Case Study

Tackling the climate emergency: “You have to take the staff with you”

17 September 2021

Stuart Blofeld, who has a Masters degree in Sustainability, is Prospect’s environment rep at BRE (Building Research Establishment), based in Watford, Hertfordshire. He writes about some of the initiatives undertaken at BRE over the years to help tackle the climate emergency and how he also wants to use his union role to promote health and wellbeing.

Cutout paper trees and building green wave and blue sky. Template in cut paper style for save the Earth posters, city ecology brochures

I’ve been at BRE for 18 years, and for 10 of those years I led on environment and sustainability within the business, and there has been a huge amount of learning along the way in implementing sustainability at BRE.

In 2008 BRE launched its Sustainability Strategy – the S Plan, which set goals and targets across different areas of sustainability including resource efficiency, energy, transport and ecology.

We’ve seen a lot of success over the years and have risen to the challenges we faced. In 2003, when I joined BRE, we were sending 86% of our waste to landfill, which sounds incredible today but that was quite normal back then. In 2008, when we launched the S Plan, we were still sending 55% of waste to landfill, an improvement but still nowhere near good enough.

In the first four years of the S Plan, having set a zero-waste to landfill goal, we achieved 99.5% diversion of waste from landfill. That’s a combination of recycling waste from both office and lab activities, as well as energy from waste for the materials that could not be recycled.

Our plan for reducing disposable coffee cups was very successful too. Staff could claim a free coffee for every six that they bought from the café using their reusable S Plan coffee cup.

Bin-gate

It’s not always easy though when you’re implementing initiatives within a company. In 2009, we took away people’s personal bins from under their desks and staff surprisingly reacted. One employee even sent me their waste in the internal post! It just goes to show that change can sometimes be difficult and met with resistance. People don’t always respond in the way you might expect even where you have the best intentions.

So, you need to take the staff with you.

For example, we centralised printing to reduce paper use. That took a lot of adjustment from staff, and again, it required change. Staff were so used back then to having local printers in their offices and we were now asking them to walk to the print room. But staff adapted and it soon became the norm. And it’s funny because 10 years on from some of these simple initiatives you do look back and wonder what all the fuss was about. What’s important today within business has changed and we are looking beyond the small-scale changes and looking to the far bigger positive impacts we can have as a company that works to influence and drive sustainability within the Built Environment and construction sector.

Transport

Historically transport had a big impact with staff traveling to work by car, so for many years we organised “Bike Doctor” to fix up staff bikes so they can commute to work. That was very well received by staff and we got many old bikes that were gathering dust in people’s sheds back on the road.

We’ve also had over 250 bikes now purchased through the Cycle to Work salary sacrifice scheme.

We used a rebate from recycling waste metal to buy four new Brompton bikes to create a bike pool for staff to get to the shops, or for meetings in London.

BRE cyclists on annual Cycle to Work day

All in all, we reduced our staff travel footprint from 1.5 tonnes of carbon per person per year to 950kg per person per year. But now due to the pandemic working patterns have massively changed and since 2020 BRE is now actively encouraging home working.

Around 80% of staff currently work from home full time as the business takes stock and uses this opportunity to carry out some major energy efficient refurbishments of our key office buildings on the BRE campus. In 2022 once staff working patterns stabilise we will carry out a new staff travel survey to measure the impact of these changes. We fully expect with home working to perhaps half our travel emissions which will be a great result.

Energy Awareness

We’ve also done a lot around energy efficiency.

Some small things like leaving chocolates on people’s desks if they shut down their computers and turned off office lights. Just nice things to do for staff to encourage them to be energy-aware as well as waste-aware.

BRE’s biggest internal carbon impact is our buildings which range from 1960 single glazed offices to a 1990’s ‘Office of the Future’ which at the time trialled some very innovative technologies. But that future was over 20 years ago and building innovation today looks very different to then. And that’s the big climate challenge for our business: to raise the energy efficiency standard of our buildings that responds to the climate emergency and also respond to the new ways of working that we see today in business.

230 kW solar photovoltaic system on BRE office. Expected to provide annual CO2 savings of 15 tonnes

230 kW solar photovoltaic system on a BRE office. Expected to provide annual CO2 savings of 15 tonnes

Engagement

The pandemic and working from home has not stopped BRE from engaging with its staff.

From photo competitions on World Environment Day and a Net Zero Week pledge challenge, S Plan continues to encourage staff to think about their impact even from home and share what they’ve done with each other on the company intranet.

Here are some examples of what staff have done:

Staff member repurposed some old saucepans to use as planters for lettuce and trailing tomatoes

Staff member repurposed some old saucepans to use as planters for lettuce and trailing tomatoes

Staff helped a local parish council improve the biodiversity in their village creating ‘Pollinator Patches’ to leave them to grow over the summer with a beautiful array of wildflowers, including bee orchids and corky-fruited water dropwort.

Prospect Environment Rep

I’m no longer the S Plan lead as we have some new younger blood in the business to lead in this area with some very capable and enthusiastic volunteers and graduates. But last year I took up the Prospect environment rep role.

With my background in sustainability, I felt it was time to step forward and use that knowledge and experience to do more at BRE around the environment and the climate emergency. We’re already seeing a positive impact by the fact that we’re pushing the climate agenda through Prospect at BRE.

We’re now engaging with the senior team in a new office refurbishment project. The business has secured £2m of funding from Hertfordshire’s local enterprise partnership for this project and at Prospect we have ensured that staff are listened to as part of a staff engagement survey around the office refurbishment project.

BRE office refurbishment project minimising its impact on the environment

BRE office refurbishment project minimising its impact on the environment

At the same time, BRE are looking at a fundamental change in the way that employees engage in our workspace. There’s a huge change in working practices and culture, and this is where I’m finding the new environment rep role helpful.

Together with a colleague we produced a survey to support staff in the site redevelopment project because people have lots of questions about the way that we are being asked to work from home more. BRE is moving to a flexi-hybrid model, where we’re not going to be in the office as much. That provides us with a great opportunity to significantly reduce the impact of our estate, while having better and more energy efficient offices.

Mental health

When I think about the role of an environment rep, I like to think of it being wider than just the environment because sustainability encompasses many areas including the health and well-being of our staff.

I’m really excited about the promise of greater flexibility: who wants to commute for an hour or two to travel to work if you can work from home? But, on the other hand, the thought of being at home all day every day won’t suit everyone. I think my role is to bridge the gap between senior management and the concerns of staff, as we venture into these new working practices and to continue to listen to staff and our members.


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