Increasingly, SMEs are seeing the business value of implementing a sustainability programme to drive efficiencies within their operations – and nowhere is this more evident than in the construction industry. London-based SME construction firm Decorean first became Planet Mark-certified in 2015 and says cutting its carbon footprint is helping it reduce its overheads and win new business. The Planet Mark™ caught up with Decorean’s operations director Steve Janeway-Smith to find out more.
Q. Can you describe Decorean and what sustainability means to you?
A. Decorean is an Orthodox Jewish-owned construction business which has been trading since 2010. We’re based in Tottenham, London, and we number around 14-15 employees. Up until now, we have worked predominantly in the Jewish community and we’ve been expanding year-on-year. Our turnover has grown from £7m in 2015-16 to £12m this year. All the work we’ve done has been residential and office to residential conversions. However, we’re expanding out. We are preparing ourselves for bigger projects and public-sector projects.
I think for me sustainability is about doing the right thing, but I see it as an all-round aspect of business – not just environmental. I look at it from a cost point of view and system point of view. It forces us to collect data, it means we can analyse it and we can take action to make things better. It forces the team internally to understand how the business runs and how to run it more efficiently.
Q. What were the factors that made the business decide to go for sustainability certification?
A. _There are two factors that stand out: cost and marketability. On cost, for example I don’t think anybody understood what it cost to power the air-con and the lights in the building. Going for certification made us ask questions and monitor our data.
I’ve got guys and projects all over the place – from Ramsgate up to Aylesbury. So, now, we ask ourselves what is the best way to travel?
I’ve got a man living in Southampton; he’s now got a smart car, leaves it the station and travels up to London by train. This has had a cost benefit on the business, as well as on time_.
_Being a holder of The Planet Mark™ has also helped us better market ourselves. In public tenders, for example, you have to demonstrate your environmental credentials and The Planet Mark™ enables us to do this.
When we talk to potential clients, The Planet Mark™ gives us credibility. This is particularly the case when we’re talking to the architects and developers, but also, in the private sector, sometimes it makes a difference with the end-user too. It gives us a marketing edge. It shows we know what we are doing and we take sustainability seriously_.
Q. What are the biggest challenges for you when implementing sustainability within your business?
A. Lack of knowledge, lack of understanding and lack of buy-in are the biggest obstacles. Initially no-one in the business had any idea about the amount of electricity that was being consumed or how we were paying for the electricity and other services, for example.
Also, until The Planet Mark™ presented to the business-owners, sustainability had not figured in the company’s objectives. To get buy-in, the initial sell had to be about marketability and how a sustainability certification would help Decorean win new business.
Q. You are now in the second year of being certified by The Planet Mark™. Why did you choose this type of certification over ISO, for example?
A. We opted for The Planet Mark™ over ISO or another certification because The Planet Mark™ offers something different. ISO is too institutionalised and is a painful experience to go through (and I have to say, other schemes such as Considerate Constructor Scheme, are going the same way). It feels like they are set up for billion pound businesses, not for SMEs like us.
We are going for ISO 9001 because it’s a quality management system and we haven’t found another one better. But what we like about The Planet Mark™ is it’s not a box-ticking exercise, its people-focused and takes away the heavy lifting. It not a run of the mill ISO, which everybody has got it. The Planet Mark™ is a differentiator.
Q. What has the process of certification taught you about integrating sustainability into the business?
A. It’s given us more of an understanding of the hidden costs. Sustainability, if you address it and work through it, provides you with benefit and return on investment.
It also helps you change people’s opinions about sustainability, because it shows the positive impacts it can have on your business rather than just focusing on the environmental ones. We would never have got buy-in from that perspective. For a company like Decorean, the environmental benefits are a buy-product of reducing our electricity bills. Not the other way around.
Q. Your year-on-year carbon footprint per employee reduced by an impressive 70% in 2016 compared to the previous period. Some of that is down to better data quality. Can you explain what it’s meant in practical terms for a business of your size to improve your data quality? How did you go about doing this?
A. We rent a unit on an industrial estate and in year one we had no data for electricity, so we had to use industry benchmarks. In 2016, we improved our data gathering by asking our landlord to provide sample electricity invoices. This meant we could report a 55% reduction in our indirect emissions from electricity consumption last year. This year, we’ve improved the data gathering still further. And because we don’t use the whole floor space in our unit we’ve worked out on a pro-rata basis our electricity usage. This, together with implementing easy, no brainer measures, like turning off the computers, making sure the lights are switched off, making sure the air-con is not left on overnight means we’ve been able reduce our electricity usage by 10.5% in this reporting period compared to last year. This is all down to better reporting data.
Q. How useful has it been to use external sustainability consultants to help you measure and report your carbon footprint and verify that data for you?
A. It’s always good to have external verification because it gives more credibility to what we are saying. But having the help of The Planet Mark™ team has also meant we’ve introduced a structured format for measuring and reporting, which we can use going forward. Everybody is too busy with their day job, so it’s been a great help. That’s not the case with all external auditors. With ISO 9001, for example, there is no external help. And then you get three phone calls in a day chasing you for information!
Picture: Providence House, Hook, is a commercial to residential conversion and Decorean’s largest construction project to date.
Q. What are the biggest benefits you have found from being certified sustainable? Have there been any financial ones?
A. Overheads are the biggest item that will kill your business – that and cashflow. Being Planet Mark-certified has made us more efficient and there are financial benefits to that, of course. Lets say, we’ve saved ourselves £ 20,000 to £30,000 in costs through the efficiencies we’ve implemented. That in turn has made us more competitive. When we do a tender, shaving 2% off our overheads will make a difference. Not many people in the business see that but there is a return on investment in doing this.
Q. What are you plans for sustainability going forward?
A. Our plans for the future are to measure and monitor our on-site sustainability performance. We are already segregating waste and minimising waste wherever we can on-site, and we employ local labour and procure local suppliers and materials wherever possible. As we expand, our carbon footprint will naturally go up, but by implementing these measures on-site and measuring and reporting them, on a pro-rata employee basis, our footprint should keep going down. That’s important to us because the more years we measure and report our carbon emissions, the tighter it will get. We need to find ways to keep improving year-on-year.