THE BLOG

Sustainability: Should 'We' Care?

20/03/2014 15:44 GMT | Updated 20/05/2014 10:59 BST

The effects of climate change and the depletion of natural resources is becoming ever-more apparent in the UK and around the world: flash floods have destroyed homes; farming and crops have been affected; transport services have caused chaos with sudden cancellations and closures.

We can all start pointing fingers at who is to blame for where we are at present, but given that we're already here it seems more worthwhile to figure out who can help drive us forward.

Is it the government? The government can create law and regulation to enforce change.

Is it the public? Strong public opinion influences government policy.

Is it designers? They design the solutions and specify materials.

It is the client? The client instructs the designers and contractors.

Is it the people doing the constructing? They can influence supply change and, with designers, impact the views of the client.

The answer is all of the above, and trying to push responsibility across to other parties and figure out whose job it is to worry about it or who would create the most impact is a waste of time. If anything, we should stop considering how to push across but, instead, how to push downwards: downwards to the individuals that make up wider organisations, corporations, government and the public.

There are a few buzz words floating around the construction industry at the moment. The words "sustainability" and "innovation" have become fashionable, but I often wonder if the words are used for image whilst their meaning gets left behind.

It is important for us as society to create change, and for the civil engineering industry to lead that change proactively by questioning the processes and designs that we take as standard and taking action as a result. We need more than a fashion trend, we need people who make up larger organisations to realise that one individual does contribute to change and can make a difference. Collectively, individuals who are inspired to make change will influence others and many small changes in attitudes and contributions lead to substantial change. Hopefully this shift towards sustainability-conscious attitudes would influence those not participating to change their attitude and take part.

In Health and Safety we now place importance on not just on overall organisational responsibility, but on individuals all taking an active role. Construction is unrecognisable from the 1970s when the Health and Safety at Work Act was brought in. The 1974 Act not only imposed legal obligations to construction companies as employers, but extended protection to employees working in other sectors such as local government, hospitals, and public services. It also imposed duties on self-employed people and on designers, manufacturers and suppliers of equipment and materials. Those 'affected by work activities' were brought under the legislative umbrella for the first time.

Companies stressed the importance of individuals taking responsibility for themselves and those around them. The consequences of doing so were made clear, giving birth to slogans like "Mission Zero" to strive towards zero accidents and fatalities, and "The life you save just might be yours!" to bring the relevance and impact of people's actions close to heart.

In this case, it became well accepted that cultural change happens through communication. If everyone understands their organisation's approach and the need to solve the problem, they can feel empowered to play their part. For this reason, construction companies introduced schemes like 'one-to-one safety commitment interviews' for all new starters, and provided channels where employees felt encouraged and safe to report concerns and ideas. One of the key aims of such exercises is to encourage a culture of care and mutual respect by strengthening relationships between management and the workforce. Would it not be apt for companies to consider doing the same for sustainability awareness and innovative approaches to sustainability? It's a small investment to make for potentially large winnings and improvements.

By embedding the importance of individual responsibility, and by connecting employees to the bigger picture, a nebulous concept can be transformed into something practical. Legislature will help enforce change; however, a much more powerful change can be implemented through placing responsibility on individuals empowering people to create change. This can only be of benefit to companies.

People throughout an organization will dedicate their time, energy, sweat, and creativity if they believe in what they are doing and believe their ideas will come to fruition. It's one thing to say that we need to be more sustainable, it's another thing to figure out how to maximise staff capabilities. We need companies that are able to step up and actually invest in implementation. We need companies who don't punish failure but encourage exploration. We need companies that reward on an individual level so that people are recognised - even if that reward isn't monetary, but a bit of praise and the opportunity to see their idea through to implementation. This is how we push downwards to inspire personal responsibility so every individual will contribute to a sustainable approach.