Meeting sustainability: How construction can step up and overcome its biggest challenge

The world’s efforts to hit Net Zero rests, in large part, on the shoulders of its construction industry. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, the construction and buildings sector may account for up to 38% of total CO2 emissions. As such, every construction business is now tasked with the challenge of reducing emissions – and fast.

The question is simply: how? Senior procurement managers at UK construction firms, surveyed in YardLink’s recent independent research, labelled sustainability commitments as some of their biggest challenges today. This difficulty is reflected in the industry’s general slow progress in lowering carbon emissions. Half of all construction project managers surveyed by the Association for Project Management admitted that their companies were doing ‘little’ to reduce their emissions and meet Net Zero targets.

sustainable solutions across construction Given this landscape, contractors and suppliers are limited to the opportunities within their control (Photo: AdobeStock)
Barriers to change

Many elements across the industry present themselves as opportunities for greater sustainability. More buildings could be designed to enhance biodiversity and the natural landscape. Where possible, projects could change the way they power themselves by investing in electrical equipment, therefore divesting from the direct use of fossil fuels. Waste disposal systems could be renewed to facilitate more efficient recycling.

The problem is that these opportunities are somewhat outside of contractors’ and suppliers’ control. Yes, they can use electrical instead of diesel-powered equipment, but again, the actual energy supply is, for the most part, outside of their control.

The National Grid uses a combination of sources to generate electricity - it’s not just renewable energy. Concrete – one of the major barriers to Europe’s Net Zero transition, emitting 2.8b tonnes of CO2 across the world every year – is in many cases the only solution available. As such, construction firms still depend on suitable, cost-effective alternatives to be developed by manufacturers.

Given this landscape, contractors and suppliers are limited to the opportunities within their control. And that includes the way they manage and operate their supply chains. It is construction firms, after all, that choose how and where they source materials and equipment for their projects. It is also construction firms that choose how they manage them. These are the places where construction businesses must look to improve the efficiency of their operations and, in turn, accelerate their transitions to Net Zero.

Moving forward with technology

YardLink’s research revealed that one of the most readily available opportunities to improve the sustainability of supply chains is through their localisation. The research revealed that the average piece of equipment travels 62 miles before being delivered to a construction site. Since projects involve an average of 167 different pieces of equipment, this transport alone results in significant carbon emissions – all within the control of contractors to reduce. The opportunity is there.

One of the reasons why the industry hasn’t gone for this shift is because supply chains are often overlooked. They can be perceived as unwieldy, complex operations based on the foundations of age-old practices – far too much effort to consider changing. The other reason is that many firms lack the technology to do the hard work for them. As the research revealed, the majority of procurement managers (65%) still use manual methods to manage them, including spreadsheets and even pens and paper.

To facilitate change and meet sustainability targets, the construction industry as a whole must choose to embrace new means of operating. That includes adopting digital tools that would allow it to end its reliance on inefficient, legacy processes.

Ultimately, localising supply chains to meet Net Zero targets is one thing the industry can control.

About the author

Matt Bloor is the Chief Commercial Officer of YardLink, the UK’s leading construction procurement platform. A highly experienced professional with a significant record of achievement in sales, operations and commercial management, Bloor has 15 years of experience in the construction sector. Before joining YardLink in 2019, Bloor held multiple senior roles, including Head of Sales at Elliott (now an Algeco company) and Head of Sales and Head of London Operations at Hewden.

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