As the first of our upcoming Talking Architecture & Design podcast series, we talk to Robin Mellon, CEO of Supply Chain Sustainability School, about the need for sustainability in the built environment and the supply chains that support the industry, transparency in procurement processes, modern slavery, designing and building for longevity, and the future of sustainability.

What is the Supply Chain Sustainability School and why is its work important to the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) sectors?

The Supply Chain Sustainability School provides free sustainability learning resources to all small, medium and large organisations with the idea that if everyone just knows a little bit more, then the outcomes, the buildings we design and develop, the infrastructure that we construct will be that much more sustainable; not just environmentally sustainable but economically and socially sustainable.

The Supply Chain Sustainability School is funded and supported by leading organisations in Australia including John Holland, Lendlease, Mirvac, Stockland, Laing O'Rourke and Dulux. We work with small, medium and large businesses to educate them about why sustainability is relevant to what they do.

What are some of the evolving issues in Australia when it comes to the AEC supply chain?

There are several rapidly evolving issues at the moment, which are gaining both in visibility and importance. For instance, the visibility of modern slavery in our supply chains, not just in construction materials or in architecture and design, but also in coffee and clothing among others.

Another is the whole procurement area – not just purchasing materials but that long term whole-of-life vision that we have for the materials we use. There’s a new sustainable procurement standard called ISO 20400, which came out earlier in 2017, and the way in which it can be used for our supply chains is going to change the way we develop.

Lastly, the innovations around materials, what we build with, how we design and what we build; we are not just looking at traditional building materials, we are looking at hybrids, at energy saving and material saving construction materials that can really change the way we build.

How do you define built environment sustainability?

There is a widely accepted definition for sustainability, but I've been fascinated by the way in which sustainability is broadening out month by month. The metrics that I've worked with for many years are mostly environmental – energy, water and waste, the carbon in our materials or the miles they've travelled; these metrics are rapidly broadening away and starting to look at economic sustainability much more things like business resilience, not just building resilience but business resilience and community resilience.

Risk management too, which means every board, every major company will consider the risks that they are going through every year and need to withstand. Part of economic resilience is making sure that the risks in our supply chains are also being managed but there are a lot of organisations that are not looking at those properly.

And lastly, social sustainability, which includes the health and wellbeing of the people within these buildings, regardless of whether they are tenants in offices, shoppers in retail spaces or people living in homes and apartments. It also encompasses issues such as human rights and modern slavery in our supply chains.

What would you prioritise among the many issues that need attention?

The human rights abuses in modern slavery within our supply chain, for one. Running an educational body, albeit one that provides free sustainability learning resources, our biggest challenge is to make these issues relevant to people. People often switch off when the conversation turns to issues such as carbon and global warming or the Paris agreement or UN sustainable development goals, because they don’t see the relevance of these big picture issues in their everyday lives.

I believe energy and carbon should be prioritised – the Supply Chain Sustainability School has basic e-learning modules on energy and carbon. But the important thing is to make these issues relevant to suppliers without limiting the discussion to global warming or climate extremes.

Is there a magic formula to building a resilient, yet sustainable supply chain?

I don’t think there is a magic formula when it comes to resilient or sustainable supply chains. Multiple factors including geography, climate and humidity play a role – a sustainable supply chain in Sydney or Melbourne is going to look very different to a sustainable supply chain in Darwin, for example.

What is required in Australia is to start looking longer term; too many procurement decisions are being made that are hyper short term for achieving annual budgets or project budgets, but a resilient supply chain needs long term thinking.

Resilience in the built environment is not about keeping the elements out, but the ability to bend and flow and be in that state of flux as things happen around it. For instance, it’s not about putting up a major building in Brisbane and collecting or keeping the water out, which can be very expensive. Can the building be designed to flood and be back running very quickly?

Resilient and sustainable supply chains are the ones taking the medium to long term perspectives, by considering aspects such as fit-for-purpose as well as whole-of-life environmental, economic and social factors to make the best decisions.

You can hear an extended version of this interview in our upcoming Talking Architecture & Design podcast series, which we will launch in early 2018.