“Twenty years ago, climate change was an article of faith,” says David Clark. “I’d prepare these presentations and you’d have to spend the first 10 minutes trying to convince people that climate change was even real.”
David was the lead technical author behind Australia’s first GreenStar rating system, which launched in 2003 and trained the first cohort of Green Star Accredited professionals. He also worked at global engineering firm Cundall for 18 years, both in Australia and the UK.
These days, David is the director of Positive Zero, a sustainability consultancy that helps developers, commercial construction companies, government departments and not-for-profit groups, like the Green Building Council of Australia, design and refurbish greener buildings.
“Hospitals, 50-storey office towers. Basically anything but houses,” David says. “Of course, when I started this journey, it was all new. Sustainable construction was the wild west. We were really just making things up as we went along. But there’s no time left for that sort of thing now.”
It’s hard to pick out one building, or one project, from a life’s work, but David’s efforts at Cundall – one of the world’s leading engineering consultancies, with 1000 people on the payroll – are particularly interesting. Over his 18-year stretch at Cundall, David brought about massive internal change, essentially helping to pivot a global company.
“If you say, ‘Just do this’, if you force it, people stop doing it very quickly. It has to go from the bottom up. And companies can have a huge impact, especially in two directions: the people they buy from, and the people they sell to."
“I wrote the first sustainability policy in 2009 and got all the partners, not just the CEO, to sign it. I got the business certified as a OnePlanet company in 2013, wrote the first sustainability roadmap, and even helped initiate a ‘Sustainability Diploma’, where we developed a range of modules to train people up," says David. "In 2019 I started a global change initiative called Zero Carbon Design 2030, which was basically getting all the partners to agree that, after 2030, Cundall wouldn’t work on any projects that weren’t zero carbon.”
Unfortunately, the proposal came with an associated risk: losing some clients. And I get that, but the flip side is you can attract better clients," says David. "Also, after eight years of trying to persuade a client and they’re still not interested in zero carbon, then are they really a client you want to work for?”
To get this policy to work, and the firm to commit, David flipped the traditional model. Instead of a top-down sustainability policy, rigidly enforced by upper management, he wanted to mobilise employees across the business. “We said, ‘Here’s the goal. Zero Carbon’," says David. "But let’s not get too hung up on exact definitions of zero, net zero, carbon neutral... Let’s just aim for the lowest possible emissions in everything we design and then keep going further.
"So the task then becomes, 'what skillset do we need to deliver on this goal?' We set up a small team of engineers from all levels and disciplines to lead the project, then engaged a group of 60 or 70 ‘advocates’ throughout the business."
These advocates were spread across every team and every office at Cundall, and their mission was to mobilise employees. To get their perspective, to get them excited, to get everybody on board. Each team within the business developed their own Zero Carbon plan, and employees were encouraged to share ideas and take ownership of the change. Skills gaps were identified, and clients were slowly brought on the journey. (The whole thing was also deliberately done without any marketing fanfare – David and the team wanted to get some runs on the board before making any public statements.)
“If you say, ‘Just do this’, if you force it, people stop doing it very quickly,” David says. “It has to go from the bottom up. And companies can have a huge impact, especially in two directions: the people they buy from, and the people they sell to.
"Instead of dragging your heels on ESG, you take a leadership position, and if that means you have to say no to some clients, then so be it.”
“If you work in procurement, and you tell your suppliers, ‘Look, in 12 months we’re only going to buy a certain product’, if you’re a big customer, they’ll respond," says David. "And if enough small customers ask for it, they’ll also respond. That’s how the market works. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”
David often refers back to the example of double-glazed windows. “At the moment, nearly all the suppliers in Australia are geared up for single-glazing, because that’s what they can get away with. But in the UK, it’s actually more expensive to buy single-glazed windows.”
The reason? Old-school economics: supply and demand. Single glazing is a special, double glazing is the norm. For service companies, like Cundall, this sort of thing represents what all companies crave: a competitive advantage.
“And that’s still the way you pitch it,” David says. “At least to senior management. It’s a positive reinforcement loop. Instead of dragging your heels on ESG, you take a leadership position, and if that means you have to say no to some clients, then so be it.”
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