Go for green: why sustainability is back on the radar in 2019

Sustainable design has been pushed down the corporate agenda by the buzzwords of wellbeing and amenity. Now it’s back – driven by millennial commitment to climate change

Sustainability, once the gleaming centrepiece of every office design scheme, has slipped down the corporate workplace agenda in recent times.

Quite why this has happened despite well-established certification schemes in the field and long-established commitments around social and environmental responsibility, nobody is too sure. But, inescapably, amid all the talk in recent times about workplace wellbeing, experience, amenity and social buzz, sustainable design as a subject has gone missing.

Taken for granted

Given that construction generates one third of all waste in the EU, this is not just hard to explain – it is also perverse. Sustainability sits at the heart of building efficiency and the first wave of smart office infrastructure was intended to control energy costs and lessen the environmental impact of the workplace.

Somewhere along the way, the green deal got taken for granted in the boardroom, or side-lined; a new, more compelling rationale for investing in smart building technology was built around the familiar buzzwords of wellness, collaboration and productivity. Even the current craze for biophilic design is now framed in terms of talent attraction rather than protecting the planet.

A pendulum swing

In 2019, however, the pendulum is swinging back towards sustainability as a top office priority, according to soundings taken around the global WORKTECH Academy network. Several events have served to catalyse this comeback. The background scenery has shifted with Extinction Rebellion disrupting the heart of London over several working days, and British broadcaster David Attenborough and Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg foregrounding the dangers of climate change.

At Milan Design Week in April, curator Paolo Antonelli’s thought-provoking exhibition Beautiful Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival reminded designers of all disciplines just have fragile things will become if we don’t reverse our carbon footprint.

Within the workplace industry itself, there are visible signs that sustainable thinking is back on the table. A new book called Future Office by lead author Nicola Gillen of AECOM, has set a trend by coupling workplace design with the circular economy.

When Gillen spoke at the inaugural WORKTECH Copenhagen conference in February, she lamented the practice for new office developments to rip out brand-new fit-out floors and ceilings when new tenants arrive.

‘Recycle buildings and materials so that scarce resources are regenerated…’

Gillen’s message about circular economy principles, cutting down on waste and recycling buildings and materials so that scarce resources are regenerated, certainly resonated with her Danish audience. This is not surprising as Denmark has always sought the highest sustainability goals in office design and construction – it hasn’t become distracted and dropped the green ball the way some workplaces seem to have done elsewhere.

Committed on climate change

But perhaps the biggest driver of the ecological reboot is the millennial workforce, widely touted as the most sustainability-conscious cohort ever to join the global workforce. Millennials want to see their employers do the right thing by the environment – which is why the circular economy and other green ideas are back on the agenda. They increasingly choose companies on the basis of corporate behaviour on climate change, and like the Gen Z cohort they will manage in the future workplace, they want to see action rather than words.

At WORKTECH Tokyo in April, Kelly Robinson, workplace designer for Airbnb, SoundCloud and Headspace, reinforced this message about people and planet when she told Japanese delegates that ‘People want to align with companies that reflect their values.’ Statistics backed up Robinson’s argument: 84 per cent of millennials consider it a duty to make a difference through their lifestyles, 78 per cent are willing to change their lifestyles to protect the environment, and 49 per cent name climate change/destruction of nature as their number one concern.

It all adds up to a ‘perfect storm’ of positive change bringing office sustainability back to the front of people’s minds again. But before we completely readjust our priorities, it is worth considering that some of the most environment-friendly office buildings today are those that can claim the highest rates of occupancy. Eco-buildings with low occupancy rates can hardly call themselves sustainable if nobody spends time in them.

Perhaps, in the end, workplace experience, vibe and social buzz have more in common with sustainability than you’d think.