Building the future: Supply chain sustainability

11th November 2013


Related Topics

Related tags

  • Construction ,
  • Supply chain ,
  • Procurement ,
  • Employee engagement ,
  • Stakeholder engagement



the environmentalist discovers how the construction sector is collaborating to deliver sustainability training

Launched in June 2012, the supply chain sustainability school (SCSS) is a virtual learning environment that aims to help construction suppliers and subcontractors develop their sustainability knowledge and competence. Backed by the Construction Industry Training Board’s (CITB) growth fund and the UK Contractors Group, in its first year the school has enrolled about 2,600 members from more than 1,460 companies. This figure far exceeds the school’s original target of 800 registrants.

Credit for the concept and initial groundwork to set up the school belongs to Skanska, but several other leading UK contractors have since come on board. Balfour Beatty, Carillion and Wates have recently joined Aggregate Industries, Kier, Lend Lease, Morgan Sindall, Sir Robert McAlpine and Willmott Dixon as part of the school’s leadership group.

It is this alliance between some of the UK’s biggest construction contractors that makes the initiative unique. On a day-to-day basis, these companies are rivals, bidding against each other to win huge contracts – but the need to build a more sustainable supply chain for the industry has seen collaboration replace competition.

Back to school

The SCSS was set up as a partnership by seven construction firms to help their supply chain benefit from the opportunities emerging from sustainable business practices.

Skanska is committed to achieving near-zero environmental impacts from its construction projects (see The Swedish multinational has a long tradition of sustainability but, in recent years, the group’s commitment to greener construction methods has intensified.

“The school represents a common approach to addressing sustainability within the major contractors’ supply chain,” says Jennifer Clark, director of environment at Skanska UK. “As contractors, we are only as green as our weakest link and we cannot achieve greater sustainability without our suppliers.”

The school’s strategy to gain buy-in and commitment from suppliers is a sound one. Around 80% of total spend on a major construction project is with the supply chain, so the behaviour of suppliers has the biggest potential to minimise the sector’s environmental impacts. The big contractors also share many of the same suppliers, so it makes good sense to avoid duplication and work together to improve sustainability performance across the supply chain.

According to Geoff Firth of Boon Edam, a supplier member of the SCSS, the fact that the school represents a joint initiative is crucial. “From a supplier’s perspective, the SCSS has more credibility because there are several main contractors involved – this means there are no mixed messages and we can have confidence in the process and outcomes,” he comments.

Aside from the leadership group – now comprised of 10 major UK contractors – the SCSS has two delivery partners. Responsible Solutions, the lead training partner, and supply chain expert Action Sustainability, which has overall responsibility for running the school and works independently of the contractor partners to ensure the confidentiality of suppliers. The school was set up with an investment of £475,000 from CITB’s growth fund, matched with time and in-kind contributions from the founding partners.

Gaining momentum

The school is open to any supplier in the construction industry and membership, including access to the school’s learning resources, is free. Initially, the membership profile was focused more on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), but is now evenly spread across SMEs and large suppliers.

Skanska and its partner members have been overwhelmed by the rate at which membership of the school has increased. “The growth has been organic, and we haven’t had to push very hard to gain members – this shows that there is a hunger for sustainability knowledge among our suppliers,” says Nick Baker, procurement manager at Skanska.

Although it is still early days for the SCSS, membership has already cascaded to some second- and third-tier suppliers as more members encourage their own supply chains to participate.

One successful initiative developed to promote the school was to host a series of 11 supplier days across the UK. The free events featured talks from industry experts on sustainability issues. The forums also gave the main construction partners an opportunity to discuss their environment objectives and how they want to engage with suppliers to achieve them. The days were well supported with more than 100 firms attending each event.

Family-owned business Lee Brothers is a tools and equipment supplier that benefited from one of the days. Quality, environment and health and safety manager Chris Bate went to the Nottingham event and admits that he had been slightly sceptical about its value but found the event “extremely enjoyable and worthwhile”. Seeing the senior-level commitment of the main contractors and listening to the different speakers prompted Bate to recognise that Lee Brothers needed to take sustainability seriously, and that action was required if the firm wanted to remain competitive.

Going for gold

To join SCSS, a supplier must register on the school’s website ( and complete a self-assessment. The self-assessment tool is designed to help the company evaluate its sustainability strengths and identify areas where it can develop competence. It is a self-help tool and the results of the questionnaire are not visible to any other organisation.

The tool examines the company’s level of knowledge across these key areas:

The tool has a bank of more than 100 potential questions, but a sophisticated “heat mapping” capability in the software tailors them to the individual supplier. For example, it considers the trade area in which the company operates, whether its laying foundations or installing roofs. From the answers, the tool generates a priority action plan, directing the company to a tailored list of tools and resources available through the school.

Clark is keen to point out that the assessment process is not about adding another layer of bureaucracy to incorporating sustainability into a company’s operations or creating a pre-qualification requirement for projects – although a supplier may choose to share its action plan with potential customers as evidence of continual improvement.

“The self-assessment process is to help guide companies at the start of their journey to enhance their sustainability knowledge and performance,” she says. “The action plan provides a route map for companies and gives weight and structure to the process.”

Self-assessment through the school is linked to three levels of membership:

  • Bronze – a supplier must have completed a self-assessment in the past 12 months and used at least five resources in the past six months.
  • Silver – a supplier must have completed a reassessment in the past 12 months and used at least five resources in the past six months.
  • Gold – a supplier must have completed a reassessment in the past six months, used at least 10 resources over the same period, and actively worked to share its knowledge and experience with other members.

Supplier members can reassess themselves at any stage after their initial self-assessment, but for a company to improve its rating in any area it will need to provide evidence of change.

Learning resources

To make the process manageable, each supplier’s action plan signposts no more than 10 learning resources at a time from the more than 500 available. These resources include online tools, e-learning modules, one-to-one training, free workshops and case studies. Resources are often categorised into four ascending knowledge levels. Those advising on “sustainable procurement”, for instance, are labelled “beginner”, “intermediate”, “advanced” and “expert”.

At the beginner level, there is a one-hour e-learning module providing an overview of the principles and the potential benefits of sustainable procurement, as well as the sustainability policies of the school’s contractor partners. There are also video links and case studies featuring contractors, suppliers and clients talking about their views and practices on sustainable procurement. The resources for the intermediate knowledge level are more advanced and include:

  • the green procurement code from the Mayor of London, and the responsible procurement policy produced by the Greater London Authority;
  • an outline of the relevant training courses offered by Action Sustainability;
  • an online forum for professionals to discuss the latest initiatives and issues;
  • a powerpoint introduction to BS 8903 – principles and framework for procuring sustainably;
  • a self-assessment diagnostic tool for supply chain sustainability;
  • waste procurement guidance for the construction industry from Wrap;
  • a half-day workshop on “getting to grips with sustainable procurement”; and
  • interviews and case studies.

So far, close to 600 companies have completed the self-assessment process and are working their way through an action plan. More than 1,700 individuals have accessed training through the school.

Lee Brothers is one supplier that has embraced the school’s self-evaluation approach. Bate completed the firm’s first self-assessment in October 2012, and has since worked through five action plans and four reassessments. As well as accessing e-learning packages, Bate has attended four regional workshops, entitled “embedding sustainable procurement”, “selling sustainability”, “understanding the timber chain of custody” and “carbon footprinting”.

Bate finds the self-assessment and action planning process “simple and easy”, and sees it as an important tool in demystifying an otherwise overwhelmingly complicated topic. “It allows Lee Brothers to work at its own pace in a systematic way, with the confidence of knowing that the recommendations and action plans are in line with its clients’ priorities,” he explains.

Moving forward

The SCSS has secured a second wave of funding from CITB, which the school’s partner members have pledged to match. The leadership group has developed a five-year plan that aims to build on the school’s initial success by enhancing its range of learning resources and strengthening its reach across the construction industry’s supply chain.

The school is already developing an international influence with some partner and supplier members encouraging their business units and suppliers abroad to access the learning resources available through:

“The school exists to provide guidance to suppliers as part of a collective journey to a low-carbon future,” explains Clark. “It is fast gaining momentum and enables the construction industry to speak with a more united voice to help shape how we tackle sustainability issues in the UK and beyond.”

Case study: Boon Edam

Employing 75 people in the UK and 950 worldwide, Boon Edam supplies and maintains revolving entrances and security doors, low-level turnstiles and barriers. The company has a broad client base, but it typically works as a supplier to main contractors rather than directly with the end user.

Boon Edam joined the supply chain sustainability school (SCSS) in summer 2012 and has since gained “gold” membership.

Geoff Firth, technical lead in business support at the firm, assumed responsibility for implementing the action plan generated by completing the school’s self-assessment questionnaire. The plan directed Boon Edam to relevant e-learning modules (materials and sustainable construction), and Firth attended two of the school’s workshops – on “understanding the timber chain of custody” and “selling sustainability”.

As a result of engaging with the school, Boon Edam has:

  • reviewed and updated its sustainability policy;
  • started to ask its key suppliers more questions about sustainability, particularly around environment management systems, and is encouraging its supply chain to register with the school;
  • prepared a presentation about sustainability as part of an education programme for employees on ISO 14001. The presentation draws heavily on the slides used in the SCSS’s e-learning modules and the “selling sustainability” workshop;
  • developed the knowledge of the sales team with regards sustainable construction;
  • developed the knowledge of the procurement team with regards the practical steps it can take to embed sustainability considerations into the procurement process; and
  • a better understanding of some of the generic issues relating to sustainable construction, such as chain of custody and building standards like BREEAM and CEEQUAL.

“The school provides a structure to help address a complicated and broad subject – it has given Boon Edam a clear direction for embedding sustainability into the business,” says Firth. “Our involvement in SCSS also allows us to network and meet other suppliers in similar situations, and it can only help the company in future tender processes by demonstrating our commitment to sustainability.”


Subscribe to IEMA's newsletters to receive timely articles, expert opinions, event announcements, and much more, directly in your inbox.

Transform articles

Interview: Andrew Winston on the many reasons for hope

One of the world’s most influential management thinkers, Andrew Winston sees many reasons for hope as pessimism looms large in sustainability. Huw Morris reports

4th April 2024

Read more

Vanessa Champion reveals how biophilic design can help you meet your environmental, social and governance goals

4th April 2024

Read more

Alex Veitch from the British Chambers of Commerce and IEMA’s Ben Goodwin discuss with Chris Seekings how to unlock the potential of UK businesses

4th April 2024

Read more

A project promoter’s perspective on the environmental challenges facing new subsea power cables

3rd April 2024

Read more

Senior consultant, EcoAct

3rd April 2024

Read more

Around 20% of the plastic recycled is polypropylene, but the diversity of products it protects has prevented safe reprocessing back into food packaging. Until now. David Burrows reports

3rd April 2024

Read more

IEMA presents a digital campaign to share knowledge and inspire action in sustainability

2nd April 2024

Read more

Tom Harris examines the supply chain constraints facing the growing number of interconnector projects

2nd April 2024

Read more

Media enquires

Looking for an expert to speak at an event or comment on an item in the news?

Find an expert

IEMA Cookie Notice

Clicking the ‘Accept all’ button means you are accepting analytics and third-party cookies. Our website uses necessary cookies which are required in order to make our website work. In addition to these, we use analytics and third-party cookies to optimise site functionality and give you the best possible experience. To control which cookies are set, click ‘Settings’. To learn more about cookies, how we use them on our website and how to change your cookie settings please view our cookie policy.

Manage cookie settings

Our use of cookies

You can learn more detailed information in our cookie policy.

Some cookies are essential, but non-essential cookies help us to improve the experience on our site by providing insights into how the site is being used. To maintain privacy management, this relies on cookie identifiers. Resetting or deleting your browser cookies will reset these preferences.

Essential cookies

These are cookies that are required for the operation of our website. They include, for example, cookies that enable you to log into secure areas of our website.

Analytics cookies

These cookies allow us to recognise and count the number of visitors to our website and to see how visitors move around our website when they are using it. This helps us to improve the way our website works.

Advertising cookies

These cookies allow us to tailor advertising to you based on your interests. If you do not accept these cookies, you will still see adverts, but these will be more generic.

Save and close