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Property sector turns eye to social sustainability

Francesca Muskovic
Francesca Muskovic

It is accepted as a truism in energy efficiency circles that “you can’t manage what you don’t measure”. And with social sustainability a rising trend in terms of industry focus, the push is now on to find ways to apply a similar metrics-based approach to people-focused initiatives.

Property Council of Australia policy manager – sustainability and regulatory affairs Francesca Muskovic told The Fifth Estate there was a lack of benchmarks to enable the measurement of social sustainability impact.

The issue has been on the agenda for the past couple of years, but now has become strong enough for the PCA to take action.

The need for benchmarks is one of the first tasks. Alongside this is a need to clarify “what do we even mean?”

A new “conversation starter” report released by the PCA this month, A Common Language for Social Sustainability, aims to define the key terms and concepts.

It is a result of the work of PCA’s national social sustainability committee, and outlines the meaning and implication of the core ideas, themes and jargon of social elements across the categories of culture and community, health and wellbeing, mobility and access, equity and fair trade, and economic outcomes.

It also provides case studies of what social sustainability indicators look like in action. They range from GPT’s Reconciliation Action Plan and Grocon’s engagement with the Homes for Homes program started by the Big Issue, to fundraising initiatives such as Investa’s Abseiling for Youth, an annual event where participants abseil down one of its buildings to raise money for youth at risk from substance abuse.

Mirvac’s Song Kitchen at its 200 George St headquarters is another example. Operated in partnership with the YWCA, it provides catering for staff and visitors with 100 per cent of profits going to services for women and children fleeing domestic violence.

Scentre Group is addressing the needs of LQBTIQ staff, establishing support network Left, Right and Scentre.

In New Zealand, AMP Capital’s Bayfair shopping centre is a leader in inclusion and accessibility, with parking spaces for guide dogs, charging for mobility scooters and all customer service staff trained in sign language.

Worker’s conditions are a focus for some efforts. AMP and ISPT, for example, are founding supporters of the Cleaning Accountability Framework, which aims to ensure fair conditions for commercial cleaning sector employees.

A number of Lendlease social benefit projects are also profiled, including the Barangaroo Skills Exchange, which is a pop-up college providing education and training opportunities for contractors and workers on the Barangaroo site. More than 10,000 workers have accessed training support through the BSX, and the model is now being extended to other Lendlease sites.

Another case study is Charter Hall’s partnership with Upswing to provide co-sharing office space with co-located childcare for working parents at its Gordon shopping centre in Sydney.

Tackling modern slavery

Ms Muskovic said moves by the federal government to bring in modern slavery legislation have put that issue firmly on the radar for many property sector firms.

According to the report, an estimated 4300 people are living in conditions of modern slavery in Australia, however the property industry supply chain means it is connected with the living and working conditions of millions of people worldwide.

While some companies have already begun to look at where their supply chain may connect with the issue, Ms Muskovic said it was “daunting” for companies that haven’t had a focus on it.

“There are a lot of misconceptions” around what the reporting requirement will involve, she said.

However, it is “soft touch legislation” that does not put in place compliance versus non-compliance arrangements. Instead it will enable stakeholders to compare the reporting of different firms in terms of risk assessments, materiality assessments and efforts to engage with their suppliers.

The process starts with a tier one risk assessment of the most material suppliers for a company. In the case of property, they are suppliers in the construction, cleaning and product procurement realms.

Ms Muskovic said the reality was if a company has a supply chain that extends into South East Asia, it is likely it will have a modern slavery problem somewhere in the supply chain.

Sustainable Development Goals

Another reason social sustainability is important is Australia’s commitment to the global Sustainable Development Goals.

Ms Muskovic said there were already strategies for addressing the SDGs being developed with leading PCA members, and some are already mapping their operations against them.

She points to the PCA’s role in pushing efforts to address carbon emissions as an example of how it can wield its influence to drive change.

“It stuck its hand up and said, ‘We are committed to Paris; we need to decrease emissions.’

“[The PCA] was one of the few industry groups saying, ‘We are ready to do that now.’”

The PCA has been holding to a perspective that new technological breakthroughs are not required to get to net zero for buildings. That is possible here and now with existing technologies. What is needed is the right policy settings to support it.

The new frontier of social sustainability is one where the question of what role the collective effort can play does not yet have a clear answer, Ms Muskovic said.

Many people also think that social sustainability goals are somehow “soft”.

“But it is all vital to business success,” Ms Muskovic said.

Social licence to operate

PCA chief executive Ken Morrison said social sustainability was also about the property industry maintaining its social licence to operate.

“Australian property companies have forged a world leading position on both economic and environmental sustainability,” he said.

“But sustainability has another dimension encompassing the social outcomes of the work we do. These are inextricably linked to the long-term sustainability of businesses and the communities they serve.

“The property industry has significant influence across a large supply chain. Issues of major concern right across the international community, from homelessness to combating modern slavery, are areas where we see an opportunity for the property industry to step up and help deliver solutions.”

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