Going for green
Landlords that attain an international accreditation for environmental friendliness can claim to be truly green. But reaching the benchmark is not simply a matter of filling in a couple of forms and ticking a few boxes. The processs takes long-term commitment from everyone in the organisation, finds Philippa Ward.
Green initiatives are all the rage – but putting a few more bits of paper in the recycling bin or not overfilling the office kettle is not going to revolutionise the housing sector. It takes more effort to really make a difference to your company’s carbon footprint. That means more innovative social landlords have their sights set on a global standard: ISO 14001 accreditation.
The ISO part is probably familiar. Since the international standard was set up in 1947 by the eponymous organisation, more than 17,000 standards have been developed, covering everything from paper to jewellery.
Number 14001 has been running since 1996 and is unusual in covering management systems rather than products – it measures how good a company is at cutting its harmful effect on the environment by, for instance, reducing waste or switching to renewable energy.
There is no question that attaining it is tough, as companies are continually assessed. Forget ticking a few boxes, hanging the certificate on the wall and then walking away; this is a continuous quest for perfection.
Only a handful of social landlords have grasped it, mainly housing associations, although arm’s-length management organisation Ashfield Homes, based in Nottinghamshire, and some councils are among the select few.
In 1998, Vale Housing Association became the first association to get the accreditation. It took 12 months of hard work and a large chunk of time to attain it – an estimated 1,700 staff hours and nearly £10,000 were spent, much of it on consultants. But now it is operational, the ongoing process requires much less investment.
Having management take the project seriously is a must to get the scheme going. Vale secured a good-practice grant from the Housing Corporation to help to finance certification, but it was also the enthusiasm of Mike Roberts, the then-chief executive, that pushed things forward.
The motivation for Accord Housing Association, which became ISO 14001 accredited in April, also came from the top following an executive and senior management team away day. That support was essential, says Paul Di Mambro, sustainability advisor at Accord. ‘It is really good that the right messages have come from the top. New initiatives have always been launched by the executives,’ he says.
Hillcrest Housing Association became the first Scottish social landlord to get the ISO green stamp in January this year – once again when the directors decided to push for it. But while drive from above is important, it is circulating the message to staff that makes the process run smoothly. They are the ones that will have to gather data and implement changes. ‘You have to look at every role and activity in the organisation, then talk to staff about how to reduce their impacts. It is challenging and time-consuming,’ says Mark Weglarski, sustainability advisor at Hillcrest.
But the process of getting accreditation is another way of spreading the word about sustainability in the company, thinks Sally Hancox, director of Gentoo Green, the sustainability division of the Sunderland-based housing association. Gentoo is preparing to go for ISO 14001 and is six months into the process. ‘You have to communicate that it isn’t just one person’s role but is everyone’s job. It is another reason to remind them of the importance of taking green action.’
Getting staff on side is vital, then, but it can also be very rewarding and a great way of spreading the sustainability message to all parts of the company. Working towards and winning the accreditation can also boost morale, thinks Kim Meade, manager of corporate support and facilities at the Housing Corporation. The regulator decided it needed to set a good example by getting the less stringent British Standards Certification, before tackling ISO 14001 last year.
‘It was a big thing for us because we had the whole organisation involved in the project. There was a great sense of achievement and excitement when we got it,’ Ms Meade remembers.
The corporation approached the task by putting together a team of office managers, dubbed the ‘super green team’, who were helped by volunteers from each office. The team agreed five projects, with each region getting its own area of responsibility. The importance of getting the staff on side became apparent when the decision was taken to remove all waste bins to boost recycling.
‘It wasn’t popular, as you can imagine,’ laughs Ms Meade. ‘But by the end it meant everyone felt involved.’
As well as having your staff committed to the idea, you need someone who can commit to working on the project for a large chunk of their time: at least half, even going up to three quarters as the audit deadline looms. Vale’s guidance states that it is essential that there is a project co-ordinator to organise workshops and follow up on documentation.
Ms Meade says: ‘This person does not need to be a specialist in environmental issues. It is more important that they understand your structure and operations, and that they have good networking and project-management skills.’
There is also the possibility of turning to a consultancy for help in preparing for auditing. Hillcrest needed some support initially, which came from the Business Environment Partnership, a not-for-profit environmental consultancy that works from the Scottish Chamber of Commerce. Hillcrest only needed about 13 of the originally planned 20 consultancy days.
‘We got more confident as the process went on. The whole management system has to develop legs: you’ve got to run it yourselves,’ explains Mr Weglarski. He also attended training courses, so he could audit the system internally and help other parts of the business.
The sustainability categories that a social landlord should look at when tackling ISO 14001 are familiar from Ecohomes and the Code for Sustainable Homes: energy, water, materials, transport, waste, the natural environment and the built environment.
The effect on each of these is measured and the legal minimum has to be met in each area. Then a continuous system of improvement is looked for, so your green credentials should grow as time goes on.
This effort does not just apply to the things that a housing association has control over, such as its offices and housing stock. There should also be efforts to influence those around you, such as tenants, sub-contractors and staff.
It might seem surprising that legal requirements are the first step, but even for the most environmentally-conscious housing association, there can be some surprises.
Mr Weglarski says that Hillcrest’s duty of care regarding waste management was an area they needed to work on to hit minimum requirements.
Mr Di Mambro remembers: ‘There really is a lot of legal compliance that we weren’t really aware of,’ he comments. Accord came across similar issues around waste management. ‘It was initially a failing area because of our ignorance.’
But mainly, the successful housing associations say that they had already done a lot of the work, it was just a question of codifying it and extending some areas where they weren’t so strong.
Accord already had a good green record – it built the first code three housing scheme, had put renewables in place, and had calculated its carbon footprint.
‘We did have aspects in place, there was lots of good practice, but it wasn’t all joined up or formalised,’ says Mr Di Mambro. ‘Now it is all systematic rather than the odd initiative depending on people’s personal interests.’
Ms Meade agrees that it sets a path for where the corporation – in its new incarnations – should go next. ‘It demystified a lot of things – it made it clear what we had to do. And we’ve already done lots so we wanted to get the credit.’
In a world of greenwash, ISO 14001 pins down an organisation’s environmental credentials to an internationally recognised standard. ‘It is about being part of an international community,’ says Ms Hancox.
But it won’t make an unsustainable company into a sustainable one if it approaches it with the wrong attitude, our experts warn. ‘It’s not easy to get ISO 14001 but it would be of little value if it was,’ says Cliff Gorton, director of property services at Vale.
‘It will require dedication to achieve and the commitment of all parts of the organisation to maintain. Don’t try if you think this is just another badge on your letterhead and a box ticked.’
Why you want ISO 14001
- Internationally recognised standard: avoids greenwash
- Enthuses staff and involves them in sustainability agenda
- Creates better partnerships with local organisations
- Improves public image
- Good for tenants: cuts costs
- Improved efficiency: cuts waste
- Recognition for existing initiatives
- Shows direction for future sustainability
- Helps to save the environment
Steps to achieve ISO 14001
The scoping review
Helps you to identify how your organisation affects the environment and decide which of these effects are significant.
The detailed review
Gathers information about each significant environmental effect and whether they are being monitored.
The environmental programme
Sets out the plans for how you are going to improve your performance. It states your environmental objectives and how, when and with what resources you are going to achieve them.
The management system
Integrates your environmental management system into your existing management system through a set of written procedures.
The environmental policy
A public document outlining your environmental impacts and objectives and your performance.
Ensures that the environmental management system has been properly implemented and maintained and that it conforms to the requirements of the standard.
The public statement
A summary of your audit report, which details your environmental performance. This is only required under EMAS, the European equivalent, not ISO 14001, but it is a good opportunity to advertise achievements and to raise awareness about environmental issues.
The final stage when an external body carries out checks on your system before deciding whether to award ISO 14001 or EMAS.
With thanks to Vale Housing Association. See http://www.valehousing. co.uk/whoarewe/ environmental/gpg.html for more details