To many construction companies, CSR is just something else that detracts from the real business of making a profit. So what value does it add to the bottom line? Holly Squire investigates
August 2011, Enfield, North London. These usually quiet terraced streets are lined with police in riot gear. The air hangs heavy, thick with the sense of unease. Hooded youths, some concealing their faces with scarves and balaclavas arm themselves with broken bottles and batons. Some are smashing bricks into smaller pieces against the floor to make them easier to throw at police.
Two years on, Enfield is still recovering from the trauma of that night. The area continues to undergo intensive regeneration and building works and this is expected to carry on until 2016 – potentially causing more disturbances for local residents. While Enfield Borough Council has been keen to minimise the disruption caused by construction, building work is almost always an activity that disturbs people’s lives. Yet in the long run construction itself is about improving the community through improving the built environment.
With this in mind, the council and contractors have come up with some innovative solutions to help blend the building sites with the rest of the town. Where temporary fencing or plywood sheets would usually line a site’s perimeter, Enfield’s Ponders End site is covered with 70sq m worth of pre-grown ivy: living, breathing, foliage that securely surrounds the building site. The living hoardings also act as a graffiti preventative. Once they are finished with, they can be dismantled and redeployed in a new location – avoiding the need to send them to landfill. These hoardings create an environmentally friendly solution to an age old problem: how to secure the works perimeter in a way that is in keeping with the local area, while still providing the relevant level of security and access.
As seen with the ivy hoardings, businesses now have to think outside the box. Companies are increasingly required to become more accountable and more aware of their social impact, and there is also a growing expectation for firms to go beyond simply what is required.
Firms are now encouraged to be transparent, ethical, have strong governance procedures and be responsive to the needs and views of stakeholders. This is usually defined as improving an organisation’s corporate responsibility, but what does that actually mean and what does it entail?
As Lara Da Rocha-Faria, CSR manager at Pochin Construction explains, CSR is just good business sense. “With energy bills, material costs and taxes on waste all on the rise, making construction lean by reducing waste, materials, energy consumption, preventing accidents and reducing labour turnover are all ways in which businesses can save money,” she says.
Sometimes referred to as a ‘corporate conscience’, CSR is essentially all about a company knowing, managing and improving its impact on the economy, the environment and society. And in today’s business environment, it can play a fundamental role in developing a company for future compliance and competitive success.
Apart from CSR being good, ethical, business practice, there is also specific legislation relating to CSR and sustainability – some of which directly focuses on the impact of the construction industry such as reporting on waste and the environmental impact of construction. In January of this year, the Public Services (Social Value) Act came into force, which requires all public bodies in England to look beyond the price of each contract and assess what the collective benefit to a community will be. This means that companies with strong CSR policies and procedures can now evidence this added value and will be more likely to win contracts from public sector clients.
Site wastage is one of the biggest contenders when it comes to CSR. The construction sector is the largest contributor of waste in the UK. The industry uses approximately 420 million tonnes of materials and products per annum and generates 120 million tonnes of waste – with 13% of products ending up in a skip as waste without ever being used.
So, as the need to reduce waste is a key public concern, if a construction firm can make an effort to reduce their waste, this would not only be a massive boost to the environment, but would also improve the firm’s CSR credentials, and, by reducing the number of trips to landfill, could help to reduce the cost to the client. This is exactly what Wirral-based materials exchange Recipro is doing.
Launched in 2008, Recipro was set up by construction firm Trustland as a solution to all the waste products disposed of on site. It works as a web-based exchange for materials, with most items passed on for free or at low cost, and has worked with some of the biggest names including Travis Perkins, Bam Nuttall, Wates Construction and Marks and Spencer.
The firm recently worked on a new-build school project on the Wirral and removed more than 21.3 tonnes of waste during the build process and repatriated 100% of materials. By reusing these waste products, Recipro helped four different community groups and gave an estimated saving into community projects of £1,500. Materials redistributed through Recipro included Thermalite and concrete block, kerb stones, bricks, fencing and flag stones and were used by Wallasey Gymnastics Club, Woodchurch Trust for the Community, The North Liverpool Regeneration Company and Hoylake Allotments. So not only is Recipro giving back to the community, it is also able to target groups that would ordinarily struggle to find the funding for new materials.
Wienerberger is another major construction product manufacturer that is serious about ensuring that it gives something back to the community. It has recently embarked on a partnership with the charity Habitat for Humanity which works to provide safe, sustainable homes for vulnerable people and communities around the world. This partnership has seen Wienerberger provide materials for projects in places as far away as Romania and Bulgaria, and as close as Liverpool.
With Wienerberger’s support, Habitat for Humanity will build a total of 140 homes in Romania and 15 in Bulgaria over the next three years.
Annette Forster, director of marketing at Weinerberger, says it is all just part of the firm‘s overall sustainability strategy. “We want to build houses for the future, work closely with local communities and we want to be a responsible part of society,” she says. “When your CSR policy fits in very well with your overall objectives and business, as ours does, it is just an extension of what you already do.”
Forster believes that companies using an effective CSR strategy will see benefits well beyond reputational advantage, and that CSR can also help to bring out that feel good factor in employees. “Everybody wants to do something that is worthwhile and wants to make a difference, and at Wienerberger we go beyond what is required and provide a platform that can enable employees to give something back,” she says.
“When you know what you are doing is really making a difference, that’s when it matters, and it’s immensely rewarding.”
Travis Perkins is another firm doing its bit. The building merchant has recently donating materials worth £1,000 to help students from Moulton College in Northamptonshire renovate a local sheltered housing site. Travis Perkins marketing manager Lucy Miller says CSR is at the heart of everything it does as a firm.
“Travis Perkins takes supporting its local community and encouraging new skills very seriously,” she says. “This level of commitment is vital to encourage the progression of skills in this industry.”
In other words, CSR goes beyond a reputational and feel good advantage – it can also help to inspire a new generation of talent and help to harbour skills across all levels.
Back in Enfield, the Sony distribution centre that was destroyed in the riots has been rebuilt and is now fully operational, after an official opening by David Cameron late last year. And while construction work continues in the area, with CSR strategies and performance becoming increasingly more important in the industry, firms are gradually becoming more strategic and more informed in the way they work – which is helping to keep disturbances to a minimum, and helping to boost more than just the bank balance.