According to the United Nations sustainable development has three elements: economic development, social development and environmental protection. Sustainability is only achieved when these aspects are in balance.

Specific sustainability guidance is provided by CEEQUAL, BREEAM and PAS 2080. The Civil Engineering Environmental Quality scheme (CEEQUAL) is a sustainability assessment scheme for infrastructure projects that was launched in 2003 which has assessed hundreds of projects with a value of work exceeding £30 billion. BREEAM is more concerned with sustainable assessment of buildings. Since its launch in 1990, it has certified over half a million developments. PAS 2080 is the British Standard which considers carbon management across the infrastructure lifecycle.

The economic benefit

Presentations at the summit included many examples of how sustainability was good business. Perhaps the strongest indication is how HM Treasury are promoting carbon reductions. RSSB’s sustainability specialist Michelle Papayannakos mentioned that its 2013 Infrastructure Carbon Review contains recommendations which aim to save up to 24 million tonnes of carbon (5 per cent of the UK total) and save £1.5 billion a year by 2050.

John Nyota, managing director of the Wesley hotel group, was clear that businesses should create wealth and jobs in an ethical manner without leaving damage in their wake. Clients increasingly favoured sustainability and were concerned about issues such as climate change. Moreover, in a digital age, corporate governance is under the microscope and transparency is a must. He explained how the hotel had improved waste management and created sustainable buildings to deliver significant savings.

The Wesley group measures its performance through the three sustainability pillars of profit, social and environmental impact. There is no doubt that this approach has proved successful as over a five-year period the turnover of their Euston hotel has increased from £2 to £7 million and a £100,000 loss has been transformed to a £2 million profit.

Social benefits

Stephen Farrant is the director of environment and market solutions for Business in the Community (BITC), a network of over 800 businesses committed to continually improving their positive impact on society through corporate social responsibility. He noted the harm done to Volkswagen’s reputation from their emissions cover-up, estimated to cost them £15 billion. He had no doubt that businesses need to be socially acceptable if they are to thrive.

Research undertaken by BITC had revealed that 75 per cent of those surveyed believed a company can be more profitable by finding ways to address social problems. It estimated that 30 per cent of a company’s value is at risk if it becomes disconnected from society, that meaningful brands can achieve 46 per cent more consumer spending than regular brands and that visionary companies deliver greater returns than those that are purely profit-driven.

To support this approach, BITC have produced a toolkit to help businesses develop purpose-driven brands. Customers are increasingly expecting to see the purpose behind the brand as their expectation is that the product is not just ‘not bad’ but that it will actively ‘do good’.

Community engagement

Carillion’s head of supply chain, Paul Paddick, explained his company’s approach to community engagement. Without a long-term commitment to understand and help meet the needs of the communities in which they live and work, Carillion consider they cannot be effective or trusted. For this reason, each of their projects has a community needs plan.

Shamit Gaiger, the RSSB’s head of sustainability and innovation policy, mentioned how industry faced a skills shortage that was driving up costs. She noted that part of the solution was an improved social profile to attract people to the industry and to improve the gender balance as, for example, only 4 per cent of rolling stock engineers are female.

The Rail Sustainability Summit took place at the offices of Addleshaw Goddard in London in November.

Written by David Shirres