Construction supply chains building towards net zero future

By Sean Ashcroft
Green construction supply chains will be vital if nations are to hit carbon neutral goals by 2050, yet challenges remain around cost and training

For businesses large and small, the COP26 climate summit brought into sharp focus just how important it is that they stay on track with net zero deadlines. The British government was one of the first to enshrine in law its commitment to be net zero as a nation by 2050. The clock is ticking ever louder. 

Construction giant Balfour Beatty says the UK’s building and infrastructure sector supply chain will have a vital role in helping the country meet its net zero commitments. It says the supply chain is responsible for 80% of the sector’s emissions.

Balfour Beatty is at the forefront of efforts to make sure construction supply chains are as green as can be. Recently it published a paper, called ‘Greening the Chain’. For this, the company surveyed around 40,000 UK construction and infrastructure industry suppliers, in a bid to understand the barriers, issues and opportunities around sustainability faced by the sector. It was a joint effort with the Supply Chain Sustainability School (SCSS).

Sustainability a struggle for smaller construction firms 

One of the strongest messages to come out of ‘Greening the Chain’ was just how difficult it is for smaller businesses to make progress on sustainability, because they lack the resources and expertise of larger companies. “It’s more challenging for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to meet new sustainability requirements, such as supplying carbon data,” confirms Katherine Rusack, senior sustainable procurement manager at Balfour Beatty. 

She continued: “Last year we spent £1.28bn with SME suppliers. They are a key part of our supply chain. For us to achieve our sustainability goals, we need to support them in a way that’s relevant to their business and operations.”  

To this end, the company has partnered with the SCSS, who provide materials and training free to Balfour Beatty supply chain members. “It’s a collaborative initiative,” Rusack says. “Many customers, such as National Highways, and larger supply chain partners, also support the school. This is a great example of the construction industry coming together to support the upskilling of the supply chain of all sizes.”  

SME businesses need all the help they can get on sustainability training, agrees Megan Adlen, group sustainability director at Travis Perkins.  She says: “Smaller companies have smaller teams. Unlike larger suppliers, like us, or larger manufacturers, they won’t necessarily have in-house teams who understand sustainability, who can calculate carbon, or who understand net zero and the key interventions needed to achieve it”.

Supplier forum will share sustainability best practices

She adds: “This is why we’re looking to bring them together in a supplier forum, starting next year. The aim is to share best practises across the supply chain, and hopefully inspire some of the smaller manufacturers around measures they can take to decarbonise their operations and supply team.”

Adlen says a great starting point for smaller companies struggling with sustainability is to use the free SCSS carbon calculator tool. 

“It’s no good talking theoretically to smaller companies about what needs to be done if they have no understanding of exactly what it is they’re supposed to be measuring and managing. It's that old adage: if you want it to count, count it.” To that end, she says, the SCSS tool is a good first step to supporting smaller companies’ carbon calculations.

In ‘Greening the Chain’ Balfour Beatty says one barrier to companies in the building supply chain moving to net zero is the skills gap, and a lack of training to plug that gap. Balfour Beatty’s Rusack says design is one of the areas in which sustainability training is important. “Equipping the design community with information about more sustainable products and methods can and should be implemented where possible,” Rusack says. 

Balfour Beatty developing carbon conscious training

She adds that Balfour Beatty is also developing carbon-conscious training to help its workforce understand the carbon costs of their behaviour, both for them as individuals and Balfour Beatty as an employer.  Yet she also sounds a note of caution, warning that businesses need to be careful not to go over the top: “Not everyone needs to be a sustainability expert. The challenge is to provide training which is relevant and proportionate to an individual’s role.”  

There’s no doubt that some of the net-zero training that’s required in the building supply chain is onerous. Adlen offers the example of the switch from gas boilers to heat-exchange systems: “Adapting to new technologies such as heat-pumps means tradespeople skilled in traditional boilers will either need to upskill, or an entirely new trade will be needed to support the installation of these new solutions. What will probably happen is that it’ll be a blend of the two.”

Adlen adds that the pace of change across the built environment means upskilling is absolutely vital. She says the construction sector has already approached the government for help on this front, but anticipates that much of the upskilling provision is likely to fall to the supply chain itself. 

A number of different upskilling solutions are likely to evolve,” she says. “Certainly in Travis Perkins we’re looking at how we might be able to play our part in supporting the upskilling of the trade in some of these areas.”

She explains the company is exploring options on this front.  Whichever route Travis Perkins ends up taking, there will be plenty of training to provide. “I gave the example of upskilling around heat pumps but that’s just one example among many, many others.”

Procurement sustainability training 'vitally important'

Asked what the most important steps Balfour Beatty has taken to green its own chain, Rusack says that providing its procurement team with training on sustainable procurement is right up there. She said: “We’ve reviewed all the products and services we regularly use and have conducted a heat-mapping exercise against 13 key sustainability areas, including social, environmental and economic impacts.”

On the back of this, the company developed question-sets that it has included in its e-procurement system, so that its procurement team can easily ask suppliers pertinent questions around sustainability.

It seems that knowledge really is power, especially when it comes to sustainability.

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