SNC-Lavalin’s new head of sustainability explains to Environment Analyst why the Montreal-headquartered global professional services player is serious about sustainability and the challenges faced as a result.
Having trained as a mechanical engineer specialising in sustainable building design (to which a master of architecture was added and a PhD in mechanical and aeronautical engineering currently underway), Glasgow, Scotland-based Sarah-Jane Stewart has lived and breathed sustainability her whole career. Her CV also shows stints as an energy consultant on energy efficiency projects in the Nordics, as an environmental advisor for construction giant Skanska, and over a decade in sustainability leadership roles at Arup and most recently SNC-Lavalin’s Atkins business - added through acquisition almost two years ago (EA 04-Jul-17).
It’s not then surprising that when SNC-Lavalin, under CEO Neil Bruce’s leadership [coincidentally also a Scottish native], decided last year to appoint somebody to mastermind and implement a refreshed sustainability policy and business strategy to encompass its enlarged business (following the addition of Atkins) that Stewart won the role.
She was tasked with drawing up a new sustainable business strategy for the entire 50,000-employee global operation, spanning seven core sectors, namely: the Atkins business (which operates as a subsidiary in its own right), infrastructure, clean power, mining & metallurgy, nuclear, oil & gas and capital. Now, following a consultation process involving over 500 staff and the compilation of a new sustainable business strategy, which was submitted to the board at the end of last year, it’s Stewart’s job to roll it out across the company.
And that’s no small task! "This isn’t about throwing together a few community events – it’s about fundamentally changing the way SNC-Lavalin designs and delivers projects," states Stewart.
Of course SNC-Lavalin and Atkins both had their own sustainability ambitions prior to their merger; the latter in particular had already made great strides in this area thanks to the efforts of Keith Clarke, Atkins’ former director of sustainability and former chief executive. But the merger has provided a sense of momentum – and SNC-Lavalin is now using this as an opportunity to strengthen what was already in place, says Stewart.
"There is already good and best practice in relation to sustainability across every sector, but SNC-Lavalin’s seven sectors are all quite distinct and the challenge is to make sure that we have a consistent approach across the whole SNC-Lavalin business," she explains.
And to achieve that Stewart is lining up an army of ‘sustainability disciples’ to help her ensure company-wide consistency by simultaneously using a top-down and a bottom-up approach. In the first instance Stewart is working with the CEO and each of the ‘sector presidents’ to appoint sustainability sponsors in each of the firm’s senior leadership teams and put in place experienced environmental / sustainability specialists to develop ‘sustainability implementation plans’ (SIPs) and communication plans and drive sustainability from the top of each of the sectors [and remember these are sizeable and include SNC-Lavalin’s 18,000-strong Atkins business and the 10,000-strong infrastructure division].
Secondly, Stewart is looking to rally SNC-Lavalin’s existing grass root ‘sustainability soldiers’ from across the business, some of whom have been dedicated to sustainability their entire careers whilst others are "passionate young people joining the business". What they all have in common is "a need to feel part of a community and feel empowered to help create knowledge networks," she says.
"We’ll be teaming together the 1,600-strong environmental consulting contingent, the 200-strong sustainability consultants and thousands of designers worldwide, all of whom share a passion for sustainable project delivery. Their combined weight and respective expertise will help build critical mass, foster a culture of transparency and openness to enable sharing best practice across sectors."
Key to achieving a company-wide sustainability spirit will be sharing existing knowledge and learnings from each other, she stresses, because "when you mix different cultures, different disciplines and different agendas, that’s when you get really great ideas, magic, innovation and sustainable outcomes".
"What SNC-Lavalin’s Atkins business has learnt from major infrastrastructure projects such as HS2 and Crossrail in the UK has been invaluable and it’s something that we can share with our colleagues across the infrastructure sector. There is similar knowledge that we can transfer across the energy sector, from oil & gas to offshore wind and renewables, as that sector transitions to a low carbon economy," she adds.
Nevertheless, whilst clearly impassioned, Stewart doesn’t underestimate the challenges ahead, conceding that there are some "non-believers" out there [and it’s not necessarily a generational thing – it boils down to less enlightened early training in her opinion]; and there certainly have been times when she felt quite isolated in her career for her dedication to sustainable practices. However, it is precisely because of these earlier experiences, notably in the construction industry (not one renowned for its energy or resource thriftiness), that she is confident that she can help any non-believers see the (renewably-generated, naturally) light.
Mission to spread the word
"It’s implicit that environmental consultancies attract people who have a deep-rooted desire to safeguard the environment, but that’s not necessarily the case in the construction or design industries. I made it my mission when I worked in construction to bring doubters around to my way of thinking. But I also learnt that you cannot make them believe what you believe in; what you can do is provide them with the evidence which makes them question old habits and do things in different way."
So, what exactly is that "different way"? Under SNC-Lavalin’s sustainable business strategy, it is a measured assessment of the impact of every project from ten separate criteria, namely: energy use; water use; materials use; impacts on health, climate, biodiversity, diversity, community, pollution and transport. "The objective is to grow our businesses across each sector in a responsible future facing way," she states.
And the firm is already seeing some real success stories: by way of example, Stewart points to recent achievements on sustainability at Crossrail in London, an Envision Platinum Award for the New Champlain Bridge Corridor in Montreal and the renovation of John Hart Hydro Power Station. The latter will create a more reliable, environmentally-friendly power station with an installed capacity of 132 MW. The new facility will replace the existing 126 MW station, which represents approximately 17% of the total generating capacity on Vancouver Island.
And of course, those ten criteria are applied equally to SNC-Lavalin’s own activities. As such, the firm is creating an internal platform where all the data can be centralised so that it can put its own corporate footprint to the same scrutiny as the projects it is working on. That said, Stewart is clear that whilst it’s imperative that SNC-Lavalin has its own house in order, ultimately the sustainability achievements of its own operation - 50,000-strong and 350-offices though it may be - are just a "wee drop in the ocean" compared to the combined environmental and social implications of the client projects the firm is involved in, whether that’s designing, building, operating, renovating or decommissioning.
The real challenge is making sure that sustainability becomes the guiding principle for every decision in every SNC-Lavalin project, no matter which division, discipline or geography.
"It’s not enough to have a sustainability strategy and crow about your own successes. Coming from the project delivery and operations side, it’s this part of the business where I’m focused. If we don't change the way that we work across the operational part of the business, then we won’t have delivered what we need to for the environment or for our clients."
So how receptive are SNC Lavalin’s clients to the concept of sustainability? "Varied" is Stewart’s response. In the UK and Europe, for example, clients are clear about their sustainability obligations and aspirations thanks to legislation such as the EU buildings energy performance directive (not to mention increasing pressure from their own investors to be future-facing and responsible). Clients like HS2 and Crossrail and the UK have very clear targets, she adds. And for some of SNC-Lavalin’s international banking clients, it’s a also non-negotiable: "Climate change and mitigation activities are fundamental – clearly they don’t want to be financing projects which do not have sufficient resilience and mitigation in relation to climate change. SNC-Lavalin climate resilience consultants are currently providing strategic advice and training to a broad spectrum of financial institutions worldwide on a range of topics including, climate finance, sustainable finance, climate resilience and mitigation."
Stewart believes a consistent approach to embedding sustainable thinking into projects at the outset is crucial for the firm’s clients globally. She elaborates: "We will implement our sustainable business strategy on projects regardless of the legislation or jurisdiction. Whilst some clients are very clear what they want, there are others who want ‘sustainability’ but aren’t sure what that means and don’t ask for it, or assume it’s going to cost more. We are working hard to change the perception that sustainability is an add-on cost. And of course, our multinational clients don’t want a service that varies from region to region."
But her immediate work is far from done. Armed with the list of 17 UN SDGs, next on her to-do list is a company-wide materiality assessment that will involve talking to staff, clients, investors and governments to identify the key goals on a sector by sector basis. As she says, SNC-Lavalin has made a good start but there is still room to make it even better – both in terms of its own operations as well as those of its clients.