Ann Austin:" “A sustainability agenda driven only by cost opportunity is probably unsustainable.”

Sustainability in a company like Bovis Lend Lease needs to permeate every nook and cranny of the business, writes Tina Perinotto

“You can have a passion about the planet, but still not know what to do,” According to Ann Austin, sustainability manager for Bovis Lend Lease.

Austin has been with Bovis (or its parent company, Lend Lease) for almost her entire 17-year-long career –  starting out as an architect, collecting an MBA, and working in everything from project management to chief executive officer of the Lend Lease Foundation in the late 1990s.

So when she was put in charge of improving the sustainability profile of her company, there were not many people better placed to know how the company works.

Austin kicked off with a “core skills” program to ensure that every part of the business understood the “who, what, why, where and how?” of sustainability. That involved every staff member, from financial and HR people to project managers, clerks, general managers. “The lot – 1600 people,” she told The Fifth Estate recently.

The first phase of the program, by CarbonSystems, involved a full-day, face-to-face introduction to sustainability. For Austin, the underlying concept of sustainability is “all generations of all living things, living well”.

The focus for BLL, she says, is the company’s need to maintain its track record of innovation “continuing to be leader of the pack”.

“[People] are familiar with our track record – the delivery of accredited buildings. One in every seven certified Green Star buildings is a Bovis project.

“It’s a fairly strong record, but we’re aware [that] that landscape is changing and what’s out there now will be average in five years’ time. What the team is focusing on is on buildings with zero  energy, waste and water.

“There’s a lot of focus on the innovation side and also a focus on the commercial opportunities –  everything from the way we do current projects [to] what the possibilities might be for green refurbishment of existing assets.”

The reality, she says, is that “sustainability is steadily becoming mainstream” and that what is iconic now will soon become normal.

A closely observed area is the potential to partner with other companies to step into new territory. Solar panels, for instance. Bovis Lend Lease has been awarded a contract to supply  solar panels to NSW Government schools. In June Lend Lease announced it had entered an agreement with First Solar, Inc (Nasdaq: FSLR) one of the world’s leading solar technology providers for the supply of 10 megawatts  of solar panels for its development. And in another recent deal Lend Lease Ventures, the venture capital arm of Lend Lease, will tap into the expected growth market in electric vehicles, staking a claim in Better Place Australia, a company that will build a charging and services network for the emerging industry. (See our story)

“Really great things have started to happen,” Austin says, and part of that is seeing sustainability as a business opportunity instead of as a cost impost.

“A sustainability agenda driven only by cost opportunity is probably unsustainable,” she believes.

A better driver, and one that she believes the company aspires to, is a belief in doing the right thing, with the expectation that benefits will follow.

Another important marker for Austin is developing a consistent approach towards sustainability within the company, and by this she means including the operational side of the business. “What we want is a consistent approach that will lead to innovative tailored solutions.”

The core skills’ program was designed to create a culture that dovetails with those aspirations, she says. “Most of my effort is around creating that culture; my role has morphed into a cultural program.”

Achieving this is “a very different journey” to, say, achieving higher levels of safety in the company. “The technical aspects of safety are really quite simple; once you make the mental leap to saying, ‘I want to live and I want the people around me to stay alive’, it’s not technically that tricky.

“Instead, with sustainability, you can have a passion about the planet, but still not know what to do.”

A lot of reticence, she says, stems from fear due to ignorance. It’s a case of “no one has asked you to [do things sustainably], or it’s a fad that’s going to go away.”

Part of people’s response to the sustainability challenge relates to an emotional commitment that goes beyond technical know-how. Many people in the  the first stage of the three-part program wanted more information, rather than less. For example, Some people wanted to know why certain practices were not mandatory.  “Why aren’t we doing this all the time,” she says.

For Austin, it signals a desire for stronger leadership – something she sees reflected in  the wider community.

“At a community level I am amazed at the pace at which the conversation has changed since [Al Gore’s] Inconvenient Truth came out. Now I’m finding a conversation about sustainability is very common.”

But she wants to emphasise that the keys to changing behaviour is knowledge, which means it is highly important to remove ignorance. And that just about sums up her job.

The Fifth Estate – sustainable property news