What does sustainability mean and why does it matter?

Sustainability is one of the most widely interpreted words in the English language. Many associate it with being ‘green’ and environmentally friendly and package it with ‘saving the planet’ and stopping the ice caps melting. Accordingly, it is designated to the environmental managers.

A UK windfarm. For engineers,
A UK windfarm. For engineers, 'sustainability' includes not only the environment, but factors such as strong governance and health and safety.
  • Updated: 12 May 2017
  • Author: Mark Lowry, CRH Group CSR & Sustainability Director and former Chair of ICE (NI)

Important as these matters are, sustainability, in the context of the construction sector, is the business opportunity of the century. Any company that wishes to secure its long term viability and profitability needs to be a leader.

The most appropriate explanation of sustainability is ‘long-term value creation’. For a plc such as CRH, with 87,000 employees working in 31 countries, sustainability means four key things:

  • Strong governance
    Doing business the ‘right’ way
  • Health and safety
    Keeping everyone who works for or with us safe.
  • People and community
    Engaging closely with our stakeholders (investors, employees, customers, specifiers, suppliers, NGOs).
  • Environment and climate change
    Minimising the impact of doing business on the environment and maximizing the commercial opportunities that this creates.

In terms of leadership the key area is the business opportunity that arises from having a strong sustainability strategy. This arises in two ways, the tangible and intangible.

Tangible benefits

Large clients, particularly government bodies, developers and large private companies, are increasingly specifying high standards of building efficiency and sustainable methods of construction. This trend can only continue to increase as technology improves and new, innovative building solutions are developed.

Many schemes have high specifications for building sustainability assessments (e.g. BREEAM, LEED or CEEQUAL). Contractors, suppliers and designers who are leaders in the field and can consistently deliver to these standards will both secure their future and also potentially improve margins.

Intangible benefits

There are many valuable, albeit intangible benefits in being a company that has the highest levels of performance in the four key areas above. Business is about people and the best young talent – millennials –want to work for such companies.

Companies that treat people fairly, do business in the right way and have a long-term strategy to develop in a sustainable way, will attract the best people. Other intangibles are strong brand awareness, lower business risk, more resilience and a stronger marketing pitch.

I am often asked what is our sustainability strategy. My answer is simple, it is the company strategy, the two must be one and the same. To be the world’s leading building materials business means that CRH must be a leader in sustainability.