Developers and logistics firms adopt a sustainability-first approach

Simon Cox, head of sustainability at Prologis in the UK.

Following publication of the Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) recommendations for the UK to become a net-zero carbon economy by 2050, corporates in the commercial property and logistics sector must press ahead with plans to minimise environmental impacts and maximise beneficial outcomes for stakeholders, writes Simon Cox, head of sustainability at Prologis in the UK:

Growing public awareness of the impacts of climate change, following David Attenborough’s eye-opening TV documentary on the devastation of the rainforest and the Extinction Rebellion protests, which highlighted the urgent need for governments to act to protect the planet, has pushed sustainability to the pinnacle of the corporate agenda. Whereas once companies were content to take a tick-box approach to enhancing their environmental credentials, most now realise this is not enough.

Underlining calls by the CCC for the introduction of a new legal target for the UK to become a net-zero carbon economy by 2050, a group of leading climate scientists has written to Theresa May, urging her to make this part of her environmental legacy to the nation. To achieve this target however, the scientists have warned that radical action is required to eliminate carbon emissions in areas such as heating, electricity generation and transport, while offsetting pollution in other areas, such as aviation, by planting trees.

With environmental legislation having tightened considerably over the past decade, and the prospect of tougher targets to come, commercial property developers and logistics firms can no longer afford to sit back and wait for change to happen. Many are already focused on delivering long-term sustainability benefits by tackling emissions reduction and making this a core part of their corporate strategy. While some have been slow to act, others have proved to be early movers. For example, in 2008, Prologis was the first property company in the UK to measure, reduce and mitigate the carbon emissions embedded in the structure and fabric of its new buildings – so-called ‘embodied’ emissions.

Metrics matter

In order to change things for the better, it is vital that commercial property developers and logistics firms continue to look for ways to continuously improve their environmental performance and the ability to measure success, using science-based metrics, is increasingly critical. In the UK, this is already being achieved by some forward-thinking developers through the independent certification of new buildings through schemes like The Planet Mark, along with strategies for reducing ‘embodied’ carbon emissions and mitigating ‘operational’ carbon emissions. As well as helping businesses to enhance their own environmental credentials, these building-specific metrics are helping to establish a new sustainability benchmark for the wider commercial property industry to follow, in Europe and beyond.

Developers can support businesses to finding ways to minimise their environmental impact by ensuring that the properties available to them fulfil the highest standards – for example, BREEAM Excellent or better and an EPC ‘A’ rated and, the some case of Prologis, mitigating any ‘embodied’ carbon in the design and development of new buildings and offsetting emissions through charitable programmes linked to organisations such as Cool Earth, which aims to protect and restore the rainforest.

Designing and developing low-carbon buildings not only helps to limit the amount of ‘embodied’ carbon released into the environment, it also enables users of the new structure to limit their ‘operational’ carbon cumulatively over time.

Building sustainable communities

Commercial property developers can also help to develop sustainable communities by providing services that help to bring people together and share resources. For example, Prologis Parks in the UK offer Green Travel Plans to members, encouraging them to lift share or helping them to find cycle routes or make use of public transport to get to work. Whilst this type of service promotes wellbeing and creates social value, it is also possible to attribute an economic value to these community benefits, to demonstrate the added value and wider social impact such initiatives can bring. This in turn helps to encourage future investment.

Many businesses in the sector have recognised that adopting a more sustainable mindset can bring commercial benefits in a variety of ways, by creating a more appealing employer brand. With free-thinking millennials representing about a third of the current workforce demographic, businesses know that they can’t afford to ignore their environmental and social responsibilities and sharing sustainability metrics with stakeholders is increasingly important. The ability to see the big picture and translate small sustainability gains into benefits for the environment can also help to enhance brand perceptions and attract talented people.

To engage young people and encourage them to be part of the sustainability solution, some businesses in the sector are actively seeking property partners who can help them to tap into the growing public awareness of climate change and use it as a force for good. One area where this can work well is encouraging workers to look out for opportunities to minimise waste and suggest areas for improvement – for example, eliminating single-use plastics or installing motion sensitive LED lighting.

Internet Fusion, an e-retailer of specialist goods for surfers, snowboarders and equestrians, recognised the importance of establishing strong environmental credentials at an early stage. The business moved to its main distribution centre to Prologis Park Kettering in 2018, attracted by the sustainability benefits the building and park life would bring them. Aiming to put sustainability at the centre of their decision-making, the business uses the metrics supplied by their property landlord to confirm its sustainability ethic and this has provided the springboard for other green investment, including the acquisition of an automated packaging machine that is designed to reduce the amount of packaging materials used when preparing goods for despatch.

Promoting wellbeing

In order to boost the sustainability credentials of their buildings, property developers have previously focused on sealing spaces to minimise heat loss and/or draughts. However, there has been some resistance to this from users who value access and the flexibility of being able to control the temperature and air flow within their workspace. As property developers seek to continuously improve their structures and the value that buildings deliver to the businesses and individuals that use them, this is likely to become a growing area of focus as we strive to develop technologies that balance the interests of sustainability with health and wellbeing.

With public awareness of climate change riding high, the corporate focus on sustainability is likely to strengthen and businesses that rely on corporate investment will need to act now to future-proof their propositions. Finding the right property partner is an important first step, providing the catalyst needed to begin a journey to a more sustainable future.