Matt Bell talks about Sustainability: Is Business Doing Enough?

Posted: July 25, 2011 in Business, Lifestyle, Responsibility Deal, Sustainability

A week ago the Conversation Society hosted its third debate which looked at Sustainability: Is business doing enough? Is it OK to profit from sustainability?

Our final panelist was Matt Bell, Group Head of External Affairs at Berkeley Group Holdings, London’s biggest homebuilder and a very successful and well-run FTSE 250. 

Matt had an interesting perspective when it came to the importance of our built environment, which he broke down into three main areas. Firstly, looking at how change happens; secondly dealing with the dilemmas of consumer behaviour; and thirdly he touched on the role of technology, suggesting it might just be over-rated.

The Berkeley Group builds homes and neighbourhoods. Like most residential developers, its work on sustainability has been dominated for seven or eight years by The Code for Sustainable Homes.  The ‘Zero Carbon Home’ concept came alive in the UK in 2007 when Yvette Cooper, then Housing Minister, decided this would be the way forward for the next generation of house-building in Britain. It has taken four years since then to define what zero carbon actually means and the regulation required to enforce it. However, the introduction of the Code was a great example of conviction politics. Many people in the industry have moaned a great deal about the additional cost and complexity it creates. But we are getting better products with a better impact on society because of it.

The second issue is dealing with consumers and their split personalities. The Berkeley Group prides itself on being a sustainable house builder, focusing on a “fabric first approach”. Its focus is on build quality, making the structure robust, and ensuring there is great insulation and minimal heat loss through the floors, the windows and the roof.

With this approach, you don’t, for instance, necessarily need a radiator in your house. But ironically consumers often remain unconvinced and insist on having them installed regardless! Matt’s thoughts on this particular issue: “A lot of consumers are quite traditional. Old habits die-hard. They may say one thing but do another, and behaviour doesn’t always follow attitudes.”

Matt addressed his last thoughts to technology. He suggested that there is little evidence of smart meters or kits driving mass changes to consumer behaviour (sadly). “We find ourselves now in a situation where many of the things which will fundamentally change the way we behave relate to the built environment.  So Berkeley’s ambition is to focus on creating sustainable places and perhaps worry less about the product and the technology, but slowly reshape the relationships between the different spaces in which people live their lives. I know that for me what would most change my carbon footprint would be living in a sustainable place, a neighbourhood that equally prioritises the environmental bit, the social bit and the employment aspects of my life. If we could get the relationship between those better captured in the design of the places where we live, then I think we’d be able to make some real progress.”

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