Stop wasting time

To meet our carbon reduction targets and fight climate change we must embrace the circular economy and prioritise waste reduction and prevention over recycling

February 03, 2020

So far from being the first step, recycling is the last resort in a truly circular economy.  We must prioritise preventing and reducing waste, before we recycle.

Ask 50 different people how best to combat the climate crisis; expect nearly 50 different answers.

Doing something is better than nothing, but we should focus our efforts on what has the most impact.  You probably recycle at home and think you’re doing your bit for the environment.  This is a start, but if you work in the real estate industry it’s a tiny element considering the potential impact you can have in your profession.

A report by environmental charity Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that 40% of carbon reduction targets could be met through the circular economy. In a circular system nothing is thrown away.  Products are designed and built with materials that can be removed and reused in their existing state, and the materials are only recycled if you can’t repair or repurpose.  This means less waste.  So far from being the first step, recycling is the last resort in a truly circular economy.  We must prioritise preventing and reducing waste, before we recycle.

The case for eliminating waste in building construction is well documented.  But did you know about the waste from office buildings?  £15bn worth each year in the UK alone.  This should be an open goal for the real estate industry, so why are we not doing more?

Because we are not prepared to change our business model.  Investors work in a very linear system: the value of their investment is based almost entirely on rental income.  No value is attributed to other aspects such as zero waste, efficiency in use, embodied carbon, aesthetics, quality of wellbeing and ease of repurposing/disassembly.  Many in our industry seem blind to the protests and uprising of passion from the younger generation.  Look at charity shops.  To many baby-boomers they’re the carbuncle of high streets and shopping centres, but if you ask my 16-year old daughter she thinks they’re brilliant.  A circular economy with low environmental impact is of high personal value to her – and she gets designer clothes for cheap!

Occupiers are going faster than investors.  In Manchester we’re about to open our first circular JLL workplace.  Trying to deliver a low carbon, low waste workplace has not been easy...but not that difficult either.  Yes, in general it’s more expensive and requires planning, but things like reused furniture are cheaper.  The result will be a much more attractive environment and some inspirational stories about your place of work.  At a recent event the head of real estate at multinational drinks company Diageo was asked why an environmentally friendly building is of value to them.  Consumer demand?  Corporate responsibility?  Or just a good thing to do?  He said it’s for their employees.  A business simply cannot attract talent unless they create a working environment that has zero or positive impact on the planet.

In 2018 I spoke at Business in the Community’s Waste to Wealth Summit, along with Prince Charles and the then British Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Gove.  Shortly afterwards the UK Government released a Waste & Resources Strategy, and I wonder how many property professionals have read it.  The summary is only a few pages long.  So you can waste time figuring out whether the plastic film wrapping on your supermarket pizza is recyclable, or you can read a blueprint for eliminating avoidable waste by 2050, work out how it applies to the built environment, and make a real impact.

Over the next 10 years I guarantee there will be many stranded real estate assets that are simply not investable because their owners lacked the foresight to consider the impact on the environment. This is the real world.  Adjust your business model, even if it costs more money.  If you do not then be prepared to die, along with the dinosaurs. 

Adapted from an article first published in Property Week on 31 January.