating. Armed with that, we went out to staff, customers, suppliers and industry experts in sustainability as part of the development of our Now or Never strategy which confirmed that expectations were changing and there was a need to do more.”

Broadening the strategy

It led to the launch of Willmott Dixon’s latest phase in its net zero journey with the launch of Now or Never. Our decisive decade in September 2020, with its three themes:

Brilliant Buildings – net zero buildings in operation by 2030, and a net zero supply chain by 2040

Building Lives – delivering social value in the communities where we work, and supporting people who face barriers to be in good careers

Better Planet – targeting zero-carbon without offsetting it its own operations, improving resource efficiency and enhancing biodiversity across both its own operations by 2030.

Engagement across the business is key to the strategy’s success, says Julia, but so too is engaging with suppliers and competitors. “We’ve been able to work with some of our suppliers, for example, to help them understand how much carbon they emit – which is essentially about how much they spend on fuel – and we’ve helped them to save between 20% and 40%.”

Working together

But such a ‘global’ issue requires broader thinking and collaboration, so cross sector and industry wide co-operation is crucial. Working closely with competitors who share similar ambitions and often the same suppliers, Willmott Dixon collaborated to launch the Supply Chain Sustainability School in 2012. It means that anybody connected to the built environment and interested in sustainability can get free access to information and support.

“One of the things we’re about to launch is a really simple tool so that anybody can put in half a dozen numbers and see what their company carbon footprint is,” says Julia. “It will then offer you training or support if you want to understand how to reduce that.”

It’s helping to address one of the barriers cited by many businesses in getting started on the journey to sustainability. “A lot of people think it’s really complicated, and that it’s really technical and actually, it’s common sense. It’s just doing the right things right. There are lots of people out there who will help and advise, but actually if you ask yourself some simple questions like what are my biggest outgoings, what do I understand about them, and how can I reduce them, you quickly see the opportunities.”

Julia shares four top tips for businesses embarking on a net zero strategy:
“One – understand where you are starting from - performance and purpose; two – the journey of developing the strategy is as important as the strategy itself; three – get started - don’t let perfect be the enemy of good, and four – bring your people with you by getting them involved.”

Collaboration creates greater impact

It’s not entirely altruistic admits Julia. “We’re asking our suppliers to demonstrate their improved credentials, but we want to help them do that, because if they’re more efficient and cost-effective, they’re better value for us. They’re also more likely to survive and thrive. It’s a symbiotic relationship.”

But she says, there’s also a higher purpose in harnessing that symbiosis to create a future in which people can live and businesses can operate sustainably, in every sense of the word. The latest assessment by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a “code red for humanity” , making it clear that we need to act now.

“We all need to play a part in this,” says Julia. “If we each do our jobs just a little bit differently, and change business as usual just by a small notch, the cumulative effect will be much more impactful, more embedded and we can drive change faster together.”

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