The breakfast of sustainability champions

29 Mar 2023

If “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” how are Australia’s biggest property companies driving cultural change to accelerate and amplify climate action? TRANSFORM 2023 brought together a powerhouse panel to find out what can fuel fast and furious change.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” noted CEO Davina Rooney as four inspiring leaders – Roberts Co’s Alison Mirams, Charter Hall’s Carmel Hourigan, The GPT Group’s Bob Johnston and Mirvac’s Rob Sindel – stepped onto the stage.

Alison Mirams, Roberts Co’s Executive Chair, believes “doing something different” must be guided by “DQ”, or what she calls “decency quotient”.

Construction workers experience higher than average divorce and suicide rates, Alison told TRANSFORM’s audience. “A construction worker is six times more likely to die from suicide than from a workplace accident. People shout safety but they whisper health… If you look at the female participation rate it’s 12.5%. Thirty-five years ago, it was 12.5%. It hasn’t changed. So, we had to do something different.”

A staggering 25% of the women employed at Roberts Co needed their salaries adjusted by up to 40%. “If I didn't have decency, I would have perpetuated the gender pay gap. We would have had a cheaper salary bill.” But Roberts Co was driven by “acting with decency” and guided by a clear question. “If I don’t do it, who will?’.”

Roberts Co has also piloted a five-day working week on six sites, starting with the $341 million redevelopment of Concord Hospital. The University of NSW’s subsequent report, A weekend for every worker, found mental health and wellbeing improved, injury rates fell and there was no increase in variable costs.

Roberts Co has since championed changes to Green Star – including the introduction of female toilets and PPE, and training – which “sets a minimum standard for people to behave better”.

All for one and one for all

Charter Hall is on track to hit net zero for Scope 1 and 2 by 2025 – five years ahead of schedule – and currently boasts 5.2 million sqm of Green Star space. Change at scale is underpinned by an “all funds in, all partnerships in, all mandated clients in” approach, said the Group’s Office CEO Carmel Hourigan.

Charter Hall is “slightly unusual” as it manages an $88 billion property portfolio on behalf of third-party investors – but this structure means “we don't just focus on one fund… we focus on the whole business”.

Carmel shared two instructive examples. Last year, Charter Hall entered into one of Australia’s largest power purchase agreements, which procure 151GWh of renewable energy each year – equivalent to the energy used by 26,000 homes.

Another partnership with social enterprise Too Good saw 3,000 touch-free soap dispensers installed in Charter Hall offices. The soap dispensers were made with recycled ocean waste by women who had previously experienced domestic violence and homelessness. “We were able to partner with a social enterprise, using our scale, to enable them to have a profitable business, so they could keep doing the work they are doing in the community,” Carmel said.

From small talk to big results

Build-to-rent, or BTR, could help to crack the built environment’s toughest nut: residential real estate. BTR is on track to account for 12% of all new high-density housing starts by next year – and can engage a whole new cohort of Australians in conversations about sustainability, noted Mirvac’s Rob Sindel.

Mirvac has secured five properties in its build-to-rent seed portfolio, which will deliver close to 2,200 apartments – almost halfway towards its initial target of 5,000. But Mirvac's big, bold vision is for its BTR product, LIV, to influence the lives of one million Australians by 2030.

Rob pointed to the scaling impact of renewable wholesale electricity as just one example of BTR’s potential. “We can buy the power for the entire building and then use smart meters to distribute that cheaper and greener power to our tenants. That's one very positive thing that BTR will drive,” he said.

BTR can also drive better social outcomes, Rob added, pointing to Mirvac’s apartment in the Queensland in Brisbane suburb of Newstead, where 25% of the product is discounted for essential workers.

Show me the data

“Carbon neutral now, nature positive next,” is embedded in The GPT Group’s vision and values – but CEO Bob Johnston emphasised that public statements must be backed up by “clear action plans and deliverables”.

In 2022, GPT achieved an Australian first, with its logistics building in the Melbourne suburb of Truganina achieving upfront carbon neutral certification through Climate Active. GPT has now committed to tackle upfront embodied carbon emissions on all new developments.

But all public statements must “withstand strong scrutiny” Bob warned. Australia's global leadership in sustainability could "quickly unravel" without transparent, authentic and rigorous data, benchmarking and reporting. In other words? “You can’t be loose with the truth.”

Mirvac’s Chair Rob Sindel agreed. “Companies are getting sued if they can't back up their public claims. That’s a big stick.”

Balancing ambition and evidence-based outcomes is a tightrope walk, but companies can’t afford to run the risk of green hushing, “where you are scared to put out targets,” Bob added.

Sustainability should not be a non-compete space, Carmel Hourigan suggested. “We cannot afford for any of our institutions to fail on the ESG front through lack of disclosure or transparency, because I think that will actually be a negative for all of us,” she said. Working together – whether that is to “bring secondary assets up to speed” or to collaborate across the product supply chain, “is one of the most important things we can do,” Carmel said.

Bob agreed. Leaders should not shy away from collaboration or be “afraid to protect some particular IP”. Sustainability is like safety. “Safety standards have changed but as an industry we have lifted all boats – it's not seen as a competitive advantage. It's actually seen as something we all have to do.”

If you missed TRANSFORM 2023, there’s always next year. Mark March 2024 in your diary when we will once again gather for Australia’s largest green building conference. See you there!