The 'S' word - simplifying sustainability

10th March 2014

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Sorcha Anderson

Infrastructure business McNicholas is generating staff buy-in by axing the jargon and busting the myths that often surround sustainability

Family-owned infrastructure business McNicholas revamped its sustainability strategy in 2012 so its approach is more robust, yet simpler to make the issue part of day-to-day operations.

McNicholas works with the utilities, communications, renewable energy and rail sectors to develop and maintain infrastructure in the UK and Ireland, and gaining buy-in from its 1,600 employees is pivotal to the firm's sustainability vision. "Changing behaviour at both a corporate and personal level is critical to our success," explains Emma Ward, sustainability manager at McNicholas.

"First and foremost the strategy has to appeal to the whole workforce, or we will not be able to embed sustainability across the business," she says. "It is not enough to just have the commitment and leadership of the senior management team - which we have 100%. The strategy has to resonate with the people who bring our contracts to life on the ground, or we will limit our success."

There are strong push factors influencing McNicholas's drive to entrench sustainability more deeply in the business. Over its six decades, the company has built a reputation as a trusted and experienced partner in delivering infrastructure services, and its "McNicholas way" represents a quality brand with strong ethical values. Sustainability dovetails seamlessly with this ethos and it has become an established driver in how the company does business.

There is also increasing pressure from the company's many blue-chip clients to deliver on the sustainability agenda. As Ward comments: "Our clients demand high sustainability standards, with performance in this area accounting for up to 10% of the award evaluation within tenders, so it makes good business sense to get it right."

A simpler, less formal approach

By publicly referring to its sustainability strategy as "the S word", McNicholas is setting the tone for how it engages with employees, trying to dispel some of the jargon and myths around the concept. The revision of the sustainability plan in 2012 was a concerted effort to adopt a simpler and less formal style, with the aim of encouraging buy-in from employees.

"We wanted to engage more effectively and transparently with our staff - the lighter, shorter strategy is more accessible, encouraging a wider audience to read it and understand our corporate responsibility ambitions. What sits beneath, however, represents an ever-more rigorous approach to sustainability," says Ward.

McNicholas aims to make "the S word" a normal part of the company's everyday life and conversations. Ward says that for this reason the approach had to be simple, even if some of the regulatory requirements and company processes underlying it are complex.

"Expecting employees to visualise our sustainability goals at the same time as facing demanding operational schedules and meeting customer care requirements would be difficult if sustainability was standalone, so we had to strip the concept back to its simplest meaning to help people see how the jigsaw fits together," she explains.

There are many examples that demonstrate the deepening commitment that McNicholas has to delivering its sustainability agenda, in terms of its achievements and targets. For example, it aims to eliminate all recyclable and reusable waste from landfill by 2016, no mean feat for a company of its size.

McNicholas was one of the first UK companies to achieve certification under CEMARS (the certified emissions management and reduction scheme) and aims to reduce emissions by 20% by 2020 against its 2008/9 baseline year. It also achieved an "excellent" CEEQUAL award for its best practice approach to environment management for its work on the Olympic Park, and was shortlisted for "sustainable company of the year" in the 2013 Construction News awards.


Education and communication lie at the heart of the McNicholas strategy, both with its workforce and increasingly with its supply chain and other stakeholders. The safety and sustainability team numbers 16 and frequently links up with managers and operatives in the field, encouraging a two-way dialogue and monitoring the implementation of safety and sustainability objectives. The company also uses formal training sessions, poster campaigns and "toolbox" talks to raise awareness and develop people's knowledge of sustainability issues.

The newly revamped "safety and sustainability moments" training sessions build on traditional toolbox talks and address a range of practical safety and sustainability areas with direct relevance to the work of those taking part. These are interactive and based on real-life scenarios that operatives could encounter when working on the company's construction projects.

For example, one session could pose a broad question such as: "What are the environmental protection measures we should take when working near water?" Another could ask for feedback on the action to take in a specific situation, such as: "What would you do if someone spilt diesel in water?"

One important way in which the company rolls out its sustainability strategy to all employees, and gains their commitment to it, is through roadshows under the banner of "sustain-a-what?!" - making it clear again that the company wants to break sustainability jargon down into meaningful ideas and actions.

"The last thing we want to do is turn sustainability into a big corporate tick-box exercise," says Ward. "The roadshows are a great way of making our sustainability strategy interactive and relevant to everyone."

With most managers and operatives at McNicholas working on projects in disparate teams, it is difficult to stage face-to-face forums for the whole workforce. But, in 2013, the team delivered 35 roadshows to more than 800 employees in locations as far afield as Belfast and Southampton. Ward says that the roadshows generated some "fantastic conversations" on sustainability, with many employees demonstrating a knowledge and interest in environment issues that have made it easy to facilitate lively debate.

Training and suppliers

McNicholas has recently reviewed its sustainability training for operational managers and site supervisors and is rolling out the site environmental awareness training scheme (SEATS) developed by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) and major construction companies.

SEATS is the first nationally accredited environment training programme for those working on construction sites and is endorsed by the UK Contractors Group and the Environment Agency. The CITB says that SEATS provides those working on a site with the knowledge required to drive best practice in environment management and that it is a transferrable training programme that can be used by any organisation in the UK construction industry.

McNicholas adopted the training programme because it was developed by the industry for the industry, and as such has credibility throughout the sector. The one-day course aims to develop participants' knowledge in several broad areas, including:

Although the course represents a common training programme for the sector, helping to promote consistency across companies and their supply chains, SEATS is designed to cover only 85% of the required environment knowledge with the other 15% specific to a company's own processes and procedures. Incorporating these bespoke elements enables SEATS to be made fit for purpose, says Ward.

For McNicholas this has meant the inclusion, for example, of site specific emergency arrangements, the requirements of its environment management plan and details on submitting waste data. The learning gained is reinforced in a course handbook that every delegate receives as part of the training. Ward describes the handbook as a "brilliant resource", which acts as an aide memoire for participants to refer back to when certain environmental issues arise.

McNicholas views education and training in sustainability as a continuous process and not something that can be achieved through one training session, however. "I don't expect course participants to go back to their site quoting legislation - it is more about creating a culture where supervisors are more aware of the potential risks for the environment and what action they can take to mitigate or avoid those risks," says Ward.

McNicholas is an approved training centre for SEATS and aims to deliver the scheme to all 200 of its site supervisors and managers over the coming months. It is early days, with only a few courses having been delivered so far, but the feedback on the training's practical focus and interactive elements is promising.

Another way that McNicholas has started to gain momentum for its sustainability vision is by seeking to embed improvements across its supply chain. "By working with like-minded suppliers, we will be able to further embed our principles throughout the company," says Ward.

The company's preferred suppliers list consists of 78 companies. To obtain preferred status, a supplier has to undergo a rigorous assessment that reviews environmental performance, along with other key criteria. McNicholas's ethical and sustainable procurement policy makes clear that the company seeks to purchase goods and services that are produced and delivered under conditions that do not abuse the environment. All timber, for example, must be from FSC-certified sources.

Each member of the McNicholas procurement team has attended a training course on sustainability and many of the tools and techniques learned have been incorporated into the company's procurement processes and procedures.

The company has recently developed a sustainability procurement matrix to encourage suppliers to embed sustainability objectives in their operations and is trialling it with some contracts. The matrix is detailed and enables an in-depth assessment of suppliers across a range of sustainability criteria, awarding a "high", "medium" or "low" rating based on their performance in each area, which include: ethical sourcing of materials, waste and packaging, percentage of recycled content, and carbon and water footprints.

Taking the message home

Ward says that McNicholas wants to take sustainability far beyond "just compliance" and make it a core part of the culture and the "way people do things around here". Her hope is that employees' commitment to sustainability does not stop at the end of the working day - the aim is for people to take the message home. "Embracing sustainability initiatives at work is only the start," says Ward. "Part of 'the S word' is to identify actions that staff can easily adopt at home."

This process has already started, one example being the company's annual charity calendar. The initiative uses drawings - based on corporate responsibility themes, such as the natural environment and helping others - from employees' children to illustrate each month of the calendar.

For the 2014 edition, 45 young artists submitted their paintings and calendar sales are expected to surpass £500 - the amount donated by the company to The Lighthouse Club for the 2013 calendar. "The Lighthouse Club is a charity close to our hearts as it provides financial assistance to construction workers during times of need," says Ward.

"Sustainability is a powerful tool. Not only does it makes sound commercial sense, but it also helps to improve morale. Knowing that we are taking our environmental and social responsibilities seriously gives people a lift. Sustainability is helping to make McNicholas a great place to work, especially as more of our people start to take their own initiative and make our vision a reality."

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