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17 July 2019
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Sustainability priorities, and FM’s ability to oversee their implementation, have changed considerably in the 10 years since BIFM’s first sustainability survey report in 2007. But of huge significance is the topic’s growing social and economic dimensions, as Martin Read reports.

Credit: Peter Crowther

13 October 2016 | By Martin Read

At the launch of BIFM’s 10th annual sustainability survey report, co-author and consultant Greg Davies asked his audience to consider just how much the field of sustainability has developed since the first such survey back in 2007.

After a few quick cultural references (Rhianna was No.1 with Umbrella, the iPhone only just on sale) it became clear just how much we’ve lived through since then. Changes in government, short-lived environmental initiatives and policy mis-steps such as the green deal on one side; a cultural revolution in terms of understanding on the other. What organisations think about sustainability has certainly changed, even if thorny issues of implementation and responsibility remain unresolved.

Breaking from its straight annual analysis of the year’s survey results, this year’s report also looked back at how sustainability in FM has evolved over the past 10 years, and forward to likely developments in the decade ahead.

In truth, the big issues of 2007 – waste compliance, carbon reduction, energy and water management – all remain the big issues of 2016. And at its heart, sustainability, for many, remains little more than a compliance-driven bolt-on.

And yet, in so many other ways, the role and effect of productivity has changed profoundly. It has evolved from a straightforward focus on what we should now call environmental sustainability, with its myriad empirical measures of progress regarding reductions in fuel consumption, emissions or waste to landfill, to a focus on all three of the accepted pillars of sustainability, with its environmental core now joined by social and economic components to add fresh dynamism to the debate.

Interest in the social side of sustainability has as its trigger the Public Services Social Value Act (2012), with its obligation on public sector commissioners to consider the impact of any service procurement decision on the organisation’s employment, for example, of local workers in general or its ‘outreach’ to local social enterprises to fulfil facilities service roles. 

Government, having lit the blue touch paper of legislation, has stood well back when it comes to providing any further models for the market to follow. Understandable, perhaps – but how to measure social sustainability is a major problem for organisations and FM service contractors, all coming at the problem from their own starting positions. Wider sector advice may yet be forthcoming, and indeed BIFM sustainability sig chair Sunil Shah hopes that his group will be able to offer something in due course.

It’s not going to be easy, though. As well as being so broad in scope that standard metrics templates have evaded the FM service providers who have tried, social sustainability is still seen as less important than environmental performance, the latter’s ability to be measured tying it more readily to financial performance.

But when you talk to the service providers, you find that the Social Value Act is gaining traction as part of a wider sustainability ‘value equation’ – one that is not confined to the public sector.

“We are seeing the debate around social value starting to resonate with commercial organisations as well,” says Interserve’s Bruce Melizan.

The support that FM services providers give in driving skills and employment is becoming an increasingly important part of the outsourcing value equation, be it in the form of apprenticeships, NVQs or specific skills initiatives tailored to a particular contract.

“Whatever form it takes,” says Melizan, “it is moving the value equation beyond purely cost to consider wider socio-economic impacts.”

In any event, sustainability’s social dimension expands the topic’s original definition considerably, and at its broadest it encapsulates those two other hot performance topics of 2016: well-being and productivity. Indeed, these are referred to in the 10th anniversary report as ‘recurring themes’ in social sustainability. In many ways, the introduction of a social element to the sustainability agenda mirrors the wider facilities management agenda. So much of what sustainability should be to an organisation seems to centre around what the FM department already controls.Recently introduced ‘social parameters’ will, say the report’s authors, merge with well-being and productivity as “all sides of a multi-faceted coin to deliver facilities that enable organisations to thrive”.

Policy documented

The report points to a welcome increase in organisations’ appreciation of sustainability reporting. Any problem an organisation has in meeting its own sustainability targets isn’t likely to be with its policy  – the report shows a steady drop in participants reporting poorly or inconsistently implemented sustainability policies. Indeed, since 2009 ratings of both ‘very good’ and ‘excellent’ implementation of sustainability policies have stayed broadly the same. But there may be an issue concerning the relatively recent focus on ‘organisational engagement’ – the extent to which an organisation embraces its sustainability policy, spanning junior up to senior levels.

It’s also clear that regulatory requirements continue to drive behaviour, with report authors citing even the very recently introduced national living wage as a key social sustainability issue. Only in very recent times have such broad legislative triggers and their connection with social benefits been seen as a component of sustainability, social or otherwise.

Accordingly, report authors see sustainability as increasingly “a thread now running through everything”. FM can be seen as the glue linking this thread at each organisational touch point, the FM function’s efforts in doing so helping to ensure both culture and reputation are maintained. The 10-year arc of the report demonstrates growing recognition of how sustainability activities today can affect an organisation’s commercial viability, a recognition that can help put FM’s wider capabilities in the c-suite’s sights.

It’s in FM’s ability to influence an individual worker’s entire experience of their workplace – levels of comfort, availability of tools, indeed everything that impacts on overall productivity – that new opportunities for the sector lie.

Emma Potter
Sustainability survey table 1
sustainability survey table 2

FM to the fore

OK, so all of this is theoretically good news for FM. But if there’s one thing the sustainability survey has repeatedly raised over these 10 years, it’s the need for FM to show leadership and ownership of the sustainability agenda.

“FM’s understanding of the key values and culture of their organisation, and the ability to define what sustainability means against these values, is a critical component for not only communicating effectively, but also engaging across the business to the team, supervisors and managers. The challenge is how to enable an organisation that empowers staff at all levels to make decisions.”

The report authors point to manufacturing and pharmaceutical as sectors from which others might learn from in terms of FM taking such ownership, running committees and having responsibility for behavioural change.

Barriers to implementation have always been principally physical or financial constraints, but the good news is that sustainability remains a major issue for organisations, now rated extremely or very important by 81 per cent of senior executives. Senior commitment has risen sharply, and organisational engagement has risen by a third since 2007.

Says Sunil Shah: “All these measures point towards a challenge within organisations about how best to integrate sustainability, from a bolt-on activity delivered by frontline staff towards a business model which integrates sustainability at its core.”

Looking at emerging trends from previous surveys is instructive. Just last year, the survey reported on a so-called ‘sustainability crunch’ – a sizeable decline in confidence around the implementation and management of sustainability policy, and of businesses’ tick-box mentality undermining the longer-term value of investing in sustainability best practice.

Overall, what remains is one consistent problem – the lack of a clear game plan; a sustainable business model undermined by a lack of robust data to demonstrate the wider value that sustainability measures have on the organisation and any interested stakeholders. Ultimately, there is little in the broad organisational and societal thrust of sustainability in 2016 that isn’t incredibly closely matched to the wider goals of the FM sector, its economic and social dimensions closely aligning with FM in terms of ambition for organisational influence and reach.  

BIFM Sustainability Report 2007-2016

BIFM members can download the full 28-page report here.

Sustainability survey graphic 3

Making more of data 

From next year, BIFM’s sustainability sig aims to improve the value of its sustainability research programme by moving from annualised reporting to longer-term research activity conducted over a multi-year span.

Limited quality and quantity of data compromises the sector’s ability to engage with government, Shah believes. “When government wants to talk about how buildings perform, they talk to architects and engineering consultants rather than the FM profession.” 

Making stronger links between existing data, and evaluating how fresh data is collected and collated, is key.


The sustainability sig hopes to have an open-access information portal and longer-term research programme to focus on developing both environmental and social sustainability metrics. The challenge, believes Shah, is to produce better and more shareable data. The sustainability sig will be looking for organisations to support its programme.

Sustainability in 2026

The 2007-2016 report predicts the following influencing factors:


- Technology: use of BIM, diagnostics, and personal information will provide real-time data informing the building life cycle for all in the building as well as the landlord and investors. Soft landings will shed more light on a building’s sustainability characteristics.


- Maintenance: regimes will focus on people, carbon and life cycle.

- Social factors: these will be as important to sustainability as environmental factors are today, comprising pay, diversity, human slavery, and social value. These issues will be more broadly recognised and openly discussed by business through reporting, metrics and monitoring.

- The role of the FM: no longer seen as a commodity, FMs will discuss value supported by an evidenced-based approach to well-being, productivity and life cycle. The ability to define and provide value will be a key factor in the selection of suppliers supported by clear measurement.

- Procurement of FM: this will be more focused on life cycle benefits and outcome measures rather than bottom-line costs.

- Development of structured competency models: these will see sustainability competencies embedded into the roles of individuals, providing consistency in the market and ensuring salaries are aligned with clear experience and ability to operate.

- FM’s taking on responsibility for initiating change in affected sustainability measures and promoting a programme to deliver the benefits.

- Downsizing of space: increases in agile and co-working will affect sustainability strategy.

- Environmental legislation: organisations will need to do more to combat climate change.

- Reputational management: this will be more important as part of sustainability best practice.