Investing for a Sustainable Future

Published on 28th July 2016
Supply Chain

By the time you are reading this article our fate as a nation will have become a lot clearer. Collectively, we will have cast the votes that will decide our future.

In casting our votes there will be many complex issues that have prompted us to make our decision, but in every case they will be related to the question of sustainability. Can we sustain the numbers coming to our shores? Can we sustain standards of schooling, housing and healthcare for our citizens? Can we continue to sustain the economic revival?

Because, whilst it is true that sustainability has come to be seen as ‘shorthand’ for environmental issues, it is in fact a far wider issue that we should be considering both as an industry and as individual businesses.

Firstly, let’s look at our sector. I have referred in previous columns to our relative inability to attract new entrants into roofing, and that, despite lots of recent positive initiatives, we are still perceived by the wider population to be an industry that is ‘strenuous and dirty’ according to a recent YouGov poll of 2000 people. Of those questioned only 41% thought we were a sector that would provide or require further or higher education, with only 11% viewing the sector as ‘exciting’. How sustainable does that make us?

With the much publicised housing and skills shortage, how do we reconcile the need to build more properties with fewer skilled people? Where is the sustainable route to delivery? The systemic shortage of housing won’t go away, and in fact gets worse every year, given our failure as a nation to bridge the gap in building properties for the growing population. We need a long term vision supported by appropriate investment. And we need to use our inventiveness to find ways to deliver our requirements.

Can we look at mass production and other modern methods of construction? Can we be more creative in bringing older, decrepit properties back to a suitable standard for occupation?

Whatever the eventual solutions, we need to think more clearly about these issues on both a macro and micro level, and it’s here that we can affect things as individual businesses.

No two organisations are exactly the same, whether that is in terms of ambition and strategy or resources and inward investment. So each business must find solutions that work for them. However, one trait I have observed over many years is the reluctance within our sector to pay the true value for a product or service, and many of our current issues are underpinned by short-termism such as this.

For, whilst it is essential to remain competitive in all areas, our experience is that by working more closely with supply chains both upwards and downwards, process alignment can result in savings on materials, resources and time – all of which can make significant improvement on the bottom line. However, this always requires a greater level of investment in the front end of the process (i.e. risk) in order to bear fruit.

Nevertheless, with IT support systems becoming more available and affordable day by day, the adoption of new labour and money-saving approaches is essential; allied to better and more accurate management systems to ensure we know who our customers are and what they expect from us, and at what cost.

Closer working relationships that can cultivate better alignment of resources throughout the supply chain are a fundamental part of any future approach. Working together in more open relationships overextended periods to remove hidden costs and achieve more effective delivery, whilst maintaining profitability, will be essential if we are to create the right environment to bring new products, processes and people into our sector.

We can also work towards different skill sets that meet the requirements that an integrated supply chain will demand in the future – often different from the current requirements. When was the last time anyone saw a lamplighter, or had coal delivered to the house, or even a visit from the milkman?

Technology and innovation mean that standard industries of just a few years ago have now disappeared, those business models ceased to be sustainable. That rate of change will only accelerate in the coming decades. As individual companies it behoves the management to begin to look beyond present day practices, to plan and invest for something more sustainable. Nowhere is that more required than in construction, particularly in house building. The message is clear: if we want to operate in a sustainable industry, with sustainable businesses we must embrace technology and change, and make them work for us.